Fix ‘Em Up: Cincinnati’s Lead-Off Problem

Fact: In 2012, for the first time in a decade, the Cincinnati Reds failed to score at least 700 runs. These kinds of little issues fail to get noticed during a banner season in which a franchise racks up 97 wins while clinching a playoff berth before every other team in baseball, but it’s true. The Reds, an offensive juggernaut in 2010 and 2011, were outscored by 20 other teams this past season. It seems somewhat unfathomable that Cincinnati could score so few runs with All-Stars like Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, and Brandon Phillips centered around a decent supporting case, but the numbers don’t lie. The Reds struggled to hit for average. They were abysmal at drawing walks, and they possessed very, very little team speed.

Some of these issues will need to be corrected this offseason, because it’s highly likely that Cincinnati’s pitching staff won’t be able to repeat the good health the had in 2012, which will likely lead to a decline in wins. The Reds also played a little bit over their heads a year ago, winning 6 more games than their run differential would suggest, although that is owed in large part to a stellar bullpen, which is also due for a bit of regression. So, if the Reds are going to repeat their NL Central title in 2013, what should they do to kick-start their offense?

No team in the Major Leagues got less production out of the top spot in their lineup than Cincinnati did in 2012. Reds’ lead-off hitters combined to bat a measly .208/.254/.327, which is absolutely unacceptable at the top of any lineup. The job of a lead-off hitter is to set the table for the offense any way he can, whether that be a bunt single, a hit by pitch, or a slash double. Ideally a ball club has a high on-base type hitter with some good speed setting the table for the rest of the order.

Dusty Baker hasn’t quite figured out the first part of that equation yet, which explains why Zach Cozart was penciled in at the top of the lineup 102 different times in 2012 despite having an on-base percentage (.288) that ranked 138th out of 144 qualified players (min. 502 at-bats). Baker’s second option to hit first was actually worse if you can believe that. Drew Stubbs hit lead-off 18 times despite being THE 144th ranked player in OBP out of all qualifiers. And whichever one of these two players wasn’t hitting lead-off was penciled in to hit in the #2 hole, forming a verifiable black hole of out-making ability in front of Joey Votto.

I’m not trying to single out Stubbs and Cozart either. The entire Cincinnati roster outside of Joey Votto was suspect at getting on-base, ranking 12th in the NL in the category. If you take Joey Votto’s league-leading .474 OBP out of the lineup the results are downright scary. The rest of the Reds hitters posted just a .302 OBP without Votto, a number that only tops the annually anemic Mariners. Cincinnati has to add somebody who can get on base, because the boom-or-bust offense from 2012 may not be good enough in 2013 if the pitching slips a bit.

The lead-off man God himself would design, Billy Hamilton, is still probably a full year away from the Major Leagues (especially since he’s switching positions), which leaves the Reds in a bind. Hamilton had a .410 on-base percentage last seasons and broke the all-time record for steals in a single year at any level, but he has just 50 total games of experience above Single-A ball. The Reds are notoriously slow at bringing along their talent so expecting much more than a September call-up from Hamilton is probably expecting too much.

Michael Bourne is also probably a no-go. He would be a perfect fit on a one-year deal until Hamilton is ready to take over, but he’s obviously going to take his big payday while he can get it, which rules the Reds out. Angel Pagan is also probably going to price himself out of the Reds range after a nice October showing, but he would be a nice fit as well. Cincinnati general manager Walt Jocketty has stated that the Reds aren’t going to spend too much more than last year, which means a payroll somewhere around the $90-$100 million mark is probably a safe estimate. The Reds have $71 million in commitments already with 7 arbitration-eligible players, meaning anything more than a mid-level pickup is out of the question.

Could Nyjer Morgan be a fit? The mercurial centerfielder had a rough 2012 campaign, hitting just .239/.302/.308, but his career on-base percentage is .342, which would be a nice upgrade for the Reds. Shane Victorino is also on the market and could make for a nice bounce-back candidate as well. The Flyin’ Hawaiian brings a good mix of speed, OBP, and defense which would fit in nicely alongside Drew Stubbs and Jay Bruce. Ryan Ludwick is also on the market again and would probably be a cheap resign for Cincinnati following his renaissance season, but he won’t fix the lead-off issue. The rest of the market looks to either be out of Cincinnati’s price range or wouldn’t be much of an upgrade.

The Reds could also hope that the problem is of the self-correcting variety. Stubbs is coming off of a nightmare season and is going to be 28 next year which means he still in the prime of his career. Stubbs has flashed the ability to hit 20 homers and steal 40 bases, so it would be unwise to give up on him so soon. He probably shouldn’t hit at the top of the order however, because he is still got just a .312 career on-base percentage, which is weak for a #1 guy. Brandon Phillips could also hit lead-off in a pinch, although he’s probably best suited for the #2 spot in the order.

If the choice were up to me, I would probably offer Victorino a 1 year deal that pays him somewhere around the $9.5 million he made a year ago. Victorino would further fortify what looks to be the best defense in the National League and his on-base skills at the top of the order are sorely needed. If Victorino wanted more than the single year however I’d walk away and take a peek at Nyjer Morgan, who could be a nice stop-gap for the 2013 season. Billy Hamilton and all his glorious speed will be on the way in 2014, and his path shouldn’t be blocked at the Major League level by anybody. The Reds have made plenty of intelligent moves to get on top of the NL Central, now they just need to make a couple more in the short-term to stay there.

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