Choo Will Man Center Field in Cicinnati
The Cincinnati front office has been busy this offseason. After retaining services of Jonathan Broxton and Ryan Ludwick they still had the most glaring concern remaining: to upgrade their leadoff hitter. That was laid to rest Monday by bringing in Shin-Soo Choo and utility infielder Jason Donald from Cleveland in exchange for Drew Stubbs and Didi Gregorius.
It’s only December and the Cincinnati front office has already checked off all high-priority items on their offseason to-do list. Re-signing closer Jonathan Broxton releases Aroldis Chapman to go into the rotation. Re-signing Ryan Ludwick will keep the veteran left fielder’s bat at cleanup.
After those two deals the glaring weakness of needing to upgrade their leadoff hitter still remained. There were various speculations of attempts to bring in free agents like Angel Pagan, Juan Pierre or Shane Victorino or cutting a deal for Dexter Fowler or Denard Span. Just when it appeared the market was drying up from dealings of other teams, the Reds went off the radar and landed Cleveland’s Shin-soo Choo.
Choo will move southward down I75 with teammate Jason Donald and some cash in exchange for Drew Stubbs and top Reds infield prospect Didi Gregorius. The Redlegs can expect to see Gregorius again this season because the Tribe flipped him in another deal to bring in three right-handed pitchers from Arizona including stud prospect Trevor Bauer.
Over the Reds’ successful 2012 campaign much attention was brought to their anemic production from the leadoff spot. The first stat one looks at for leadoff candidates is on-base percentage and Choo has finished in the top ten of the AL in that category the past three seasons. He also has some pop in his bat and hit twenty home runs twice. In 2012 the 30 year-old Korean put up a stat line of .283 AVG/.372 OB%/.441 SLG/16 HR/67 RBI. His best season was in 2010 when he finished at .300/.401/.484/20/90 and was fourteenth in AL MVP voting. It would be no surprise to see his numbers approach those levels again when he moves from Progressive Field to play half his games at Great American Ball Park. Lifetime he’s hit four home runs in nine games played on the Reds’ home field.
One reason Choo was off the radar was that virtually all of his MLB experience has been in right field. Much of that was caused by the presence of gold-glover Grady Sizemore on the Indians’ roster. Last season the position was manned by 25 year-old Michael Brantley, one of their trade returns from C.C. Sabathia and a young player they are counting on as they rebuild from a 98-loss 2012. Cincinnati must have felt comfortable that Choo has the range to make the transition to center. Though he won’t have the speed of Stubbs he does have a strong arm and the Reds’ ballpark has less real estate to patrol. Choo has made only ten errors in 381 games playing in the corner the last three years so a huge fall-off from his defense in the outfield is anything but a foregone conclusion. Besides, the Reds can let a few extra balls find grass in return for a leadoff hitter with a lifetime OB% that is almost 20% higher. That will produce almost one more base-runner every other game on average and Cincinnati has the bats to advance said runner when he does reach.
Choo is able to help that advancement himself too. He’s hit fourteen or more homers in four of the past five seasons and last season had 43 doubles. He’s swiped over twenty bases three times and has a lifetime success rate over 75%. Stolen bases are not often a big part of manager Dusty Baker’s game plan so the Reds were fourteenth out of sixteen NL teams with only 87 SB in 2012. Even the speedy Stubbs averaged only 33 while playing as a regular the past three years. As fast as he was, he was never able to steal first. Choo and Brandon Phillips will provide decent speed at the top of a lineup that will rely on the bats of Joey Votto, Ludwick, and Jay Bruce to plate runs from the middle.
Choo is in the final year of his contract and arbitration eligible after making $4.9M in 2012. Reports of the cash received by the Reds in the transaction are around $3.5M. Stubbs is arbitration eligible after making over $500k in 2012. Long term the Reds have their sights set on moving top prospect Billy Hamilton into their leadoff spot. The 22 year-old is still at least one year away from being MLB-ready and will spend another season in the minors working on his defensive skills in the outfield after being converted from shortstop.
Another area the Reds needed to address was for utility infielders because aging veterans Miguel Cairo and Wilson Valdez both filed for free agency after disappointing seasons. No doubt that Donald will have an inside track on one of those spots. The 28 year-old has a lifetime average of .257/.306 OB in around 600 plate appearances over the past three seasons. He did manage to finish at .318/.364 across 143 PA in 2011. Defensively nearly all of his action has been in the middle infield. He’ll never get much consideration for a gold glove at shortstop, but the Reds already have someone returning to the position who was a finalist in his rookie season. Before the trade, the top two utiilityman candidates were rookies Gregorius and Henry Rodriguez and neither one of them have any MLB experience except a cup of coffee as expansion call-ups this season. Actually both of them started 2012 in AA and played in only around 50 games each in AAA. Donald’s experience makes him a welcomed addition to their bench.
The Reds pipeline took a hit in the middle infield when they lost Gregorius, but it was a vote of confidence that Zach Cozart deserved. Though he doesn’t have the athleticism to make the highlight play that Gregorius possesses, he’s more consistent on the routine ones. Both would benefit by improving plate discipline at this stage of their careers, but offensively Cozart has now been converted from a sub-.300 OB at the top of the lineup to a fifteen- HR man in the bottom while Gregorius doesn’t project as having plus power for a middle infielder. Besides, the Cozart expects to be the first Reds shortstop to start consecutive opening days since hall of famer Barry Larkin and brings some long overdue stability to that revolving door position.
Closer….check. Left-field/cleanup....check….Leadoff/center field…..check. Utility infielder....check. Santa is not the only one checking his list twice right now. The Reds offense was lackluster for much of last season and finished around the middle of the NL pack in runs scored. Their success came from the strength of one of the top pitching staffs in the league. Those arms were a nice surprise for Reds fans and could be considered as over-achieving. If so, then even though they should still be very good in 2014, it might be a bit much to ask them to duplicate the same level of success. Now, at least on paper, they have an offensive that can keep them in games if the rotation comes out flat. A more balanced team will be able to find more ways to win. Winning 97 again won’t be an easy task, but the Reds’ management isn’t relying on status quo to get it done. There’s room at the top, but not enough to sit down. Looking at the damage that Reds GM Walt Jocketty has done to his to-do list, no one can accuse him of doing that this offseason.