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Know Your Enemy 2005 - Part III, B - The Reds
2005-03-22 05:00
by Derek Smart

Yesterday, we explored a Reds offense full of both potential and frailty. What will an extended gaze at the pitching staff and bench reveal?

Starting Pitchers

Because I have a hint of the sadist in me, let's take a look at some of what Baseball Prospectus has written about Eric Milton over the years:

1998:One of the best pitching prospects in baseball.

1999:Left-handers with fastballs like this make a lot of money playing baseball. He'll be to the next Minnesota championship what Frank Viola was to the 1987 flag.

2001:Heís in a hitters' park, can count on crummy run support, and there are worries about his shoulder and elbow, but any team would love to have Eric Milton ... Heís about to be recognized as one of the best starters in the league.

2003:There have been a lot of expectations loaded onto Milton, because we all keep thinking heís finally going to start posting ERAs under four and crank out that season that makes people start comparing him to John Tudor or Ron Guidry. Heck, it still works, Guidry didnít really have his first big season until he was 27 ... Itís still worth harboring great expectations.

2005:He's one of the most overrated pitchers around, and Great American Ball Park, which enhances home runs but depresses the other aspects of offensive performance, is about the worst possible home for him.

I do this not to needle the BP boys - these were actually cogent observations when written - but rather, to point up how much perception and reality change over time. There was a day when Milton's three-year, $25.5M contract might have been greeted with praise, but that moment has long since passed.

But you shouldn't have to take my word for it, and knowing that, I asked J.D. Arney of the excellent Red Reporter his opinion of the Eric Milton signing.

Milton is probably going to be a league average pitcher, but there's upside to the deal that I think most "thinking" types have missed. The signing signaled that the Reds are trying, something that quite a few other franchises can't really say with a straight face. And it showed that the Reds are willing to pay market value for a free agent, which might help them in the future when it comes to recruiting future classes of free agents.

I think it's important to look at the value of the contract in context of the overall payroll as well, which I said when the signing took place. If the Reds are going to continue to field teams with a payroll in the $45-$55 million range then this is a disastrous signing which is probably going to go a long way towards sinking the club for the next three years. But if Cincinnati ups their payroll to the $65-$75 million range then I really don't think it's such a big deal, especially given how bad the pitching has been for the Reds in recent years.

These are good points, and while it's become clear that Milton won't grow up to be John Tudor or Ron Guidry - PECOTA's top comp is Jim Deshaies - you can justify tossing around that kind of money for a guy who aspires to league average if the payroll percentage is small enough and there are enough other factors involved.

He looks likely to eat a lot of innings, and that's a plus on a team that hasn't had a pitcher throw over 200 frames since Elmer Dessens in 2001. Like J.D. said, if the Reds are spending more overall this deal doesn't look as bad, but if the status quo lingers you have to wonder how a club so willing to play the poverty card could spend their money so poorly.

When looking at Paul Wilson's performance record, perhaps the most striking feature is the close proximity of the numbers 1996 and 2000. It's not often you see those years stacked one on top of the other on a fella's BBREF page, but there they are on Wilson's, rubbing elbows and telling stories. It really is remarkable that a pitcher could be away from the Majors so long, yet come back and be successful, and it's that story of abuse and redemption that make him an appealing character.

There's another striking number though, and this one's not as endearing: 92. That's Wilson's ERA+ for the last four consecutive seasons, two in Tampa, two in Cincinnati. For those unfamiliar with the term, ERA+ is a number that adjusts a pitcher's earned run average for park and league, then expresses it as a number with 100 as average. If you're scoring at home, that means that Wilson's ERAs have been 8% below league average in each of his last four seasons.

That's remarkable consistency, even if it is mediocre, and there's something to be said for knowing what you're getting. The Reds have decided that level of certainty is worth $8.2M over the next two years, and on a team that has so few things it can absolutely count on, there's not much I can find wrong with that.

Acquired in a trade with the Angels for pitching prospect Dustin Moseley, Ramon Ortiz will take the ball after Wilson. In taking a quick glance at his yearly stat lines, it appears he rebounded after an unfortunate 2003 which saw his ERA hit 5.20, nearly a run and a half higher than the previous season. Let's take a look at his last four years.

YearH/9HR/9BB/9K/9ERA
20019.621.083.285.824.36
20027.791.662.826.713.77
200310.451.403.154.705.20
20049.771.272.675.774.43

See how versus 2003 his K-rate is up, while his BB-, H-, and HR-rates are all down, along with his ERA? Pretty promising stuff, right? What's that? You say I'm missing something?

H/9HR/9BB/9K/9ERA
Starting 200411.051.482.625.475.47
Bullpen 20047.710.922.766.242.76

Oh. Well. That changes things.

When starting, Ortiz is getting hit hard and often, while doing a worse job of missing bats. His HR-rate is especially troubling, considering the jack-tastic tendencies of his new digs. Imagine if Milton and Ortiz threw back-to-back games - sleeping infielders and sore hands in the bleachers, that's what I see. The Reds are hoping Ortiz can at least find some middle ground between those splits when he starts, and the truth is, they don't need the 2002 version so much as they have to avoid V2003. I'd be wary of their chances.

Likely as anyone to follow Ortiz is Aaron Harang, he of the career ERA+ of 85. His best year was his first one in 2002, when he posted a 4.83 ERA (ERA+ of 96) over 78.1 IP. He had decent H-, K-, and HR-rates, but his BB-rate was astronomical at 5.17 per nine innings. That sort of largesse won't win you any friends, at least on your own team, so Harang went right to work on fixing that, and fix it he did.

The problem is, that while he stopped putting so many guys on for free, he started giving up more hits and home runs, while striking out fewer men. He became something of a control pitcher, and in the process, managed to stop doing nearly everything else well. What the Reds need is for him to figure out how to not walk guys without trading fewer passes for more meatballs. He's still young, he'll only be 27 this season, so stranger things have happened.

The final spot looks like a cage match between multiple candidates, but the emerging favorite appears to be Brandon Claussen, particularly with Luke Hudson being out indefinitely with shoulder inflammation. Josh Hancock and Jeriome Robertson still have shots, but Claussen is getting the innings this spring and still has at least some of his prospect pixie dust left. However, he'll need to tighten up his walk rate to have a shot at being effective long term.

The Bullpen

Danny Graves, the man with perhaps the most ridiculous and unwieldy nickname that I'm aware of in baseball - "Baby-Faced Assassin" - took the ball in the ninth for the Reds in 2004, after the previous year's experiment with him in the starting rotation went over like Dr. Moreau delivering the keynote at a medical ethics convention.

He performed solidly enough in the role, but came completely unglued in the second half, following up his fine first half ERA of 2.72 with an astronomical 7.23 mark. The culprit looks to be overwork in the season's opening months, as Graves saw action in 49 of the club's first 88 games, throwing on three or more consecutive days five times before the break.

He doesn't prevent a lot of contact, so his game is wrapped up in keeping his free passes and long balls low. Luckily, he has good control and a fine sinker, so he manages to do both. Expect the Reds to be a little more cautious early in the year with his usage patterns, and he's a good bet to continue to be a decent option in the role.

Kent Mercker got testy with some guy who used to be on TV, so despite being the team's most effective left-handed bullpen option in 2004, the Cubs let him go on his merry way in what will eventually be known as "The Great Personality Purge of Aught-Five." The Reds picked him up for two years at $2.6M, and if his balky back holds up, they'll get their money's worth.

He's played for approximately 137 different teams, but David Weathers won't be adding to his tally when he joins the Reds this year - he threw 62.1 innings of 6.21 ball in Cincy in 1998 before being waived. He signed to a one-year deal worth $1.35M with a vesting option, and one could do worse with a solidly average reliever. With the likely need for the bullpen to fill a lot of innings most teams would get from their starters, the fact that Weathers hasn't pitched fewer than 76.1 innings since 1997 is a definite plus.

There's the distinct flavor of scrap heap in this season's Red relief corps, and no one can add that special piquant tang like Ben Weber. This is nothing new for him, having already been rescued from a life in the dust bin by the Angels, but this time might not work out as well. It all depends on whether the carpal tunnel syndrome that levelled his 2004 can be held at bay. If so, this is $600K well spent, and if not, well, it's only $600K.

For the same price, the Reds will probably fill out the back of their bullpen with two men who should eventually be in the front: fireballing right-handers Ryan Wagner and Joe Valentine.

Wagner was the heir presumptive to the closer job at the beginning of last year, but after giving up only 3 home runs in his previous 153 professional innings, he coughed up 7 in his 51.2 IP with the Reds in 2004, while seeing his hit rate rise and his strikeout rate plummet. He was better after the break when he came back from a stint in AAA, but he still had issues with the long ball, though not nearly to the same extent. He's still a bundle of talent, and I'd be surprised if he wasn't a valuable member of their relief corps.

Valentine's a little shakier. Again, a lot of talent, but he has tremendous control issues that have to be fixed if he wants to be an effective Major Leaguer. He'll only be 25 this year, so it's not like time's about to run out, but a career BB/9 of 7.47 in the Majors doesn't inspire a ton of confidence, even if it is over only 31.1 innings. If he can get it over the plate more without grooving the ball, he can be quite an asset, but I wouldn't bet your meal money on it.

The Bench

Javier Valentin can't hit, but that doesn't make him special among backup catchers, or even among catchers in general. His .233/.293/.381 line is horrific, yet still gives him a higher OPS than five NL catchers who started the majority of games for their teams, and even if you remove the freaky day when he hit two home runs against Greg Maddux (the only two runs the Reds scored in a 13-2 loss), his OPS was still higher than that posted by Brad Ausmus, Jason Phillips, or Chad Moeller. This is a long way of saying that Valentin isn't the worst possible option as a reserve, but he's a fine reason to pray for the health of Jason LaRue.

Ryan Freel is one of those nice guys to have around: he can competently play five positions, gets on base well, and has good speed. He's exactly the kind of fella you want coming off your bench when you need a spark, or filling in for the occasional off day. What you don't want is for him to get 592 plate appearances, which he did last year.

It's not that he's a terrible drag offensively - in fact, if he was better defensively at second base, he'd be a solid starter there - but rather that his skills are such that he doesn't fit anywhere regularly, and if he is getting a starter's playing time, there's likely something else wrong. Say, for example, missing two of your starting outfielders for much of the season, or never really having a worthwhile starter at third. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

Two of the remaining bench positions are hinging on who wins the battle for the starting job in the first place. Whoever does come out on top, we can be fairly sure that one of Rich Aurilia and Felipe Lopez, and one of Wily Mo Pena and Austin Kearns will be riding the pine while their counterpart patrols the green. For my money, the former of each pair should be the disappointed ones, but nearly any combination is possible.

The final spot(s) on the bench look to be something of a crapshoot, with a bunch of non-roster men duking it out, among them Jacob Cruz, Luis Lopez, A.J. Zapp, Kenny Kelly, and Robert Stratton. As I write this, Stratton is absolutely clubbing the ball, but Kelly is also hitting well, and he brings the extra element of speed, as well as the ability to play center field. Assuming these guys continue to perform at comparable levels, positional needs and roster issues might decide the day.

The Gist

It's true, the Reds have been the victim of some unfortunate circumstances of late - no one could have foreseen Ken Griffey Jr's troubles through the lens of 1999 - but those who believe you make your own luck have something to hold onto as well.

While it may be inexpensive, relying on reclamation projects to fill the majority of your starting rotation is neither reliable nor efficient. Sometimes they work out alright, like in the case of Paul Wilson, but the trend is toward fewer Wilsons and more Jimmy Haynes and Joey Hamiltons. These fellas can be worth a flyer, but counting on three or four to make good is a fools errand, as is depending on a late-thirties shortstop with a long history of recent, chronic injury.

The good news for fans of the Reds: these days may be gone. The Reds have spent big money for Eric Milton, and are filling out the back of their rotation with young arms acquired in trade, and where it's been reasonable and possible to replace position players unlikely to be physically able to fulfill their duties, they have done so.

Opportunities for luck to bounce the wrong way still abound - Griffey, Kearns, and at least 2/5ths of the rotation look like possible trouble - but for the first time in a while the Reds are at least acting like they want to compete, and if for once Fortuna smiles on the Queen City, they just might.

Comments
2005-03-23 06:36:28
1.   John Hill
Derek--
"The Reds have decided that level of certainty is worth $8.2M over the next two years, and on a team that has so few things it can absolutely count on, there's not much I can find wrong with that."

You mean besides the fact the $8.2M for someone that you can supposedly count on to be a little more than a touch below league-average?

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