The Reds are three games up in the National League Central, despite the fact that they have been below average in more areas than they have been above average this season, but between adjustments (installing Todd Frazier as the everyday third baseman) and a scarcity of available upgrades at certain positions (it would be difficult to find a shortstop substantially better than Zack Cozart) the number of areas that Cincinnati can make impactful upgrades to shrinks quickly. It would be nice if the Reds could acquire another starting pitcher, but while Reds’ starters have been short on star power, they have been solid across the board and a upgrade there may be tough to find. Given how well their bullpen has pitched, they may be fine if Mat Latos improves. That leaves two troublesome areas — center field and left field. If they want to be more than a one and done postseason team, they will need to upgrade at these two spots.
Drew Stubbs has been the Reds’ primary center fielder since breaking through to the Majors in August of 2009. He has combined neutral defense with good power, plus speed and poor contact skills. But after a promising first full season in which he hit 22 homers, stole 30 bases and compiled a 110 wRC+, he has gone downhill. Overall, his performance is just not cutting it this year, and now he is hampered by an oblique injury to boot. His cranky oblique aside, Stubbs has been the least valuable qualified center fielder in the game this year.
Stubbs has always had a high BABIP, but his current .297 mark doesn’t exactly paint him as incredible unfortunate. He still has power to spare, as he possesses a 17.5% HR/FB, but since his FB% is at a career-low, his ISO is a relatively paltry .137. Compare that to a .189 ISO in 2010, and you can see that Stubbs has moved away from what made his game so valuable in the first place. Of course, the three true outcomes approach only works if you are good at taking a walk. In 2010 and ’11, Stubbs’ BB% was above league average, but this year it has fallen to league average. The margins are small because of the sample size, but he is still trending downward. This is an effect of seeing fewer pitches per plate appearance:
He is now seeing a below average number of pitches per PA, and the approach has hurt his productivity, perhaps in an effort to seem more like a “traditional” two-hole hitter. Or perhaps it’s been in an effort to cut down on his strike outs, which were never a problem to begin with — there are many ways to skin a cat, and a 110 wRC+ from a center fielder is incredibly valuable no matter how many times you strike out. Unfortunately, one with a wRC+ of 94 (his mark in ’11) or 87 (his mark this season) is much less so. If Stubbs was able to revert back to his old approach, he would likely regain that value, but that is a tall order in the middle of the season.
Still, even if he was able to come back to form, the Reds would want to consider a switch, as Stubbs has not hit right-handed pitching at all the past two seasons. In 2010, he did just fine against righties, compiling a 103 wRC+, but that mark has gone sharply downhill since. Since the start of 2011, his 73 wRC+ against right-handed pitching is tied for last among qualified center fielders with Alex Rios. If the Reds want to win this year, Stubbs needs to be reduced to a platoon/defensive replacement role.
And while center fielders are generally at a premium, there may be a decent number of them available this trade season. The Rockies have never been in love with Dexter Fowler, and the return to form by Tyler Colvin may make Fowler expendable if the right offer comes along. Similarly, Trevor Plouffe’s breakout may help coerce the Twins into parting with either Denard Span or Ben Revere. Other possibilities could include Gerardo Parra, B.J. Upton or Shane Victorino. The latter two have little reason to be traded, as the Rays are in the hunt and the Phillies need to try to stay in it, but for the right offer, who knows — both are free agents at the end of the season. Less sure-fire solutions from guys who are playing well at the moment include Michael Saunders and Justin Maxwell. Peter Bourjos is another name that might still end up on the market, though at this point it’s hard to see him as an upgrade over anyone for this season. Bottom line — there are solutions out there, and the right deal can turn Stubbs from a subpar starter to a great platoon partner.
Speaking of platoons, Cincy’s left-field platoon has not worked out all that well — only five teams have employed less valuable left-field units this season. The Ryan Ludwick Experiment has fared better of late — after a disastrous .190/.266/.397 April, he has hit .231/.304/.484 since — but there is a lot of room to upgrade. Among the 88 outfielders with 150 or more plate appearances, Ludwick’s .316 wOBA ranks just 61st. Unfortunately, he is the best the Reds have, as Chris Heisey’s .295 wOBA ranks 73rd. And unlike Ludwick, Heisey is not improving as the year progresses. He looked to be pulling out of his slump in May, but June has seen him slide once again, as his .07 BB/K has been one of the worst in the game this month. Heisey shouldn’t be discarded entirely, since he is cheap and controllable, but the Reds would be well served to find an upgrade over both him and Ludwick. Any plus corner bat will do, as if Heisey and Stubbs are coming off the bench, either can be used as a defensive replacement in later innings.
In Dave Cameron’s article on Monday, he identified the Reds as potential buyers, but you can see a scenario where they become clear buyers quickly. They are three games up on the competition, chief of whom is a Pirates team that could have a historically futile offense and a Cardinals team that may be vulnerable with Jaime Garcia joining Chris Carpenter on the shelf. And despite their flaws, Cincy has the fourth-best run differential in the NL. The Reds are as well positioned as anyone. They have potentially a dynamic one-two punch at the top of their rotation in Johnny Cueto and Latos, a superb bullpen, a perennial Most Valuable Player candidate in Joey Votto, and a solid core around him in Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips. If the club can make the right moves to upgrade left and center field, they could become a dangerous team this October.