The Cincinnati Reds have finally called up outfielder Jay Bruce from Triple-A Louisville.
Bruce, perhaps the best prospect in the game, will make his big-league debut tonight against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The real question, though, is what took new Cincinnati general manager Walt Jocketty so long to pull the trigger? Perhaps delaying his arbitration clock for Bruce, who has feasted on Triple-A pitching this spring, is the answer. By batting .364 (best in the league)/ .393/.630 with 10 home runs and 37 RBIs, though, he has put added pressure on the Cincinnati front office to make the long-anticipated roster decision. Before the call-up, he was also sitting fourth in the International League with a 1.029 OPS. While there are concerns about his defense in center field and high strikeout totals (45 Ks in 145 at-bats in ’08), he will undoubtedly provide an immediate upgrade to the Reds’ offense with his presence in the lineup.
Despite heavy criticism, manager Dusty Baker has insisted on penciling in Corey Patterson—“Baker’s guy”—in the leadoff spot, starting the veteran in center against right-handed pitching.
Even with low expectations going into the season, however, Patterson has been a major disappointment. Given his track record as a marginal offensive player at this level, his poor performance is of little surprise. Still, he has been more than awful, hitting .201/.242/.354, in 144 at-bats. At this stage of his career, he is no more than a role player, perhaps a capable fourth or fifth outfielder who can steal a base or two when needed. And the fact that he has received so much playing time while hitting in the top spot in the Reds’ batting order has severely hindered the team's ability to score runs. In fact, Baker’s decision to keep running Patterson out there is almost indefensible, but pales in comparison to the organization’s decision to pay him $3.5-million for his services. Perhaps that was the nail in the coffin for recently fired GM Wayne Krivsky.
The injury to Jeff Keppinger has not helped matters. Edwin Encarnacion (.240/.320/.434) and Ken Griffey. Jr. have struggled as well. Yet it is Patterson who is the real Achilles heel in this lineup, and he has played a major factor in the team's inability to scrape runs across at times. The Reds’ team total of 225 runs, in fact, ranks 11th out of 16 National League teams while their combined OPS-.745-falls in the middle, sitting at eighth.
Bruce will undoubtedly help this team improve in the second half, adding youth to an aging outfield--with Adam Dunn (1.85 range factor) and Griffey Jr. (.849 zone rating) remaining in corner spots--that is among the worst defensively in the league. More important, although has average a strikeout per game in his minor-league career, he will have to do little to add more value at his position than the current center-field platoon of Ryan Freel and Patterson. Jocketty has consistently said that Bruce will only get promoted to the majors if the opportunity is there for him to play every night. This almost guarantees that Patterson will be forced to take a seat on the bench, perhaps improving the Reds by default.
At 23-28, seven games back in the National League Central, the Reds can use all the help they can get.
Clearly, Cincinnati has a strong nucleus of young players in its organization to build around, with Bruce, Encarnacion, Aaron Harang, Edinson Volquez, who has the majors’ lowest ERA (1.31) and is leading the league with 76 strikeouts, and Joey Votto. Votto, coming off a three home run-performance against the New York Mets a few weeks back, is a candidate for National League Rookie of the Year, having posted a line of .273/.339/.533 to this point. In fact, although Baker has tweaked with his approach at the plate, the 24-year-old is leading all major-league rookies with 10 home runs, replacing veteran Scott Hatteberg at first base in the process. However, Jocketty and his baseball operations team must make some difficult, yet extremely important decisions about what veterans to keep--Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey Jr.--or part ways with before the trade deadline.
Even with Baker at the helm, the future looks bright for this organization. Perhaps Bruce will provide a glimmer of that tonight.
Update: For those hoping the corresponding roster move would end Patterson's days in Cincinnati, think again. Rather, the Reds decided to part ways with Hatteberg, designating him for assignment. The veteran first baseman posted a line of .310/.394/.474 in 116 games in 2007, but was limited to a reserve, pinch-hit role after Votto hit his way into a full-time job.
The Reds, however, should look at their $3.5-million investment in Patterson as a sunk cost at this point. While they will have to acknowledge they made a mistake, releasing the underachieving outfielder will only help improve the product on the field.