The Elusive Leadoff Hitter

Phillips Remains Top Leadoff Option for Now

Much attention has been drawn to the anemic performance of Reds' leadoff hitters over the past season. GM Walt Jocketty has made no secret that he's looking for an opportunity to improve that-as if if could have remained a secret without his comments. The market is now shrinking and any upgrade may require a more creative plan than perviously expected.

As the hot stove league heats the Reds have made no secret that they are in the market to upgrade at leadoff. Actually, even if they'd remained silent the lack of production at the top spot would have eliminated any secrecy. Much attention has been drawn to their league-lowest .208 AVG/.254 OB from that spot. Those numbers alone are ugly enough to tell the story. To put things in more perspective one could consider that they are comparable to the .191/.206 they got from the ninth spot, which suggests there wouldn't be a huge falloff if they led off with pitchers.

That statement is somewhat extreme because their pitchers were only .160/.176. They executed 45 sacrifices which are not an option when leading off an inning and they benefitted from a .269/.337 from pinch hitters. Still, the Reds 2012 success makes one reevaluate the importance of a leadoff hitter. Setting the table for run producers is important for sure, but perhaps a bit overrated, especially when other facets of the team make up for their shortcomings. In the case of the 2012 Reds their pitching staff cured a lot of ills. Still, a word of warning is that both their rotation and bullpen can be accused of overachieving. They are expected to remain effective next season, but duplicating their level of success might be a lot to ask.

The enigma is not a new one for the Reds. It seems like they haven't had a legitimate leadoff hitter since Barry Larkin and he's now past a Hall of Fame induction. Since his retirement Felipe Lopez earned an all-star selection in 2005 and Ryan Freel kept an OB% of .363 the next season, but that's now been in the rear view mirror for six years. There have been brief runs of success by players like Norris Hopper and Jerry Hairston Jr., but by and large the situation has remained grim.

The first place to look for a solution is on the current roster. Unfortunately right now it's the same one that Dusty Baker looked to all season long. The best option is Brandon Phillips and he is not a bad one when available. There is more hope than his .202/.254 while leading off in 2012 would suggest. First of all, it's only over 124 plate appearances and he did go 9-24 against the Giants in the playoffs. He also hit .350/.417 in his 157 plate appearances batting first in 2011. He's kept an overall on-base pct over .320 the last four seasons. Ideally the Reds would prefer a higher one, but it's definitely an upgrade.

The biggest problem with Phillips is said availability. For much of the season the absence of a right-handed bat behind Joey Votto caused Baker to pull him back to cleanup. When Ryan Ludwick's bat came alive Votto's injury moved Dat DudeBP to the three-hole. Finally he was moved back to leadoff for the final month when he played through some nagging injuries and was unimpressive before post season. Ideally he's better suited for the second spot. He's got some pop in his bat to move around runners if they can get on base in front of him and his contact has the lowest strikeout rate of any non-catcher on the team. He also has enough speed to steal a few bases, though he hasn't swiped more than sixteen in any of the last few seasons. Also, with Phillips leading off the top candidate for a two-hitter is Zach Cozart and at this stage of his career the shortstop has yet not shown plate discipline desired for the top of the lineup (.251 AVG/<.300 OB/ BB rate <5% of PA/ 2012 K rate 20% of PA).

Though Ludwick is not a leadoff hitter, re-signing him will have an impact on where Phillips hits. There's still a good chance that will happen even though he declined the player option for 2013. His relationship with Reds GM Walt Jocketty goes back to their days together in St. Louis. Still, he'll turn 35 next July and appeared on his way out of the league before he revived his career last season so there are concerns on committing money over a long time. Todd Frazier was third on the team in HR (19) & fourth in slugging percentage (.498) and he could provide another cleanup option if he can avoid a sophomore jinx. However, hitters in the bottom of the order are important too and the Reds' lineup would be more potent if they can afford to bat him sixth.

One can't fault the Reds for not trying when it comes to leadoff deficiencies. They've signed free agents (Corey Patterson, Willie Taveras, Fred Lewis). They also have some candidates in their system. It was no surprise after this season when they announced that top prospect Billy Hamilton would be converted from shortstop to centerfield. There is no doubt he has plenty of speed for the new position and one would figure that if his arm was strong enough for short then it would be okay for center. However he's at least one year away from MLB-ready and will use that time to fine tune fly ball routes in the minors. There is also a host of other prospects for the future all the way down to the lower levels of the system led by 2010 second round selection Ryan LaMarre who just finished a season in AA.

Actually the Reds made plans to solidify the present leadoff situation all the way back in the 2006 draft when they invested the eighth overall pick on speedster Drew Stubbs. By the end of his first full season he gave reason to believe the search was over by hitting .310/.395 in almost 200 plate appearances from August 7 until the end of the year during their successful pennant stretch in 2010. Unfortunately he came back to strike out over 200 times in 2011. His offense continued to slide this season with an anemic .214/.277 and next year the 28 year-old will be trying to figure out how to stop a downward spiral. It won't be an easy task because opposing pitchers have learned how to use the generous strike zone that comes with his 6'4" frame to their advantage. Now it's his turn to adjust and he needs a quicker swing to protect it better. Evidently that's easier said than done because there wasn't enough progress to keep Hamilton competing with other infield prospects for advancement even though his error frequency at shortstop was cut in half after a midseason promotion to Pensacola.

Chris Heisey (lifetime OB%=.315) is a valuable fourth outfielder and brings a solid glove to center field. However, in three MLB seasons he's not been able to nail down regular duty despite opportunities from Stubbs's prolonged slumps and uncertainties in left field prior to Ludwick.

That's why it's expected they will again seek a leadoff hitter from outside the organization. That market has begun to contract recently. They had expressed interest in Minnesota's Denard Span before the last trading deadline, but since the end of the season he's been dealt to Washington. Angel Pagan was another name tossed around but he's now signed a four-year/$40M contract to stay in San Francisco. Jocketty commented that Pagan was out of the Reds' price range and if that be the case, then don't expect Michael Bourne, to be moving to Cincinnati either. During the season there were rumors they were interested in Shane Victorino but the FA market shrunk some more Tuesday when it was announced he'd reached a three yr/$39M deal to go to patrol right field in Fenway. It's a bit difficult to predict which player Melky Cabrera will be in 2013, but he won't likely be leading the league in hitting like he was before serving a suspension for performance enhancing drugs with the Giants last year. He will answer that question in a Toronto uniform. 35 year-old Juan Pierre was once thought of as a low-cost, short term fix, but he's going back to Miami.

Of free agents still available, Ichiro Suzuki has had a great career as a leadoff hitter but his production has fallen in recent years. Also, he's been a right fielder over the years and age 39 is not a good time to convert him to center. Oft-injured Grady Sizemore finished 2012 on the DL and knee surgery might keep him out of action for a long as midseason. Nyjer Morgan is available after coming off an unimpressive season where he had only six more hits than strikeouts and the baggage that comes along with Tony Plush is one reason that 2013 will be his fourth team in five years.

The only other avenue for bringing in new players is through trade. The drawback is that the other team will require talent in return. The Reds are in contention mode and want to keep their veterans and trade activity last year coupled with promotions depleted the top level of their system, as evidenced by the worst record in the International League belonging to Louisville. They still have some chips that would interest other teams, but most of them are pitchers. They probably want Mike Leake available in case there are problems with the conversion of Aroldis Chapman to the rotation (if they decide to convert him at all). Daniel Corcino has drawn comparisons to Johnny Cueto and would probably be skipped over AAA for a spot in Reds rotations of years past. They likely want to have him around when Bronson Arroyo completes his contract next season at the age of 36. Robert Stephenson has yet to pitch above the low-A level and projects as a top-rotation guy. There's some depth at shortstop, but Cozart figures to be the first person to start two consecutive opening days at that revolving door position since Larkin. Did Gregorius should have an inside track on one of the vacated utility infielder positions and now Hamilton will start running down fly balls.

That's not to say that Jocketty isn't capable of pulling a rabbit out of the hat. He knows how to assemble a competitive team in a small market from his days in St. Louis and he's shown willingness to ship out prospects for a veteran when he feels the deal is right. The package sent to San Diego may prove contrary eventually, but right now it looks like his judgment is good when he has those feelings. He's probably looking for a temporary solution while Hamilton has another year on the farm, but multiple comments from the GM, speculation from insiders and a clear statistical need all suggest that someone new will get a crack at the top of the Reds lineup next season.

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