The Cincinnati Reds have signed free agent center fielder Willy Taveras to a two-year contract. Taveras, it seems, is expected to take over as the Reds’ leadoff hitter and center fielder.
This move is downright unacceptable, on many different levels.
First, the Reds witnessed first hand the consequences of batting a low-OBP hitter in the leadoff spot with the Corey Patterson debacle. Patterson, of course, was among the least effective offensive players in the majors, batting .205/.238/.344. Despite adding some value for his work in center field on a defensively challenged club, he was as close to a guaranteed out as there is. In a hitters’ park, the 28-year-old former top prospect posted a 48 OPS+. Yes, 48.
The man, at this point, is a decent fourth outfielder, at best. The fact that he was given 366 at-bats, and began the spring batting leadoff, was quite puzzling. To say the least.
It is not as if people called how bad of a decision it was beforehand or anything.
Patterson—to the chagrin of anyone who cares about baseball and Skyline Chili—will never get to suck up at-bats in a home uniform at Great American Ball Park ever again. Former Cincinnati general manager Jim Bowden, on a mission to reacquire every ineffective former Red, signed him to a deal to bring him to the Washington Nationals earlier this month. Although the move went under the radar, some die-hard Red fans were seen celebrating in the streets, dreaming of the days where an adequate leadoff man will set the table for their team.
Well, the ghost of Corey Patterson will return in the form of Taveras, and the signing quickly ends any celebration. The newest Red was allergic to getting on base in ’08 himself, posting a terrible .308 OBP and .604 OPS in 479 at-bats with the Colorado Rockies. Yes, he posted a .604 OPS while playing his home games at Coors Field. In the thin air of Denver.
That, my friends, is difficult to do. A 56 OPS+ is bad, embarrassingly bad.
The casual baseball fan associates bunting for hits, speed and stealing bases with batting leadoff. This has led some to overvalue the Juan Pierre-type player.
Taveras fits this bill as well. He paced the circuit with 68 stolen bases, getting thrown out only seven times. This was impressive, sure, and he certainly has plus speed.
The bottom line, however, is that Taveras makes too many outs. A leadoff hitter, above all else, has to get on base consistently. Doing so is, by far, the most important job for a player batting in the top spot, trumping speed or anything else.
Dusty Baker did not understand that concept with Patterson, and Jocketty apparently does not understand it, either.
Taveras is the type of player who will have to hit for a high batting average to maintain an on-base clip at an acceptable level and justify playing time. He did so in his debut with the Rockies in 2007, when he hit .320 in 372 at-bats. This drove his OBP up to .367, by far a career high. If the average slips at all below .300, though, he becomes too much of an offensive liability to merit 500-plus plate appearances. Considering how volatile BA is as a statistic, this does not bode well for him ever being an impact offensive player. For this reason, it is unlikely that he will ever provide enough offensive value to deserve to hit anywhere near the top of the order.
Which makes this decision puzzling. Taveras is a capable glove man in center field with solid range, and, as Jocketty mentioned, is another above-average up-the-middle defender. Give him credit for addressing the Reds’ poor team defense, which converted the lowest percentage of batted balls hit into play into outs in ’08 to rank 30th in team defensive efficiency.
However, adding Taveras to the lineup does little to address the Reds’ inability to score runs. He will take away a lot of RBI chances for hitters like Jay Bruce and Joey Votto, potentially crippling an offense that already has major holes to address.
A solid core is in place in Cincy, but moves like this call into question the thought process of those making the decisions. At the Reds Winter Fan Fest, Jocketty recently stressed how important it is for a front office to strike a balance and combine the right blend of advanced statistical analysis and scouting to make baseball-related decisions. Which is exactly right.
Based off this signing, though, it appears as if the Reds are operating in 1983. All of the stats talk, it seems, was just for show—a concerning development.
The Reds are unlikely to contend in the N.L. Central in ’09, but have the chips in piece to strike as we enter the next decade.
Is the right leadership in place to help them do so?