What Should the Reds Do With Left Field?

The Reds entered the off-season with two possible paths forward:

1. Trade Joey Votto for a bushel of young players and accept a consolidation while breaking in the foundation of their next core group of everyday players.

2. Trade some of those young players for roster upgrades in an effort to win while they have Votto under contract.

They choose the second path, shipping Yonder Alonso and friends to San Diego for Mat Latos, sending Travis Wood to Chicago for Sean Marshall, and then using most of their remaining budget allowance to sign Ryan Madson to a one-year deal to take over as the team’s closer. While Latos offers both present and future value, the other moves only upgrade Cincinnati’s roster for 2012, and next winter, they’ll have a tough time retaining Madson, Marshall, and Brandon Phillips while also paying Votto the significant raise that his contract calls for.

So, the Reds are something close to being all-in on this season. If they win, they might create enough extra revenue to give Votto a long-term mega-contract and keep their franchise player. If they don’t win, however, then they’re going to have a hard time selling Votto on re-signing, and they’ll have to explore moving him before he can leave via free agency. That’s not a good scenario, and so the Reds should be highly motivated to maximize their positive outcomes in 2012.

They’ve done well so far, but while the roster is almost done, they still have a pretty glaring need in the outfield. Their 40-man roster currently only contains four outfielders, and one of those is Denis Phipps, a 26-year-old who spent most of last season at Double-A. Not only do they lack depth behind projected starters Jay Bruce, Drew Stubbs, and Chris Heisey, there’s a good case to be made that they should be looking to get better production in left field than what Heisey could give them.

Heisey has some positive attributes – most notably his power and athleticism, which translates into solid defense in left field – but he’s also got some notable flaws. The most obvious thing holding him back is his contact rate (72.3% for his career), which is among the worst in baseball. The only players who got 500+ plate appearances in the Majors and made contact less often than that last year were Mark Reynolds, Miguel Olivo, Mike Stanton, Ryan Howard, Carlos Pena, Kelly Johnson, and Corey Hart. Now, that seems like a pretty decent list of comparable players, but they all (besides Olivo, who is a catcher) do something Heisey doesn’t do – draw walks.

Heisey has drawn just 31 unintentional walks in 534 big league plate appearances, and he didn’t walk much in the minors either. Heisey’s a swinger who is not overly interested in the free pass, and when you combine that with an inability to put the bat on the ball, you can have some problems at the plate. Heisey’s career .316 OBP shows how this approach can be a real liability, but there might be reasons to believe that he would struggle to post something even that high in a regular role.

Part of Heisey’s ability to hit for power is that his swing is geared to just hit a monstrous amount of fly balls. In fact, only 33.1% of his career balls in play have been hit on the ground, putting him squarely among the most extreme fly-ball hitters in all of baseball. The trade-off for gaining power by upper-cutting everything is that fly balls that don’t go over the wall are usually caught by an outfielder, and so extreme fly-ball hitters usually post a lower than normal batting average on balls in play.

To show the magnitude of this effect, I pulled in the BABIP totals for all qualified batters since 2002, giving us a sample of 552 batters. As a group, these guys posted a .302 BABIP, six points above the league average of .296 over that time frame. However, if we just isolate the lowest decile of players in GB%, we see that these guys posted just a .289 BABIP, thanks in large part to their 33.2% GB%. They traded homers for singles, which isn’t a bad trade-off, but it is a cost associated with that strategy.

Heisey’s career BABIP of .295 might look perfectly normal, but based on his approach at the plate, we should expect him to post a below average BABIP – perhaps something closer to .280 or so. If his BABIP falls, his OBP will sink down to levels that offset a good deal of the value that his glove and power bring to the table. Heisey projects as a really nice fourth outfielder, but with the Reds in full-on win-now mode, they should look to get more than what he’ll offer in left field.

So, what are the options? Heisey’s presence as a right-handed hitter with power (ignore his reverse platoon splits – they’re meaningless in this kind of sample) create a natural opportunity for a platoon in left field, giving the Reds the chance to acquire a guy who can hit RHPs but could use regular days off when a southpaw is on the hill. And, because they are running low on cash after signing Madson, they could use a player who doesn’t come with a big salary.

Lucky for them, that exact player is on the market – the Colorado Rockies have been shopping Seth Smith all winter, and after their signing of Michael Cuddyer, he’s lost his chance to play regularly in Denver. His projected salary of around $2 million via arbitration fits into the Reds’ budget, and Smith could thrive as a platoon player in Cincinnati.

Last year, Smith posted a sad wRC+ of 46 against left-handed pitching, making him about as effective at the plate as Tony Gwynn Jr. Against right-handers, however, Smith’s wRC+ of 130 put him in the same company as guys like Josh Hamilton. It wasn’t a one-year fluke, either – he’s run a 125/47 wRC+ split over his career. He can hit right-handed pitching, but he’s pretty terrible against southpaws.

By platooning Smith and Heisey, the team could maximize the value they get from their new outfield while still allowing Heisey to remain a decent contributor in a limited role. Heisey would also then be freed up to give Stubbs occasional days off in center field, and the Reds would acquire needed depth in the process.

It might cost them a guy like Todd Frazier, but the Reds have committed to trying to win in 2012, and Smith would push them forward in a pretty significant way. They’ve already sacrificed a good deal of future value in an effort to win in 2012, and they shouldn’t undermine those efforts by stopping just short of putting a frontline roster on the field.

Smith needs a new home. The Reds need a left fielder. Strike a deal, boys.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


61 Responses to “What Should the Reds Do With Left Field?”

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  1. Brian says:

    If I’m the Mets, I offer Jason Bay to them for a bag of scuffed balls.

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  2. lexomatic says:

    After checking Heisey’s splits, he’s absolutely horrible vs LHP, hitting .180 in 150 AB. Maybe he has some history in the minors of lefty-mashing, but considering he so far has his major-league RHP better, it doesn’t seem like Heisey’s a platoon option.

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      Reverse platoon splits are almost never real. In the kind of sample we’re talking about, the information is basically useless. There’s no reason to believe that Heisey can’t hit lefties.

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      • wobatus says:

        OK, I’m a slow learner but getting so that I can anticpate the proper responses.

        Agreed the reverse platoon split, especially given the sample, isn’t telling us much. I also agree that Smith might be a pretty good pick up.

        I wouldn’t make it a strict platoon, and give Heisey some of the at bats against righties. While a reverse split isn’t likely, he has hit righties pretty well, and even if that comes down and balances out, he doesn’t seem to have much issue there and just starting against lefties may hold him back.

        Even with the issues with Ks and walks in the majors thus far, that’s only about a season worth of PAs by age 26. He has a bit of a chance of improving. At age 23 in high A (admittedly a bit older than a top prospect) his walk rate was 11.1% and k rate 13.4%. He sacrificed some power (.151 iso) but that may have been FSL influenced (I think that’s where Cincy’s A+ team plays. His wRC+ was 140s.

        In half season at AA at 24 his walk rate and k rate were balanced, 10.8%/10.8%, with no power let up (.225 iso). wRC+ 182.

        I wouldn’t expect that in the majors at 27-28, but he might approach it if he improves, and basically we’re talking about a guy just starting his second full major league season based on his career PAs. And even dismissing reverese platoon splits, the majority of his PAs have been against righties and there he’s at a .288/.346/.539 clip. With good d and speed (Smith seems like he is ok in the field, has actually some good uzr years, and he doesn’t seem especially slow), I wouldn’t want him just getting, what would it be, 1/4 or so of LF plate appearances.

        He’s probably the player you describe, but he might get a little better.

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      • Dave S says:

        I had my doubts about Heisey, because he had such severe reverse platoon splits in two consecutive MLB seasons (admittedly, limited playing time). I finally found a site with minor league splits.

        Heisey crushed lefties in the minors (whenever he got more than 20 ABs vs them).

        http://mlsplits.drivelinebaseball.com/mlsplits/playerinfo/502317

        He also displayed markedly lower K rates against them in the minors (vs his bad K rates against RHP). So, I’d like to see him get a chance to play full time, just to see what he could do.

        But it certainly makes a lot of sense for CIN to mitigate their risk and bring in someone like Smith. Especially as they seem “all in” this year.

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      • wobatus says:

        Dave S., I looked for the minor league splits info, so thanks.

        Also, like I said, slow learner, but i guess I was cherry-picking his good walk/k seasons. His career minor league walk rate was 8.46% and k rate 14%. In AAA (about only a half season spread over 3 years) it was 5.6% bb rate (ugh) and 19% k rate.

        His career walk rate in the minors seems in line with the majors with a slight falloff to be expected. Looks like he could lower the k rate a tad, which may mean sacrificing some power but may be just cutting down on the uppercut with 2 strikes. It seems like he decided to go for the power as he progressed, but in 2008-9 in A+ and AA it looked like he both had walk rate and k rate balanced roughly with power. he may have that extra tad of development left at the major league level.

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      • baty says:

        Out of curiosity. How often do teams really rely on a true platoon? And does it ever have legitimate success? Platoons always look really nice on paper, but do true starting position platoons work?

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      • Dave S says:

        Heisey
        vs LHP in minors (all levels):
        510 PA’s. .339/.407/.506

        vs RHP in minors (all levels):
        1489 PAs .285/.336/.446

        He struck out in 10% of PAs vs LHP, 16% of PAs vs RHP.

        His MLB performance vs RHP is right in line with his minor league stats. He just fell off the face of the Earth vs LHP… while he was a legit lefty masher in the minors.

        Whats up with that? Is it all just SSS?

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      • JDanger says:

        Platoons always look really nice on paper, but do true starting position platoons work?

        This question sort of confuses me. Do they work? Right handed hitters hit better against lefties and left handed hitters hit better against righties, so why wouldn’t a platoon ‘work’?

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    • tsinor says:

      Don’t stomp on the dream with facts..That’s sarcasm folks.

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  3. Resolution says:

    would Smith for Bailey be an overpay on the Reds’ part?

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    • Eminor3rd says:

      I’d think so.

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      • Eminor3rd says:

        I’d try to send a guy like Gregorious and a live arm. Maybe I value Smith less than most though.

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      • Resolution says:

        I’m leaning towards that too, though part of me thinks they’re not too far off in value. The Rockies have expressed an interest in adding pitching (or fixing their crappy 2b situation). Between Blackmon, Wheeler, and Colvin in the OF and Arenado, Chris Nelson, and Casey Blake, I don’t see how Frazier really fits in…

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  4. tsinor says:

    A better option than Smith, might be Parra of Arizona since they signed Kubel.

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  5. Eminor3rd says:

    Should the Reds have been in on Quentin? I know his defense is bad, but you could late inning replace him with Heisey, and his bat is for real against LHP and RHP. Didn’t end up costing much either.

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  6. d_i says:

    Perhaps out of the price range, but it seems Kubel would have made more sense in Cincy than Arizona.

    2012 Reds = 2011 Brewers.

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  7. steven says:

    Rick Ankiel?

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  8. GlennBraggsSwingAndMissBrokenBat says:

    Unfortunately, the Reds are scouring the Ludwicks and Ankiels of the world. I tend to agree that Heisey’s splits are an aberration, but I’m not sure the Reds agree.

    I think Smith would be a great solution and though most of the big trade chips are gone, they still have plenty to get him.

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    • chuckb says:

      They’re former Cards, ala Jocketty.

      If reverse splits are the reason, they won’t like Ludwick either, who also has reverse splits for his career.

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  9. MC says:

    Johnny Damon should come cheap.

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    • GregD says:

      I wouldn’t sign Damon with an NL team.

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      • Robbie G. says:

        Why not? Dude will come cheap, especially if he believes that he will be an every day player (which is a must in his quest for 3,000 career hits); he’s durable; he’s considered to have tremendous “intangibles;” he can be presented to the fan base (and to his teammates, as well, I suppose) as a “veteran leader with championship experience.” He’s going to be league average, at best, in LF, but if he’s willing to sign a one-year deal for, say, $2-$3 mil, he’s highly likely to earn his contract.

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      • GregD says:

        Why not? I don’t feel he is a viable option in left field any more. He was “average at best” 2 years ago, and has played very little LF in the past 2 seasons. Last year 11 of 144 starts were in the outfield. The other 133 were at DH.

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  10. Brad Johnson says:

    Quick question, if the sample BABIP is .289 and they have the same GB% as Heisey, why should we expect Heisey to get 9% fewer hits on balls in play. I mean we’re talking about basically 1 hit per 100 balls in play, but I’m curious to see why you chose .280 over .289.

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    • bstar says:

      And is quibbling over 10 points of BABIP really worth the effort? A couple of bloop hits here and a few line drives that hit the chalk there and you’ve got your 10 points.

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  11. colin says:

    As another commenter mentioned, I think Heisey could be better than we’ve seen, but I’m mostly banking on the fact that he has had a large number of pinch hitting appearances and irregular starts. There may be something to the idea that by giving him more regular run he will perform better.

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  12. Billion Memes says:

    I think a traditional platoon setup could improve so many teams and is extremely under utilized as a strategy to improve team weaknesses. I hear proposals all the time where teams could improve production at a postion by employing a cost effective platoon yet in reality few teams seem to employ the platoon anymore. I’d love to see a study of the evolution of certain in-game and team building strategies employed throughout the years. Platoon usage would definitely be one I am interested in.

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    • RoastBeefKazenzakis says:

      I think one reason for the reduction in platoons is the expansion in pitching staffs. Since the 1980’s, platooning hitters has been replaced by platooning relief pitchers. LOOGYs have done 2 things to inhibit batting platoons – they have reduced the number of hitters on each team (it is now typically 13, where teams used to carry 15 or 16), and made platoon hitters less effective, as the opposing manager will simply sub in a “wrong handed” pitcher.

      Of course, platoons were underused in the 1980’s and earlier, so that isn’t the only reason.

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      • wobatus says:

        Yup.

        One of the great teams of all time, the ’86 Mets, used a couple of true platoons and about 4 semi-platoons.

        Backman/Teufel at 2b. Teufel 70 starts as a righty, Backman 92 mostly batting lefty as a switch-hitter. Teufel got a few starts against righties it seems.

        Dykstra/Mookie Wilson in cf. Wilson 53 starts in center batting righty as a switch-hitter, Dykstra 100 starts batting left.

        Mookie also got 27 starts in left field, this time mostly batting lefty, platooning with the corpse of George Foster (or maybe mostly that was after Foster went to the Chisox). Foster got 62 starts in left. Kevin Mitchell got 26 starts in left also, batting righty. Danny Heep got 39 starts in left, batting lefty.

        Ray Knight wasn’t really platooned at 3b, as he started 130 games batting right. Hojo started 29 games at 3b as a switch batting left. Mitchell started 3 games at 3b. So Knight wasn’t platooned, but he got a lot of rest, more than a regular normally would (maybe he got injured; I know he started a big fight with his old team, the Reds that year).

        Something that really jars my memory, Kevin Mitchell also started 20 games at ss. And Hojo started 22 games at ss. Rafael santana started 111 games.

        That’s 3 straightforward platoons and 2 other semi-platoons (but not strictly lefty/righty), with 3 guys platooning at 2 spots (Mitchell at lf and ss, smattering at 3b, where he started for Giants most of one season, Hojo at 3b and ss, and Mookie in cf and lf). Three switch-hitters (Backman, Wilson and Hojo). Nine guys altogether, and once Foster left, 8 of them pretty good at their jobs that year (Backman, Teufel, Heep, Wilson, Dykstra, Mitchell, Hojo, Knight). Hojo, Mitchell and Dykstra had much better career years ahead, Teufel also had a great year in ’87 or ’88 as a platoon guy.

        Extremely versatile team, and what talent, especially when you realize Strawberry, Hernandez and Carter were the stars, along with the starting staff, Gooden, Darling, Ojeda and El Squid Sid Hernandez (before Cone was on the scene and his big ’88).

        Bit of an underachieving team considering, with Gooden and Straw and some of field issues, although with Doc I think his arm got royally abused young. I think he pitched more innings when he was 20 in his second season in ’85 than any pitcher other than some Hough and Clemens seasons; and his k rate already fell significantly that year from his first year. I’d be doin’ coke too to forget about my aching arm. So sad to hear he was coked up for the victory parade day after the world series. What a powerful drug.

        The real downfall of that team was maybe dumping Dykstra for Samuel and getting rid of Mitchell on top of the early fade for the stars.

        Davey Johnson loved to platoon. A real proto-sabr manager in the Earl Weaver walks and power mold (and played for Earl).

        The Johnson Mets had quite arun, if only 1 world series.

        1984 6 1/2 games back of Cubs in 2nd, but Cubs pythag. record was only 1 game better than Mets record (who actually were sub 500 in pythag that year).

        1985 Mets, 2nd to Cards, but better phythag.

        1986 1st by wide margin and ws.

        1987 2nd to cards but better pythag.

        1988 1st by wide margin and probably best team, lost to Dodgers.

        1989 2d to Cubs, but better pythag.

        1990 2nd to Pirates but better pythag.

        Six years in a row with best pythag in a tough NL east that had some quite good Cards and Cubs teams and Pirates later on.

        Excuse this Mets fan while I go cry. Eh, who am i kidding. 2006-2008 wasn’t all long ago or all that bad. Nor 1999-2001. Beats the hell outta 1974-1983.

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      • bstar says:

        wobatus, nice retelling of those Mets years. They were certainly the team to beat in the NL over that period. When you list their season finish, you put a lot of ‘but better pythag’s in there. Doesnt underperforming your pythag imply that you might have underachieved? If so, were all those platoon splits that effective?
        If I’ve misunderstood what you said, my apologies.

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      • Wobatus says:

        Bstar, I went a little off-topic in that ramble. But basically the Davey Johnson Mets saw a lot of platooning. They did quite well with that strategy overall. Maybe they underachieved, but I doubt that was due to platooning, and the fact they had better pythag records yet finished behind cards, cubs and pirates is likely mostly random. They consistently won 90+ games, their opponents outperformed their own pythags, but Johnson always put out the best team to put them into position to win (with the players Cashen et al provided him).

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    • Baltar says:

      You provide some real food for thought.
      I don’t have any facts to support it, but I am under the impression that teams do not platoon nearly enough.
      Part of “conventional wisdom” seems to be that it’s better to have one player play a position every day. As in all things, a manager who bucks conventional wisdom takes a risk.
      The Rockies in particular adopted a plan last offseason to stop platooning, and that exposed the weaknesses of players such as Smith and Stewart. Yet, I am not aware that their management took any heat for that decision.

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    • Matt says:

      Platoons are tricky in today’s world of 12-man, and occasionally 13-man, pitching staffs. Your team barely has enough subs on offense as is, and in the NL you need some guys to pinch hit for the pitchers . . . all of which means teams would undoubtedly prefer regulars over platoons.

      There are also all kinds of logistical reasons why a strict platoon is not as easy as it seems. The two players in the platoon will often have such different skill sets (e.g. defense, speed, stealing ability) that there’s a lot to consider before you yank player A for player B because the opposition changed the handedness of its pitcher.

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  13. VagabondBansal says:

    The Jays have some expendable LH OF. Both Thames and Snider probably could be had for the right price. Do you think they would fit with the Reds?

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    • SC2GG says:

      For the Jays, in any deal with the Reds, the right price is probably Votto. Toronto will wait until halfway through the season when the Reds are underperforming and looking to cut costs and start the rebuild process, and then they’ll make a deal.

      That’s the plan, anyway. Now, the Reds just have to play along…

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    • M W says:

      Neither player fits the proven vet / clubhouse leader that Jocketty is currently seeking.

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  14. KMiB says:

    I’d rather go for Damon than Smith…they’ve already liquidated too much of the farm for another trade.

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  15. Shankbone says:

    Cody Ross seems ideal to me. Pretty cheap, platoon him with Heisey, he can play all the OF positions for depth behind Bruce and Stubbs, and he mashes lefties while Heisey doesn’t.

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    • GregD says:

      Following the minor league split link above, Heisey hit 339/418/506 against LHP in the minors and 285/357/446 against RHP (2006-2010.)

      AAA vs LHP: 310/402/507
      AA vs LHP: 372/464/574

      AAA vs RHP: 265/318/448
      AA vs RHP: 333/394/550

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      • Dave S says:

        Beat me to it. LOL

        Anyway… that suggests Dave C is correct, and that Heisey really is NOT a reverse platoon player, and that his performance vs LHP should revert to his true talent level given enough playing time.

        My suggestion then would be… let him play full time if you really believe that is true. Because he’s already proven the ability to hit RHP at a pretty good level. No real need for a platoon, unless you feel his MLB stats vs RHP are a bit of a mirage and are due for some regression.

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      • Shankbone says:

        Serves me right, I had no idea about his minor league numbers and I’m not a Reds fan, just glanced at what he’d done at the show. Cody Ross is a PROVEN lefty masher…

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  16. Scrap Irony says:

    Fukudome might make a decent second option behind Smith, if Jocketty doesn’t want to (over)pay with prospect, ready-made pitching, or cheaper alternatives:
    — As a platoon partner for Heisey, he’s less likely to wear down in June
    — His glove should play well in LF, as he’s a plus glove in RF (according to UZR)
    — In a pinch, he’s a… serviceable third CF option
    — A career 344 wOBA v. RH pitching
    — Fukudome isn’t allergic to BBs and, batting in front of Votto and Bruce, would allow Stubbs to bat lower in the order, keeping his anemic obp down where it’s more acceptable (sixth/ seventh in in the order)
    — Too, as Heisey hits RH well, this may also allow Baker to sit Stubbs against the tough ones (y’know, those that throw any kind of breaking ball at all) in order to play an OF of Fukudome, Heisey, and Bruce

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    • GregD says:

      IMHO, I’d rather sign Fukudome (of course, it’s not my money and I don’t know what his asking rate is today) than trade prospect(s) for Seth Smith.

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  17. Robbie G. says:

    Johnny Damon?

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  18. GregD says:

    I’d consider Todd Frazier an OF option, and list their OF depth chart on the 40-man as 5 players. Frazier played mostly 3B at AAA and the majors last year, but spent most of his time in LF in 2009-2001.

    Bruce-Stubbs-Heisey. Then Frazier, and Phipps.

    Still, I agree that there is no depth there, and they’re in a jam at first sign of injury or if Heisey wouldn’t work out. But, I’d make a play at LHB Fukudome in the FA market before trading Frazier for Smith.

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  19. Duckster says:

    Heisey could be a perfect replacement for Stubbs if we can land Smith for left field. Stubby trying to break his strike out record this year is not something I’m looking forward to.

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    • Matt says:

      Exactly. This article, from the beginning, seems to ignore that the weakest OFer in Cincy may in fact be Drew Stubbs and not Chris Heisey. Stubbs has speed and a great glove . . . which screams 4th OFer to me, no? Great guy to come in to pinch run and then play D when you are ahead, spot start here and there, or fill in while someone is on the DL.

      At least on my team, Chris Heisey starts over Drew Stubbs.

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    • Joel says:

      Heisey is basically Stubbs before he was exposed. Here are the two players through their first 534 big league PA, which is how many Heisey has now:
      Stubbs – .250/.316/.429, 13-2B, 5-3B, 21 HR, 46 BB, 142 K, 27 SB, 7 CS
      Heisey – .254/.316/.465, 19-2B, 2-3B, 26 HR, 35 BB, 135 K, 7 SB, 2 CS

      Stubbs walked & struck out slightly more, Heisey has 17 more total bases. For all intents & purposes, they’re the same hitter. But given that Stubbs is an excellent defender in CF, I’d much rather have him than Heisey, who I think is going to start looking bad with regular playing time.

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  20. Duckster says:

    Greg, Frazier is a sub .200 hitter. Part time fill in at best.

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  21. Gregg says:

    This article is flawed.

    Chris Heisey hit .271 and 17 HR against righties. Against lefties it was another story: .197 and 1HR. Sounds like the Reds need an OF that can hit lefties.

    Would that be Seth Smith? Nope. Let’s see the stats and see who among the available outfielders are a good platoon with Heisey.

    VS LEFTIES
    Seth Smith .217 last year; .213 over the last 3yrs.
    Ankiel – .228 last year; .215 over the last 3 yrs.
    Ludwick – .264 last year; .241 over the last 3 yrs.
    Juan Pierre – .329 last year; .314 over the last 3 yrs.
    Fukudome – .262 last year; .238 over the last 3 yrs.
    Cody Ross – .234 last year; .272 over the last 3 yrs.
    Todd Frazier – .360 last year in 25 AB; no record over 3 yrs.

    The only one who is consistent against lefties and would make a good platoon with Heisey is Juan Pierre. Plus he might be able to lead off which the Reds could use,.

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  22. nolan says:

    I think they should sign Ryan Ludwick to play left field!

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