2012 Cincinnati Reds – Part 3 of 5; Infield

I don’t know Joey Votto personally so I can only make assumptions, but I’m guessing he’s got a smile as wide as the Ohio River right now.  Let’s begin with what’s hot.

How’s the first base situation looking this year?

Bright.  I’ll probably do a post in the next week or so speaking more in depth about the Joey Votto signing but for now we’ll focus on 2012.  For those who don’t know, Joey Votto is now fourth person in major league history to get a contract in excess of 200m (10 years, 225 million cash money) joining just Albert Pujols, ARod (twice) and Prince Fielder.  Yeah, he’ll be in a Reds uni for the next 11 years.

Anyway, so what’s up for 2012?  Well, he’s the best 1B in the National League, arguably all of baseball and will likely feast on NL pitching like my four year old takes down Goldfish and Lucky Charms.  Assuming healthy, you can expect the usual awesomeness.  Probably something in the 35hr/100rbi/.310ba, which says nothing of the fact that he’s led the league in OBP the last two years and OPS (on base % + slugging %) last year.  He’s going to be good, but what’s behind him?

In his rare absence, you’ll probably see Miguel Cairo or Todd Frazier filling in.  Frazier made the team as a bench player when the Reds moved Juan Francisco yesterday for JJ Hoover, formerly of the ATL Braves, who was subsequently sent to Louisville.  Anyway, the Reds are set.  Moreover, they may be able to move their studly 1B prospect Neftali Soto who mashed last year in AAA.  Soto, who I thought made Alonso expendable (in the event Votto left the Queen City) hit over 30 homers last year in the minors WHILE MISSING A MONTH.  I’ve heard a lot of people say he’s got holes that would soon be exposed in the bigs, but word on the streets is that he’s gotten better with his pitch selection and has really improved defensively.  If Soto gets off to a good start in Louisville, look for him to be a key piece in a midseason trade.

So with Votto locked up, Phillips is next right?  RIGHT?

Probably not.  John Fay reported today on Twitter that Big Bobby C (Bob Castellini, the owner) said the Joey Votto deal would not preclude a deal being completed with Brandon Phillips, but it sure seems unlikely.  I mean, Bobby C is who cuts the checks, so maybe he’s decided that things can get worked out with BP, but Phillips is looking for a 15m/yr (at least) contract over about 4 years (similar to what Atlanta gave Dan Uggla).  That’s a lot of cabbage for a team like the Reds.  Again, I’ll get more into the contract possibility stuff later if something hasn’t already come down as a result of the Votto stuff.

Brandon Phillips is likely to take up is usually gold glove defense this year and hopefully provide a spark at the top of the order.  Last year Phillips made a comment about getting comfortable in the lead off position and hopefully Dusty puts him there and lets him go.  Quit dicking around with the lineup and let BP know that every day, save for the occasional day off, he’ll be at the top of the order.  One aspect of his play that I feel he could do better with is his baserunning, a key component for any lead off hitter.  He has speed, but not like he used to.  And I like his aggressiveness in taking the extra base or going first to third on a single.  I want to see him steal more bases, but not at the expense of getting caught.  Here’s the catch.  He “only” stole 14 bases last year, which isn’t stellar for a lead off guy, but fine.  The problem I have is that he was caught 9 times.  Hardly a high success rate.  Be aggressive, but also pick your spots.  That’s what I want; and after all, isn’t that what its all about?

I expect Phillips to play as one of the finest 2nd basemen in the league this year.  Last year he hit .300, which is great, but I don’t expect it again.  I’d be happy with Phillips batting .280 out of the lead off spot, but seeing his walks increase, though it should be noted his OBP went up by about 20 points from 2010 to 2011.  Now that he’s settled into the leadoff spot, he should work the count a bit more, see more pitches and work the opposition harder.  This wears down the pitcher just a shade faster and gives the guys following him a few more pitches to watch so as to get a better look at what might be coming their way.  When he’s out of the lineup, look for Todd Frazier to fill in, maybe Wilson Valdez (acquired this offseason from Philadelphia for Jeremy Horst) or maybe see Valdez at SS and Cozart slide over.  Miguel Cairo can take a few innings there, too.

So who WILL be batting behind Phillips?  Isn’t Cozart a little young to be hitting 2?

It will be Cozart; Zack Cozart.  Cozart was quietly a 2nd round draft pick in the same draft where the Reds got Devin Mesoraco and has largely been overshadowed by the many strong players (that used to be) in the Reds farm system.  Cozart is no slouch though.  He plays a great shortstop and really only needs to be a little above average for the Reds this year.  Because the Reds have some very good hitters in the lineup, the pressure won’t be on him to produce a ton of home runs or RBI.  What he does is run will and hopefully make enough contact for any outs to be “productive”, i.e. advance a runner or make the pitcher work a little bit.  He’s got speed, so he can be a threat on the basepaths, but also score lots of runs from 1B when Votto hits the gaps for doubles.

One comment you may hear on the broadcasts this year is how Votto will “protect” Cozart in the lineup, allowing him to see better pitches (from a batter’s perspective) than he might otherwise.  Allow me to disspel this myth.  There is no such thing as lineup protection in the major leagues, outside of the lack of protection you may get as the 8th hitter on a National League team (because with a very poor hitter, the pitcher, batting behind you, the chances of seeing a really good pitch to hit is unlikely).  There have been studies conducted about this that typically boil down to two primary, fairly rational concepts:

  1. The pitcher ALWAYS wants to keep a batter off base
  2. If there is a great batter on deck, the amount of effort to get the current batter out goes up.

There is no quantifiable explanation at the major league level for lineup protection, regardless of how much my Grandpa Schwartz believes it exists.  (Shout out to Grandpa Schwartz, with whom I can talk Cincinnati Reds baseball all day every day.)  At the high school level a great hitter will be pitched around, because he can so dominate, but it isn’t so at the major league level.

Anyway, Zack is going to have ups and downs and I would be surprised to see him struggle early on.  Maybe the 2 spot won’t fit him very well and he gets moved down in the order; that’s fine.  I want to see a good glove, good baserunning, and Votto/Bruce hitting lots of bombs.

Now that Juan Francisco was traded to the Bravos (cough, George Grande, cough), who plays 3B when Scott Rolen is hurt?

Hopefully this just won’t happen very often.  Rolen obviously has a penchant for the disabled list, but he is back and says his oft injured shoulder is in great shape.  I hope he’s right.  If healthy, Rolen can be what lifts the Reds from contender to champion.  He still holds down the hot corner as well as anyone in the league, flashing leather at line drives that would leave me asking for a change of underwear and he has the strength to muscle a ball out of the old ballyard.  But he has to stay healthy.  Even more so in the absence of Juan Francisco.

Now, I’m not a big Juan Francisco fan.  I was less than thrilled to hear he didn’t properly rehab a winter league injury and showed up to camp out of shape as that tends to say a lot about his character, something you’d likely never hear about Rolen.  But he could hit the ball in Cincy as far as anyone not named Wily Mo Pena.  But he also struck out a lot.  And he wasn’t great defensively.  The trade for JJ Hoover was probably a win/win for both the Reds and Braves as Chipper Jones has gone down with a minor injury in this, his last season, and the Reds need additional bullpen help, but it also gave a roster spot to Todd Frazier, Super Utility Man.

Super Utility Man can play every spot in the infield and play left field, all at the same time.  Well, not all at the same time, but he plays at a very high level in a lot of positions and is likely to give better ABs than what Francisco could.  He has some pop; not nearly what Juan has, but some and is going to play a better defense.  Which is good, because even a health Scott Rolen is only going to play, at most, 5 games a week.  He’s usually off on the get away day business man specials to grant him extra rest and there is, let’s face it, likely at least a 15 day DL stint this year.  So let’s hear it for Frazier, who needs to fill big shoes.  I’m hopeful that Frazier can show, in limited time, that he could be the future 3B for the Reds.

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