2012 Cincinnati Reds – Part 2 of 5; Pitching and Catching

So what can I say about the Reds pitching and catching?  There is hope that Devin Mesoraco becomes 82% of what Johnny Bench was.  There’s fear that Bronson Arroyo pitches like he has Valley Fever.  And there is mystery in how poorly Dusty Baker will mismanage the bullpen in the absence of Ryan Madson.  It will certainly be interesting to see how the combination of newly acquired players, prospects and grizzled vets mix together this year.

Catchers

Why didn’t the Reds attempt to retain Ramon Hernandez?

Devin Mesoraco.  Meso got a cup of coffee last year at the end of the season and showed everyone why top talent evaluators think he has “star” written all over him.  After being drafted out of high school he was nearing “bust” status as he just couldn’t get the hang of things, but everything began to click in his 2010 season where he really knocked the snot out of the ball between multiple levels of the minor leagues.  Now that he appears to have put it all together, the Reds no longer had a need for Ramon.

There were also changes in the collective bargaining agreement that allowed for the Reds to get a compensation pick if he went to another team.  Under the old agreement, if Ramon, a “Type B” free agent, were to decline an offer of arbitration from the club, the Reds would be given an extra draft pick as compensation.  The rule was in place to help smaller market teams get compensation for not being able to afford to keep a top talent when he might be “priced out’ of their budget.  Under the new agreement, the Reds didn’t have to offer arbitration, which was great because the presence of Devin made him expendable and they didn’t want to risk having him agree.  If the arbitration had been offered and Ramon agreed to it, its likely the Reds would have 1 too many catchers.

So, with Devin Mesoraco being held in such high regard, he will be the full time starter, right?

Uh, no.  Even Ramon only started about 60% of the games last year because the Reds have, probably, the best back up catcher in the bigs; Ryan Hanigan.  Poor Hanigan.  Good enough to start and be the primary guy for many teams, he’s been a split situation player for all of his time with Cincinnati.  But don’t feel TOO bad for him; he’s still making a few million and he elected to re-sign with the Reds a year ago.

It’s in my nature to say that Dusty Banker will screw this up with his veteran love, and as much as we all (at least for now) want to see Devin Mesoraco play, this scenario probably couldn’t be better.  You’ve got a veteran guy in Hanigan who can help ease the rookie in; which shouldn’t be understated.  If the Reds were a rebuilding team like the A’s (aside from wanting to light myself on fire) I’d say they need to play Devin full time, but they aren’t.  They are poised to contend this year, which can put a tremendous amount of pressure on a “can’t miss” prospect to help carry the day.  Moreover, if Devin shows he can do it by himself, the Reds can move Hanigan at the trade deadline.  As mentioned, he could be the guy for a good number of teams and with a very team friendly contract he could bring a key piece to help the Reds down the stretch.


Pitching

So, it’s Cueto, Latos, Arroyo, Bailey, Chapman, Leake, and wait a second, that’s too many.  What’s going on here?

It doesn’t seem so long ago that the Reds were running Jimmy Haynes, Paul Wilson, and Elmer Dessens out there every 5 days, so it’s an absolute pleasure to be in the kind of situation where there is actual depth.  This is even after a trade that sent Travis Wood, who I think has a bright future, to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for Sean Marshall.  Here’s the situation as it stands currently (subject to change in probably 12 hours): Baker has said there are spots in the rotation for Cueto, Latos, and Arroyo, guaranteed; the rest is up for speculation.  Cueto and Latos are coming off of strong years and there really is no reason to think they will tank or explode onto the scene, so let’s focus on the other guys for our purposes today.  

Running through them one at a time:

Chapman: When Ryan Madson went down, it seemed that he would be destined to be back in the bullpen where only Dusty Baker thinks he belongs.  While true that Chapman out of the bullpen is tremendous weapon, its an incredible waste of talent.  Why Dusty Baker would want to limit Chapman’s insane talent in a watered down 80 or so innings as opposed to pitching 160 of them is beyond me.  He’s a buffoon.  Anyway, Chapman has really pitched well this spring and has likely pulled himself even with Homer Bailey.  I want Chapman to start, and believe he should.  I’m not sold that he should be starting for the Reds in April; maybe a month in Louisville would be better to get him stretched out properly and ensure that he’s truly exorcised those control demons.

Bailey: I think Bailey should also be in the rotation.  Last year Homer Bailey made marked improvement in his consistency and command.  His K/9 are holding steady, so no  breakthrough there to speak of but we can see demonstration of his command improvement in his BB/9; improved from 3.3 in 2010 to 2.25 in 2011.  This is tremendous.  We’ve also seen an improvement in his ERA, but more notable is the improvement in his FIP.  FIP is Fielding Independent Pitching, which takes the quality of the defense behind a pitcher out of the equation, the idea being that a pitcher can’t help it if he’s got Ozzie Smith and Robbie Alomar playing behind him or a 40 year old, bloated Carlos Baerga and Kung Fu Panda.  Here is a good, funny explanation of FIP (a minute and a half and pretty damn funny.)  It just tries to leave what the pitcher can actually control.  What you also need to know is that Bailey is out of options, which means he can not be sent back to AAA.

Leake: Well, I think Leake should be in the rotation as well, and I believe he will be.  What I’m hearing these days is that Leake, because he has options remaining, will likely be the 5th pitcher and sent to AAA to begin the season so the Reds can carry an additional bench guy.  This may help Dusty or Uncle Walt figure out whether they keep Valdez/Soft J or Francisco/Frazier, but that’s for another piece.  Leake will likely be in and any trip to AAA will be short lived merely to extend the option of others.  Nothing to see here, folks.

Francis: It should be worth noting that Jeff Francis, who is in camp on a minor league contract, has been pitching well this spring and has an outside chance of making the squad in the bullpen.  Francis has an opt out clause in his contract that if he doesn’t make the big club out of ST he can leave and sign with another squad but he has said he doesn’t intend to do so.  Almost every team will use at least 7 or 8 starters through the course of the year because of injuries, trades, magic dragon incidents or whatever else, so it’s likely that Francis thinks he’ll get a chance with the Reds at some point, but it’s more likely that no other clubs see him as a decent option.  Either way, I’m happy to have him in Louisville, hopefully pitching well, ready to go in an emergency.

So, if you think that Bailey, Chapman and Leake should all be in the rotation are you suggesting a 6 man rotation?

Absolutely not.  I mentioned earlier that it would be foolish to limit the number of innings from your best pitchers.  The best 5 pitchers capable of pitching 150+ innings should be in the rotation and that’s it.  What I am suggesting is that the Reds move Arroyo into the bullpen.

 I think now is a pretty good time for me to explain WAR and what its good for.  WAR is an acronym that stands for Wins Above Replacement.  What WAR measures is how much better a particular player is than an average replacement player.  A replacement player is traditionally defined as a typically AAA ball player or a big league player holding down the 24th or 25th spot on a roster for the league minimum and incorporates all aspects of the game; offense, defense, base running, etc.  The idea here is the performance of a player who can be easily acquired for relatively no cost (the league minimum) forms the baseline.  From there, value added gets put into “wins”.

To offer some context to WAR, last year’s NL MVP, Ryan Braun, had a WAR of 7.8 which means he helped the Brewers win 7.8 more games than if a regular, run of the mill AAA left fielder were out there every day.  Joey Votto had a WAR of 6.9.  In theory, a team comprised of all replacement players would win 69 games, or play slightly better than the Astros.  Mike Leake had the second highest WAR for a pitcher by the Reds last year with 1.5 (Cueto was 2.8).  Bronson Arroyo, by comparison, had a WAR of – 1.3.  NEGATIVE.  This means that the average, zero cost AAA pitcher out there would have helped the Reds win an extra game and save crap loads of money.

Now, I don’t think this is all fair.  Last year Arroyo had mono which affected his spring prep and did a lot of long lasting damage.  He even had Valley Fever for Christ’s sake, so it may be that he just had a down year.  But he ain’t any younger.  And can you reasonably say that he’s going to be BETTER than the other options?  I don’t think so.  Because contracts in MLB are guaranteed (I can see baseball players taunting the NFL guys in clubs over this), the Reds are unlikely to cut him and pay him that crazy amount of money even though the most simplistic economics tells you the cost is incurred regardless of outcome and you may as well optimize the team because that money is already gone.

Even if cutting The Nasty Hook were plausible, I don’t think I’d advise it.  I think his rubber arm is suitable for long relief and as a sixth start should someone get hurt.  He’d just be another guy on the 4o man roster capable of starting and there’s a lot of value in not having to make roster moves and potentially losing guys as a result.  The worst case scenario is he sucks and only pitches mop up time in long relief.

Speaking of relief pitching, with Ryan Madson out should the Reds be concerned about the 9th inning?

I don’t think there is cause for concern, but that goes back to a personal philosophy of mine.  That philosophy is that saves are a sham.  Over the last 10-15 years its become trendy to put your best relief pitcher into the one role that limits his innings and artificially inflates the cost to keep your best guys.  So, as I said earlier, you want to have your best guys out there as often as they can, so why limit someone like Mariana Rivera to only 65 innings if he’s capable of pitching 100?  Because of the save.  Managers don’t put their “closers” in unless there is a save situation.  What’s worse is that putting your best relief pitcher in this role doesn’t allow for his use in the highest leveraged situations.  In a 1-1 tie game in the 7th inning facing the opponents 3-4-5 hitters with a guy on second, wouldn’t it stand to reason you want your best pitcher out there?

So anyway, back to the closer thing.  I can buy into the fact that there may be an attitude or ability to pitch under duress required to close, but for the most part I think it’s fine.  Baker has come out and said that he believes the Reds may “close by committee”, which is just great with me.  I think that’s how most teams should do it.  My concern is that Dusty Baker is an idiot and to watch him completely mismanage the bullpen this year could be the Reds’ undoing.  If he were to get a “regular” guy out there for the 9th, I’d prefer it be Bill Bray.  Bray’s a lefty, he pitches strong to righties or lefties, and it keeps one of the best set up men in baseball, Sean Marshall, free for those high leverage situations.  Although if a true closer emerges, Baker will simply keep Marshall in the 8th inning thus negating all of that “highest leverage situation” stuff.

As an aside, I think organizationally, the closer by committee thing can save the Reds some money next year.  If they were to put someone like Bill Bray into the closers role and he nabs 30 saves, when he goes to arbitration, its going to cost the Reds a lot more if he’s got those saves on his stat line than if he didn’t.  If the Reds felt their bullpen was deep enough to replace a closer midseason and still contend, then it would make a lot of sense to build up his saves and create an artificially strong market for Bray, simply by virtue of his now being a “closer”.  They could get a better return.  However, what are the odds that the Reds would trade their closer in the midst of a pennant race?  Not very likely.  I’d like this type of strategy far more for a rebuilding club who is likely not to contend.

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