The Reds, it appears, have caught a break. Last week they dropped three straight to the Cardinals, turning a two-game NL Central lead into a one-game deficit. But since then things have turned around. St. Louis lost two of three to the Cubs and then dropped the series opener to the Brewers, while the Reds swept the Marlins and took the first game against Arizona. That has put Cincinnati back on top and has put their excellent August in better view. They’re 10-4 this month and have led the division most of the way.
One change the team made this month came when Orlando Cabrera suffered a strained oblique during the team’s August 2 win against the Pirates. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. While Cabrera had rebounded from an atrocious defensive season in 2009, he was by far the team’s worst producer on offense. His .289 wOBA is not only worst among Reds with 200 PA (by 30 points), but it is also third-worst among MLB shortstops. Yet despite this abject futility, Dusty Baker continued to pencil Cabrera into the No. 1 or 2 spot in the lineup regularly.
At this point in the season the Reds cannot afford to continue playing a player as ineffective as Cabrera. They’re in a race with a team that, by most measures, has more talent than they do. That means the Reds need to catch every break possible. As Seneca said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Playing the third-worst shortstop in the league and then positioning him at the top of the order doesn’t seem like ample preparation. In fact, it seems like a detriment to the team.
The problem, of course, is finding someone who can replace Cabrera in the field and lineup while providing better production. Thankfully for the Reds, they had someone worth trying. Paul Janish, the team’s fifth-round pick in 2004, had hit well coming off the bench, a .270/.370/.413 line in 74 PA. It’s understandable why the Reds didn’t outright bench a healthy Cabrera in favor of Janish, but now that they’re getting production from the latter they owe it to the team to ride this as far as it goes. If that means benching Cabrera upon his return, that might be a necessary sacrifice.
In their pre-season 2007 rankings Baseball America had Janish as the Reds No. 9 prospect, saying that he “will go as far as his bat allows him.” That bat produced a .358 wOBA in high-A ball in 2006. Still, his best skill remained his defense. It wasn’t so much his incredible range, but as BA put it, his “nearly flawless footwork, soft hands and a plus arm.” The next year Janish fell out of the top 10, though they did rate him as having the best strike zone discipline in the system. His 12.8 percent walk rate in 2007 represented a three-point jump from his 2006 season and it came at a higher level, Double-A. A drop in power meant a lower wOBA, but the future still looked bright for young Janish.
Overall, though, Janish produced underwhelming minor league numbers. The player who had once shown promise on offense stumbled through about a full season at Triple-A, producing a .319 wOBA in his final run in 2008. By 2009 he was with the big league club, playing his expected part-time role off the bench. In 292 PA last year he produced a .275 wOBA, though he turned that into a 1.0 WAR with stellar defense. But the Reds didn’t think that was enough for him to hold a spot as a regular, so they signed Cabrera this off-season.
While Janish hit well enough in part-time duty before the Cabrera injury he has really stepped it up in his absence, going 13-for-43 (.302 AVG) with four walks (.362 OBP) and four extra base hits (.488 SLG). He has done this without the aid of a ridiculous BABIP, .292 on the season and .289 in August. This adds up to a 0.9 WAR season, which is 0.2 behind Cabrera despite having 331 fewer PA. He deserves a shot to stay in the starting lineup as long as he keeps this up.
How long will he keep it up, though? His minor league and scant major league record suggest not long. He’s had success in some regards, but nothing that suggests he can maintain a .348 wOBA for an extended stretch. But, at this point, that shouldn’t be of much consideration to the Reds. They’re in a pennant race with a tough team, and they need to find every advantage possible. If that means playing a hot-hitting Janish at the expense of Cabrera, so be it. There would be nothing worse than to remove Janish during a hot streak and replace him with the currently inferior Cabrera.