After trade talks regarding Brandon Phillips failed to drum up even a modicum of interest –thanks to being owed $50 million over the next four years, of course — the Reds return the exact same starting unit on a position-by-position basis that dominated playing time for the club during the 2013 season.
That isn’t necessarily a good thing, however. For all the grief and guff Joey Votto took from people over his RBI totals, he was the sole survivor in an infield full of offensive disappointments.
By position, here’s how the Reds ranked by wOBA in the infield in 2013:
First Base – .394 (2nd)
Second Base- .292 (22nd)
Third Base- .310 (13th)
Shortstop- .278 (22nd)
Catcher- .274 (25th)
There’s plenty of room for improvement, as you’ll see below. Mesoraco should still have some projectability in his bat, and it isn’t as though Frazier or Phillips have never had good offensive seasons in their careers. The whole unit just sort of toppled at the same time.
Catcher – Devin Mesoraco (.246/.308/.410 | .312 wOBA via 2014 Steamer projection)
Mesoraco has about a full season worth of plate appearances under his belt, and the results haven’t been pretty, as the 25 year old catcher has hit just .225/.282/.359. Still, most projection systems forecast Mesoraco to show a bit more power — possibly 15-20 home run type pop — with a wOBA in the .305-.315 range. NL catchers as a whole hit .246/.308/.383 in 2013, and Steamer forecasts Mesoraco to do exactly that with a bit more pop. A ‘slightly better than league average catcher’ is still not necessarily one who is a fantasy asset, however. The power numbers could be useful — only three NL catchers hit 20 home runs last year (Brian McCann/Evan Gattis/Wilin Rosario — but the low batting average and possibly low runs and RBI numbers may make him prohibitive even in relatively deep leagues. There is some growth potential here.
First Base – Joey Votto (.296/.424/.507 | .400 wOBA via 2014 Steamer projection)
The 2013 season was Votto’s third in the past four in which he posted a WAR of +6.0 or better, and in the season he didn’t — 5.6 in 2012 — he was limited to just 111 games played. It wasn’t completely business as usual for the Canadian first baseman last year, however. Votto’s ISO dropped nearly 50 points, bringing his wOBA down to .400 (the horror!) and his slugging down beneath .500 for the first time in his career. And then there were the RBI issues, as he drove in just 73 runs despite playing in every single game and scoring 101. The answer seems pretty simple: the teammates were the problem. Nobody else in the infield had a particularly good season, with the possible exception of Todd Frazier (given his production relative to other third basemen). The lower slugging percentage is something to keep an eye on, as Votto had just 30 doubles which no doubt played a large part. Ultimately, Votto is still a monster who is returning to the same infield group he played with all last year. Depending on your league type, that could be a good or a bad thing. My take? I love Votto in linear weights leagues, and simply like him a lot in 5x5s and the like.
Second Base – Brandon Phillips (.266/.317/.408 | .307 wOBA via 2014 Steamer projection)
It’s not a Ryan Howard situation by any means, but the Reds can’t be super thrilled about owing Phillips $50 million over the next four years. Granted, last year was Phillips’ first ‘dud’ of a season — .307 wOBA — and if a WAR of +2.6 is a dud, then quality second basemen are few and far between. The more troubling thing about Phillips’ situation is he’s signed for his ages 33-36 seasons, and is already displaying some signs of a decline (ISO down, strikeout spike, steals flatlining). Phillips is quite likely the fuel to the “Votto should drive more runs in!” fire, as the second sacker somehow managed to drive in over 100 runs despite a sub .400 slugging percentage and an OBP of just .310. Well, it should come as no surprise that Votto batted third 161 times last year, while Phillips batted cleanup on 127 occasions. That means Phillips was the benefactor of batting behind two .400 OBP guys (Shin-Soo Choo, also) in addition to the home run power he showed. That accounts for 64 of his RBI from last year. In fact, according to Baseball Reference, the average batter with 666 plate appearances would have 69 RBI, and 397 runners on base. For Phillips, those numbers were 103 and 492. Even before considering that a new manager might move Phillips down the order, this looks like a recipe for regression disaster. He should still be a fantasy asset at a weak position, but don’t overdraft him based on last year’s numbers.
Third Base – Todd Frazier (.245/.316/.431 | .326 wOBA via 2014 Steamer projection)
Frazier posted almost identical 5×5 numbers in 2013 as he had in the previous season. Unfortunately, those numbers came in 150 games (rather than 128) and 600 PA (465). So, while 19 home runs (10th among all 3B), 63 runs (11th), and 73 RBI (10th) are all decent figures, they represented no improvement from the previous year while batting average (.273 -> .234), OBP (.331-> .314), and SLG (.498 -> .407) all took pretty big hits. Steamer and Oliver each forecast a rebound of about halfway between his .319 wOBA in 2013 and his .354 in 2012, while the fans have taken a more optimistic approach (.341). Given a full season of this type of production, Frazier should be among the 6-8 best third basemen fantasy-wise in my view, with potential to skew higher in traditional leagues and lower in linear weights.
Shortstop – Zack Cozart (.251/.294/.390 | .299 wOBA via 2014 Steamer projection)
At the risk of being unnecessarily brief, here’s the lowdown on Cozart. He has decent pop (29 homers, .141 ISO in 1256 big league PA), but on the whole he’s an offensive zero and a defensive hero. In a deep 5×5 he could have some low-end shortstop value, but that’s about it.
Top Corner Backup – Jack Hannahan (.227/.305/.342 | .289 wOBA via 2014 Steamer projection)
Before Schumaker was Hannahan in the annals of the Reds giving out possibly dubious multi-year deals to utility guys. The Minnesota native has long been a solid defensive third baseman, but has never shown much at all with the stick across parts of seven big league seasons with the Tigers, A’s, Mariners, Indians, and now Reds. In a weird contract quirk, Hannahan made $1 million last year, and will again this year. The club option on him for 2015 is $4 million — more than he’s made in his entire career to-date — with a $2 million buyout (the same amount of his ‘13-’14 salaries. Anyway, Hannahan will be the top corner backup and can be safely ignored.
Top Middle Backup – Skip Schumaker (.258/.321/.343 | .296 wOBA via 2014 Steamer projection)
It should scare you that Schumaker, a notoriously punchless hitter, has the highest projected wOBA of this entire bench group. On the surface Schumaker could pass for OK with his career .285/.344/.372 batting line, but the trouble is that line doesn’t carry him well as he plays a decent share of power positions in addition to second base, which he randomly picked up as a 29-year-old with the Cardinals in 2009. Schumaker is what you’d get if you took Nick Punto, removed all defensive value as well as the ability to play short, and gave him a multi-year deal. Avert your eyes.
Backup Catcher – Brayan Pena (.258/.297/.376 | .295 wOBA via 2014 Steamer projection)
Pena can’t hit a lick — though he was OK in 2013 — and most likely won’t hold a candle to Ryan Hanigan behind the plate, but as a backup catcher he’s simply ‘good enough.’ He’d represent a pretty severe downgrade from even Mesoraco if pressed into duty.