It’s been just two weeks since I wrote Part 1 of my two-part series on theoretical questions, as they pertain to the possibility of the Reds being anything in the realm of competitive next season. And we’re already seeing a few answers start to shape up. Should the Reds have shopped Todd Frazier more aggressively at the break? It certainly looks like it, as his long-term value is dropping right along with his average (.257, down from .284 at the All-Star Break). Could Joey Votto and Jay Bruce carry their strong form into next season? Fingers crossed for Votto, who’s still raking right now (.400 with a .560s OBP since the break). Bruce, on the other hand, is batting just .159 with one home run in August, after having gone the better part of three months without much sign of his usual streakiness.
Today, as I embark on the final post of this likely irrelevant questioning, the Reds are 51-66, just two games (and falling) ahead of the last place Milwaukee Brewers in the N.L. Central. Can this team do any better than fourth place next year? If the federal government allowed me to place a bet against my 20-something-thousand-dollar-student-loan debt—pay double-or-nothing—which they won’t, I would probably take it. Does that mean we shouldn’t talk about the possibilities anyway? Absolutely not. This is sports. Trent Dilfer won a Super Bowl, Lebron James voluntarily returned to Cleveland, the Brown family convinced this city to sign over its soul for the next 300 years for a new stadium. Anything is possible, if you just believe.
What the hell do the Reds do with Billy Hamilton?
No. I’m not talking about trading Billy Hamilton, or sending him down to the minors, or even putting him on the bench for a while (aside from his impending trip to the DL). In my mind, Billy, and the plethora of young pitching prospects the Reds have in place (after trading Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake) are the two most important aspects of this so-called “Rebooting” process. He’s only 24, he’s arguably the best defensive center fielder in the game, the fans haven’t turned on him yet, his hitting woes make him cheap enough for the Reds to lock up for a while, and he’s the fastest person to play baseball since Deon Sanders. But right now, he’s on pace to have one of most unfortunate “What-if” careers in Reds History. Hamilton ranks 14th on the team in OBP right now at .276, which is worse than starting pitchers David Holmberg and Michael Lorenzen. (Sure, sample size, but still.) He needs to learn to put the ball on the ground, but he also needs to learn how to walk first. When Rickey Henderson set the modern-era record for stolen bases in a season (130 in 1982), he only hit .267 (17 points above Hamilton’s 2014 average of .250), but led all of baseball with 116 walks and finished the season with an OBP of .398. In total, Henderson reached base 259 times in 1982. Meanwhile, Hamilton is projected to steal 75 bases this season, while reaching base just 157 times (approximately 122 hits and 35 BB). Even if Hamilton bumped his number to 200 base runner appearances in a season, we’d likely be talking about the league leader in runs, not just stolen bases.
With all that considered, there’s been significant talk of Hamilton batting permanently from the right side of the plate, dropping his five-year foray into switch-hitting. He’s admittedly thinking about the possibility at the end of the season. While he clearly has more power and a better batting average on balls in plays as a right-handed batter, he still gets on base and walks at a higher rate as a lefty, and there is no way of knowing how his average as a righty would drop off when he has to face right handed pitchers from the same side of the plate for the first time since the lower levels of the minors.
Billy Hamilton knows he has to walk more. If he does with any consistency, his batting average, from both sides of the place, will start to take care of itself as he sees longer pitch counts and more strikes later in his at-bats.
Note: Hamilton has NEVER batted from the same side of the plate as his opposing pitcher’s throwing arm while in the majors.
Baseball Nerd Note: I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know the person in third on the all-time stolen base list was also named Billy Hamilton.
How do the rotation vs reliever battles work out?
The Reds will go into spring training next year with at least 10-15 starting pitchers who are 25 or younger. Realistically, about seven of them will be competing for three spots in the rotation, with Homer Bailey and Anthony DeScalfani sure locks for the top two spots, at least at the beginning of the season. Redleg Nation’s Nick Doran wrote a remarkably in-depth look at 27 starting pitchers (Single-A up through the majors) in the Reds organization right now. While I have a few disagreements with his rankings, it puts into perspective just how many pitching prospects the Reds have under contract at the moment.
Of the youngsters who have started for the Reds this season, DeScalfani has proven to be a competent big-league starter (3.72 ERA), and will feature in next year’s opening day rotation barring injury. Of the other six rookies who have started in the big leagues in 2015, Raisel Iglesias is doing the most to show that he deserves a slot next season. He leads all Reds rookies in K/9 (8.68) and BB/9 (2.44), and is second to DeScalfani with five quality starts. His seven scoreless innings against the Kansas City Royals last night marked his fourth solid start of August, after a shaky month of July that saw two losses and 11 earned runs in 12 innings of work. He’s shown improvement in his pitch count and stamina over the last month, and looks to be in the driver seat for a rotation spot at the moment.
Keyvius Sampson and Tony Cingrani (if he’s healthy) look like locks to be in what will hopefully be a slightly improved bullpen next season, while David Holmberg should find himself back at Triple-A. John Lamb has made just one start, and was knocked for five runs by the Dodgers in his first start, but was 10-2 in Triple-A this year, and I think he’ll be in the Reds starting rotation at the beginning of the season unless fellow former Royal Brandon Finnegan, who pitched as a reliever in the World Series last season, proves that he can handle the pitch-load of a starter. Michael Lorenzen looked to have been called up a little too early, albeit out of necessity, as he allowed 27 earned runs in his final five starts (19.1 innings) before being sent back down to Triple-A. He did respond very well though, throwing a complete game shutout on just 93 pitches. That doesn’t change the fact that his K/BB ratio in the majors was an abysmal 1.18. He was a converted starter after closing in college, and his long-term outlook could very well be back in the pen, especially with so many other prospects (Robert Stephenson, namely) ready for their chance.
Opening Day Rotation Guess: Homer Bailey, Anthony Descalfani, John Lamb, Robert Stephenson (Baseball America’s #23 Prospect, 4-2 with a 3.48 ERA at Louisville), Raisel Iglesias
Opening Day Potential Starters in the Bullpen Guess: Brandon Finnegan (Bumps someone from the rotation if the Reds can successfully stretch him into a starter), Keyvius Sampson, Tony Cingrani
Some would say that it might be too early to throw Stephenson, Lamb (or Finnegan), and Iglesias into the rotation for the whole of a season, but I’m of the opinion that the Reds should throw all of their cards on the table in the early going of this reboot and then go from there based on the results. If there is any actual chance of success for the Reds next season, or realistically in the season after, it will take a massive over-achieving effort from its young pitchers.
What happens in the middle infield when Zack Cozart returns?
This is actually a trick question, because it has nothing to do with Cozart, who is on pace to be fully recovered from knee surgery before spring training. Nor does it have anything to do with the middle infield. Brandon Phillips is still an elite defensive player batting in the mid .280s, albeit with no power, average speed, and a massive contract, and Cozart would’ve won a Gold Glove himself by now if he was more of a household name. This question is actually about what the Reds should do with Eugenio Suarez, who has been the only positive surprise on offense for the Reds this season, but isn’t defensively sound enough at short to take the starting position from Cozart. Suarez, who ranks second in average (.293), third in slugging (.478), and third in OPS (.807) for the Reds this season, struggles with footwork and positioning at short, but has shown some chemistry with Phillips. The Reds are reportedly trying to get him some action at third and in left, where I think they should focus. Even if he’s a worse liability in left than at short (11 errors in 55 games), he can only be marginally worse than Marlon Byrd, who has no errors but has such poor speed that he’s equally ineffective. The Reds finding a way to dump Byrd’s contract and going with some mixture of Suarez/Kyle Waldrop/Yorman Rodriguez in left seems far more in line with the rebooting process than keeping the almost-38-year-old out there.
Joshua A. Miller is a Nuxhall Way and Cincinnati Magazine contributor. You can follow him on Twitter at @_J_A_Miller.