For reasons beyond my comprehension I’ve become a quasi-Reds fan/detractor. Perhaps it’s my former editor’s bad influence — he’s for all things Cincinnati — maybe it’s just a deep-seeded need to view the train wreck, but I find myself tuning in to the Reds far too often this year, only to suffer through the red-ear heat of my rising blood pressure level.
They are not an organization to admire. I question the decision-making every time I see Tony Womack’s name in the lineup. Couldn’t they have spent those limited funds on a solid arm for their bullpen? What is the fascination with Scott Hatteberg? Should Adam Dunn really be playing the outfield? And why did it take an injury to Ken Griffey to see that Austin Kearns should be hitting behind Dunn, not buried beneath both Hatteberg and Edwin Encarnacion? And is Chris Denorfia not a better option than Quinton McCracken? The last time McCracken was even mildly interesting was 1998, no? This is not a well-designed roster with a plan firmly implemented.
I’ve mentioned I’m not a pure sabermatrician and try and use both statistics and traditional scouting techniques to evaluate prospects. I also don’t cling to the K/BB ratio thinking it tells the whole story. But the one thing I abhor on this issue occurred in Sunday’s 11-0 blow out win as the Reds toppled the Brewers. Doug Davis had just walked four consecutive batters, bases are loaded and they look to give the divisional rival starter a real beating. Then Encarnacion swings at the first pitch lining out to the shortstop. Yeah, yeah, rookies are rookies, aggressive approach and all that. I’m not a big proponent of pure discipline, but there are times when taking pitch or two should be mandatory, particularly from anyone not named Dunn or Griffey. I’m not knocking the team for playing Encarnacion. They need some hope for the future, and should be building for later in the decade. I just think a little on the job training is in order. Don’t swing at the first offering when the pitcher can’t find the zone. Not too tough to fathom.
But there are things I like. I love the fact they picked up Felipe Lopez, a highly touted tools prospect, when the Jays gave up far too early. The four-way deal netted the Jays nothing thus far with John-Ford Griffin and Jason Arnold stalling in the minors, while the Reds, who gave up Elmer Dessens, managed to get the player that most resembles Barry Larkin in his prime. It wasn’t without its trials, but they endured through Lopez’s strike zone issues and defensive errors and now have a young shortstop that’s just coming into his own at age 25. They’re now hoping to do the same with Brandon Phillips, who couldn’t have picked a better time to get red hot. He too is 25 and possibly another former prospect to find a home to realize his potential. I wonder how that will play in Ohio?
I really like what they’ve done with these two, although the reclamation projects (Project Re-claim) hasn’t borne the same fruit on the pitching side, as a host of former prospect arms, most notably from the Braves, have come and gone with little to show. Former Brave Matt Belisle is working from the pen and could become a decent middle reliever/set-up man with further seasoning. It’s an organization without much depth in this department. I questioned the signing of Eric Milton in late-2004 for being one of he worst ways to spend eight million-plus per season, mainly because the team doesn’t have wiggle room to make large mistakes and take risks the way some others do. A pronounced flyball pitcher in the team’s home park didn’t make sense then, doesn’t make sense now, nor did the trading of former number one pick Dustin Moseley, for the predictably terrible Ramon Ortiz. And they don’t have a bullpen to speak of. Why was Ryan Wagner sent down again? He’s been roughed up in Triple-A early so maybe it was the right move. Or maybe it’s a development issue and the results are less important. Or maybe, just maybe, Wagner isn’t the guy I thought he was. Hard to say with mixed reviews thus far.
There were some questionable calls made by former ownership. One can look back at the drafts and see the penny-wise, pound-foolish philosophy has not worked out. Anyone wish to defend Chris Gruler instead of Scott Kazmir for the initial dollar savings? They’re not alone in this department but I think the new ownership group will need to address this philosophy going forward. The crop from 2005 looks brighter on the surface, but it always does the year after, while 2-3 years generally tells the real tale ala Gruler/Kazmir from 2001. I’m of the opinion that small-to-mid market teams must take their luxury tax money and invest it in their system, drafting the best player with their high first round choice and paying for it. Does it make sense? Not if you don’t trust your scouting department. Will it appease your fan base? I think the information age makes this more likely. The average season ticket holder cares about the on-field product, but it’s easier now to promote your system and sell the notion of development. Too many success stories have emerged from this philosophy in recent years, and there is a ton of minor league and prospect information available. You can’t be the woe-is-me the small market Pirates, Royals, or Reds any longer. Better to have hope than trudge out an aging player on his last legs, knowing full well you’ve overpaid for the name value, with no hope of competing in the present year.
The Reds’ former ownership group did little with their upper picks, and don’t have much to show for it, making their situation dire with one of the worst farm systems, and no ready-made help available in Triple-A. There has been a rash of injuries to their pitching picks in this decade, causing them to institute a tandem-starter system with strict pitch limits for the lower levels. This has been scrapped by the new management team, coddling pitchers has been shown to be hazardous in recent years and probably stunts development while just delaying the injury-risk.
The team can no longer afford to buy anything but the best from the draft. Their State counterparts, the Indians, have built a team from their system and are looking good for the future, aggressively promoting and trading home-grown products. There are some arms I like in the system, although they’re farther down and not likely to surface before late-2007 at the earliest.
Here are the three I feel are worth noting and should be monitored carefully this year.
Homer Bailey – No surprise as one of the best high school pitchers of the 2004 draft class. A big fastball, a big power curve, he’s still a work in progress at high Single-A Sarasota, needing to further refine his secondary pitches and gain some consistency. He’s listed at 6-4, 210 pounds putting on close to 20 pounds since his draft year. His time in the Florida State League should be an extended one. He’s a teenager until next month working at a level beyond his age. The results thus far have been good considering the age with a 20/5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 20 and a third innings while giving up two home runs in four starts with a 3.98 ERA. He’s a stud in the making but not likely to hit Double-A until late this season
Travis Wood – I’ve written on Wood already. He’s another teenage pitcher with high Single-A Sarasota, the left-handed counterpart to Bailey who’s also having some success. I like him a lot but recognize that left-handers often experience more difficulties with the southpaw release point and tend to take longer to rise above the high-minor test, with control issues seemingly always prevalent in left-handed power pitchers. He’s currently 2-0 in four starts this year, with a 3.57 ERA and a 22/8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 17 and a third innings.
Sam LeCure – The third memb
er of the Sarasota rotation, the 21-year-old was a fourth round pick last year falling farther than he should have because he didn’t pitch for the University of Texas having been deemed academically ineligible in 2005 after posting some solid NCAA numbers in 2004. The story on that is he had a 1.867 GPA behind the 2.0 requirement, and lobbied the courts for reinstatement to the university on the basis of the Disabilities Act due to ADD, but failed to supply enough evidence. I didn’t have much on him and had to go the horse’s mouth for a decent scouting report.
Like Wood, he’s on the smallish side at 6-1, 190 pounds. He is throwing between 90-92 mph with his fastball and has a plus-slider, but the intriguing thing is his reported swagger on the mound. Reading between the lines I assume the two-pitch mention means his development phase is in finding the off-speed pitch to compliment. He’s likely to be moved more rapidly than the other two if this is discovered. The scouting report also mentions he throws strikes and this is evident with a 25/5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 21 innings, already averaging more than five innings per start despite the mediocre result of a 1-3 record with a 4.71 ERA, a product of one bad outing. He didn’t pitch in college in 2005, went to Rookie Ball after the draft, and has skipped low Single-A. The jump suggests initial difficulties would not be unusual. The strike thrower is in the right organization as they are desperate for it at the major league level. Watch him closely this summer to see if progress is being made.