Let's start with the good news. Brandon Phillips is a great player at 2B. He came into '08 off of a great '07 campaign. '08 was his age-27 season, the year that players typically peak. He was a bona fide prospect who didn't make it with the Indians but found new life with the Reds. Unfortunately, he had quite a decline in '08 and, since that was his age-27 season, I expect he'll be more like his '08 year than his '07 year from here on out. He had a decline in every stat except walks and k/walk ratio. While he did walk a little more, his OBP still declined. Bottom line, he needs to get on base more, but that's splitting hairs on a good player. Throw in that he won the gold glove this year and he's a solid player to build on, is part of this team's core, and is signed long-term. (Whether or not he can be a team leader will be addressed in my final post in this series on intangibles.)
More good news: Joey Votto. I hate to say this, but his approach improved dramatically and his intensity level picked up after his father died in August last year. This had to be huge for Votto, as he wouldn't even let the team announce why he went on the bereavement list. Only later, did the info. trickle out. Having seen several games after that, you could tell the difference. I don't have an explanation, only the observation. Votto is a very valuable hitter and the Reds have cost-containment on him for several years. He can play a decent first base and probably a decent left field, which he did at the tail end of '07. For now, he's at first and I'm okay with that.
I like Easy Eddy at third base. Remember, he's still only 25. His average stunk in '08, dropping almost 40 points from '07. But he walked more and his OBP only went down about 15 points. The culprit: strikeouts. They increased by 16 in only 4 more at bats. His slugging average acutally rose by 28 points. If he can strike out less and keep the untimely throwing errors to a minimum, he's solid at third. Whether he can play left field, as has been suggested this off-season, who knows.
With Votto, Phillips, and Encarnacion, the Reds have three very solid young infielders. That leaves shortstop. BP (that's Baseball Prospectus -- man's greatest invention, not Brandon Phillips -- one of God's great inventions) is calling the Reds a dark-horse in the Rafael Furcal free agent sweepstakes. Furcal would be a great addition to the infield. The Rays made hay this year by vastly improving their defense (and, therefore their pitching staff) and Furcal would do that for the Reds at short. I don't see the Reds signing Furcal, however, unless they think they can dump Alex Gonzalez. I don't see them dumping him until other teams see that he is healthy in spring training. By that time, Furcal will be long gone. One option would be to sign Furcal and intend to use A-Gon at 3rd if he can't be moved. That would move Eddy to left, but who knows if that would work. Whatever benefit the Reds get from improved shortstop play might be lost by having Eddy in left. (One bonus: the fans are already used to poor fielding in left.) More likely, the Reds go into spring training with A-Gon at short, hoping he proves his health, and then trade him to the losers in the Furcal sweepstakes. Of course, they will be competing with the Red Sox (no relation) and A's who want to do the same with Julio Lugo and Bobby Crosby, respectively. Keppy would be the back-up plan if A-Gon isn't healthy or gets traded. We could do worse than Keppy at short, but he's not a long-term solution there.
Danny Richar, who we got in the Jr. trade, is actually a decent player. One negative is that he bats lefty and we have lefties. But he could certainly fill-in at second (with BP at short?) in a pinch, and could be a decent lefty off the bench but he's got no power, with a career slugging percentage under .400.
I like Wilkin Castillo as the 25th man because he can catch, and play just about every position. And he's got some speed. Exactly what you need for that last guy. I doubt Rosales makes the team, as I think that last spot will go to a reliever.
Next up: outfield. Although, I may take a break from the hotstove and fulfill a request for my top-ten all time baseball moments.
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