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Janish Time in Cincinnati?

Between Scott Rolen, Brandon Phillips, and (mostly) Joey Votto, the Reds formed one of the best infields in Major League Baseball this season. Their cumulative performance – 16.4 WAR – ranks higher than all starting infields in the National League.

And that’s without including a shortstop. The Reds weren’t slouches at the position at all in 2010, as their shortstops combined to post 2.5 WAR. The majority of that comes from starter Orlando Cabrera, who posted 1.3 WAR this season. He didn’t do much with the stick (.292 wOBA), but his glove was a solid +3.7 UZR, consistent with a good defensive reputation and a career +45 UZR.

However, Cabrera will turn 36 in November. He suffered injuries toward the end of the season and compiled fewer than 600 plate appearances for the first time since 2005, and was removed from a playoff game due to yet another injury in the Reds’ playoff loss to Philadelphia. Now, the Reds will have to decide whether to keep him around, as Cabrera’s contract includes a $4 million mutual option for the 2011 season.

Cabrera’s poor stick, recent injuries, and moderate price tag may be enough of a reason for the Reds to decline the option and pay the $1 million buyout. If not, Paul Janish should be. Janish has posted 2.0 WAR in his first two significant stints in the Major Leagues. His bat hasn’t been anything stellar, but since his disastrous first stint in 2007 (42 wRC+ in 89 PAs), Janish has shown moderate patience and good contact. He doesn’t have much pop, and some bad luck and a fly ball heavy batted ball profile has led to low BABIPs. It is those two factors which have largely driven his poor batting lines to date.

Between 2009 and 2010, Janish compiled -15 batting runs, and that’s with a BABIP in the .260s. Despite his issues with fly balls, it’s hard to imagine Janish will continue to have such poor results on balls in play. His .260/.338/.385 line in 2010 appears to be pretty representative of Janish’s abilities, although probably with a SLG closer to .360. His minor league numbers are poor, but the two parts of his game that have played the best in the majors – walk rate and contact rate – are the quickest to stabilize. 600 plate appearances still isn’t a huge sample, but for both statistics it is above the reliability thresholds stated here.

His bat probably only plays at shortstop, but that’s not a problem for Janish. According to Baseball America, Janish has “nearly flawless footwork, soft hands and a plus arm.” UZR was insane over Janish in 2009, rating him at +11 in only half a season. That seems outrageous, but DRS and TZL nearly completely agree. He wasn’t quite as impressive in 2010, possibly due to splitting time between SS and 3B in the small sample, but he was still above average. Overall, Janish has a +12 UZR at shortstop that is supported, much like Cabrera, by a strong defensive reputation.

If Janish puts up a .260/.330/.350 line, as I think he will, he’ll need to be about a +5 SS to be an average player. This may be a slightly optimistic prediction, but there’s a very good chance that Janish will be close enough to league average that he would outplay Cabrera over a full season. The Reds should be able to find a Craig Counsell-type player to back up Janish for peanuts. Between Janish and that backup, the Reds should easily be able to replicated the production they got from the shortstop position last season at a fraction of the cost.