As a relatively new Cincinnati Reds fan, I vividly remember the excitement I had about Billy Hamilton when he was in the minor leagues. He was the first prospect I followed from the start and, along with the excitement of following a good Reds team (which feels like decades ago now), the idea of an exciting youngster joining the fold and contributing right away was tantalizing.
And Hamilton did contribute immediately!
As a September call-up in the 2013 season, Hamilton had an OPS of .906, stole 13 bases in 13 games and added a jolt to the Reds that helped them make the playoffs.
Unfortunately, that spurt was as much of an outlier as there has been in Hamilton’s season. He’s never had a 13-game stretch with an OPS or an on-base percentage as high as his first 13 major league games.
His value defensively is unquestioned. By stats, he’s one of the 10 best defensive centerfielders in the league. By my eye test, there isn’t one better. His blazing speed, reading of the ball and athleticism allows him to make both spectacular plays while also making difficult plays look mundane.
Offensively, as mentioned, he’s regressed each of the last two seasons. Through Thursday, he’s hitting .195/.285/.279 with a 57 wRC+. If those averages hold, it’d be his lowest batting average and slugging percentages in a season, second-lowest on-base percentage and second-lowest wRC+.
He’s on pace for his lowest offensive fWAR of his career. Because of his inability to get on the bases, Hamilton’s Baserunning Rating is on-pace for a career low. And even as good as he is defensively, he’s also on pace for a career-low defensive fWAR, is currently worth -3 Defensive Runs Saved and is on pace for a career-worst Ultimate Zone Rating.
We’ve officially entered a time where Billy Hamilton’s defense is no longer good enough to make up for his offense.
Based on the current state of the Reds’ centerfielder options, the Reds either expected Hamilton to be the long-term answer in centerfield or woefully underprepared for the possibility Hamilton wouldn’t work out. There is no current clear-cut player to take his spot in the outfield, which is likely the only reason he still is in the lineup day-to-day.
With the season already lost and no chance at meaningful baseball, the Reds should throw things against the wall and try to find a solution before the days of competitive baseball return.
There are a couple of options, some tantalizing long-term solutions and few enticing short-term fixes, worth looking at.
25-man roster options
Scott Schebler – The first and most obvious solution if you’re benching Hamilton is to place Schebler in centerfield. Schebler is the only current outfielder who can play centerfield and has done so sparingly this season. With the Reds having an issue playing Schebler, Adam Duvall and Jesse Winker already, benching Hamilton and starting Schebler every day would at least solve that issue.
What the Reds would sacrifice defensively they would certainly make up for offensively. Schebler has a wRC+ more than twice as much as Hamilton’s. As a team, it removes what has often become an automatic out from the lineup and makes the lineup more potent.
Reds’ batting with Schebler starting in CF – .284/.342/.379 in 317 ABs
Reds’ batting with Hamilton starting in CF – .243/.321/.381 in 1775 ABs
It’s obviously a small sample size, but the Reds are simply better offensively with Schebler in center.
Jose Peraza – The only other player capable of playing in center, Peraza has played 113 innings in center, 97 of those coming in 2016. Statistically, though, Peraza is worse than Schebler defensively in center and should probably stay in the middle infield.
40-man roster options
Phil Ervin – Another familiar name for fans, Ervin has had two cups of coffee, spending 16 games up with the Reds this season after 28 games last season.
Despite spending 322 innings in center last season in AAA and starting one game in center this season, Ervin has played almost exclusively the corner outfield spots in AAA this season, playing just seven innings in Louisville in center.
With only advanced metrics in the big leagues, we can see Ervin struggled mightily in center in 63 innings last season, which would likely explain why he’s spent most of his time in the corners this season.
Jose Siri – While Siri made waves last season with a lengthy hit streak, his injury during spring training set him back. Even then, Siri hasn’t played above the High-A level he’s currently at and isn’t much of an option.
Non-40-man roster options
Taylor Trammell – At this point, we’re out of options for an immediate fix, but there are some options for the not-so-distant future.
Trammell is a name most Reds fans are familiar with. One of the top prospects in the system, the 20-year old is hitting .304/.412/.476 with a 158 wRC+ in High-A. Trammell has 199 plate appearances across 49 games in High-A. A call-up to AA could likely be in the cards in the very near future and, should he continue his success, it’s not out of the realm he battles for an Opening Day spot in 2019.
Mason Williams – Likely a name that no Reds fan has heard of, Williams is the current starting centerfielder in AAA. If you want solid defense, Williams has made one error in centerfield since 2015 in roughly 1,500 innings. While he was once a top prospect years ago in the Yankees’ system, his 88 wRC+ is an improvement over his 77 wRC+ last season. He’s not the offensive solution for the Reds.
Gabriel Guerrero – One last name to consider is Guerrero, another unfamiliar name. A prospect who has bounced around, Guerrero found his way to the Reds last season in AA, then began mashing in Pensacola this season, hitting .296/.336/.469 in 107 plate appearances, all while appearing exclusively in center.
Guerrero was called up to AAA in early May but has slowed at the plate, hitting .274/.314/.358 in 102 plate appearances. That figure is brought down by a slow start in which he hit .171/.211/.229 in his first 38 plate appearances in Louisville. Since then, Guerrero has hit .333/.375/.433 over 64 plate appearances.
All of that time in AAA comes with the caveat that he’s exclusively played in right field. He’s an intriguing option that needs more time to develop, but could be a call-up later in the season should his recent form hold and he shifts to centerfield at least sparingly.
There really isn’t a simple solution to the problem. The fix probably requires a list of moves. If it were myself, I’d move Schebler into centerfield, call up Trammell to AA and let Guerrero spend more time in centerfield in AAA. I’d also get creative with how I used Hamilton, using this article from FanGraphs in the preseason as a template. Hamilton is an incredibly unique player that requires a unique approach to getting the most out of him.
None of this is likely a fix that’ll help things this season, but it puts the Reds on a path toward a potential solution early next season, which is better than where they’re at now.
Read The Room
David Bell has made some interesting choices, some that he may want to tweak his thought process on. Let me explain.
On Monday’s podcast my friend Jeff stated he liked the fact that David Bell was able to remove himself from the equations on many big decisions. He stated that by focusing on the analytics Bell is able to make an objective decision versus a gut decision. I won’t disagree with fact that I am loving the front office and managements use of analytics. I, like most Reds fans, love to see the organization finally joining this century of baseball thinking in full force, from an analytics stand point. However, while I do support the use of analytics in helping make decisions, I don’t feel as if it should be the sole reason for decision making.
The best managers in the history of this game are often forward-thinking and also having the right instinct at crucial points in games. I think the Reds, and even David Bell, are some of the most forward thinking in baseball right now. We have seen it in all the new positions created this offseason specifically for analytics within the Reds front office. The Reds outfielders carry cards based on each pitcher and each batter in where to align themselves. The infield is making unique shifts. Bell seems opposite of his predecessor, because he despises bunting frequently. The amazing performance by our pitching staff which has been one of the worst in recent years. I believe these things will continue to help this team as the season continues. I also believe it’s one of the main reasons we have one of the best pitching staffs in all of baseball right now.
On the flip side of this is the daily, head-scratching decisions Bell has made. The constant hooking of starting staff or bullpen pitchers too early. This isn’t just something making fans question his decisions, but his players as well. I have seen almost every starting pitcher this year, on at least one occasion, have a baffled look after being removed to early. Bell often pulling starters in a close game due to the “third time around the order” analytics. In regards to the bullpen often pulling relievers early who are up there throwing smoke and no one is touching them. All that started back on Opening Day when he used three relievers, each for one out in the bottom of the ninth. Then when it comes to the lineup we are often seeing players who may be crushing it that day pulled for favorable situational matchups such as lefty right or righty lefty. On several occasions I’ve seen him pull Dietrich or Winker when there out there hitting rockets just for an analytic advantage. It often causes me to yell at my television.
One of my favorite sayings is “READ THE ROOM”. Bell desperately needs to “READ THE ROOM” in more crucial situations. Leaving pitchers in to go one extra innning in a start or relief when there mowing batters over. Leaving a guy in the lineup who is on fire rather than pulling him for a analytic matchup. This shows faith in your players as well as your instincts as a manager. It’s what differentiates the best coaches from everyone else. It’s the knowledge that no amount of statistics can provide and it will ultimately be what puts this team over the top. In recent weeks I have seen signs of this coming to fruition. I hope to see more of it as the season goes on. And I promise you Reds fans when it does the most important statistic WINS will come much easier.
Reds Catchers Now and in the Future
Let’s take a look at the catching picture for the Reds organization.
In late September of 2017, the Cincinnati Reds locked up Tucker Barnhart to a 4-year, $16 million contract. And why not? Barnhart hit .270 in 2017 and was a gold glove winner. $4 million a year for him was a steal. Fans were ecstatic about the deal, especially at the price. Don’t get me wrong, having a catcher with a career average of .248 with about 10 home runs a year and a great glove is something most teams are satisfied with. It’s more about what he does with the pitching staff and defense than the hitting. But in 2019, although only 100 at-bats in, how concerned should Reds fans be about their catching situation now and in the future?
The Reds currently have two active catchers: Tucker Barnhart and Curt Casali. Barnhart has struggled mightily out of the gate. A .160/.282/.270 line is not anywhere close to his career numbers. Adding to that, he only has two hits in the past 10 games. A switch hitter with only 10 at bats versus Left-handed pitchers tells us Bell wants Casali taking those at-bats.
Curt Casali has put together a great season for the Reds. Acquired off waiver last year from Tampa Bay he hit .310 before the All-Star break. In 2019 he is hitting to the tune of .293/.349/.379. When used as a pinch hitter, he’s delivered at times for the Reds. Although Casali is the better hitter so far, I do not think it is time to give up on Barnhart. 100 at-bats into a season with plenty to go. *Deep breath* He can still put together a decent season. Something needs to change though, drastically. Right now, the Reds have bigger issues than the catcher’s spot. But will Casali take reigns as the team’s number one catcher? A lot of fans are calling for it. Keep in mind Casali is a career .229 hitter. He has been streaky in the past. The Reds will probably continue to platoon and giving at-bats to Casali against left-handed pitchers. 2019 catcher situation is pretty much locked in. The depth at AAA Louisville are not “prospects” and haven’t shown to be MLB hitters either. The question is what will it look like in the future?
Tyler Stephenson is one of the top prospects in the Reds organization (#6 mlb.com) and is showing his potential this year in Chattanooga. A first-round pick in 2015, he’s struggled with injuries early in his career and is now showing his potential. Hitting .267 with 3 HR and 18 RBI while throwing out 26% of baserunners is a nice start to the first part of the season. He won’t be in Cincinnati this year, who knows where he will start next year, but he plays into the future of the Reds.
There are some other options in the minors. Chris Okey (#30 Reds prospect) was drafted in the second round of 2016 but has really struggled with the bat. Hendrik Clementina (#23 Reds prospect) is someone to watch. He was acquired in the Tony Cingrani trade and hit 18 home runs with Dayton in 2018. He has some pop and but also strikes out too much. We all know how frustrating that can be. Other than those 3, the Reds do not have another top 30 catching prospects. A thin position of depth look for the Reds to bring in more talent this year.
The Reds catching future is banking on Stephenson and Barnhart to be the guys. That could end up being just fine, but it also doesn’t leave much room for error. Casali has two arbitration year left and is 30 years old. He could be a Red past this year, sure. Good catchers are hard to find and that’s why the asking price is so high (paging JT). I would expect the Reds to try to add depth here through the draft or offseason. The quick fix would be Tucker returning closer to 2017 form but who knows if that will happen.
What The Reds Should Be
Wednesday night was a glimpse at this team’s potential.
If you were able to witness tonight’s win over the scorching hot Chicago Cubs you were probably ecstatic. It was a comeback win, in extra innings, and a one-run game. In a season clouded by early disappointment and many missed opportunities, tonight we witnessed the Reds full potential.
This game had all the markings of what was shaping up to be another Reds loss. A five-inning start by the pitcher, playing from behind almost the entire game, and constant pitching changes. Instead the Reds played together and won, as a team. The chemistry we see off the field was finally seen on the field. The bullpen stepped up when they needed to. Stephenson, Hughes, Peralta, and Garrett all providing top notch performances. Garrett making what seemed to be an impossible out at first to save a run from scoring. When providing a clutch at-bat was needed, we saw it from nearly everyone put on the spot. Senzel with 2 hits and 2 stolen bases. Iglesias continues to be the Reds MVP of position players having a double and solo home run to keep the Reds in contention. Suarez starting to catch fire with a 3-for-5 evening, 3 RBI’s, a double, and a 2 run HR in the eighth inning to tie up the game. Quietly, Joey Votto was the one who actually came up big, in the clutch, during the eighth, with a single. He then scored on Suarez’s dinger. Then again in the 10th inning with a one-out walk. For the icing on the cake the player all of Cincinnati wants to see perform comes up to seal the deal. And most importantly the extra innings walk-off hit by Puig with a bat flip for Reds highlight reels for years to come happened.
What made it most glorious was the absolute look of disappointment on Cubs fans faces as the Reds came back to pull off the comeback win. Wednesday, we saw the Reds full potential as a team. This is the Reds ceiling as a team performance. I hope we grow accustomed to this scene more often and start to see them compete in this division. There is no doubt they are in the toughest division in baseball. That being said, they can absolutely shake things up whenever they decide to get hot. I know it’s possible. I just hope it’s not too late when it does.