Reds need to address leadoff issue

BY Ken Rosenthal • July 12, 2012

They call it Great American Small Park, right?

A place where the gaps are close. A place where the fly balls travel far. A place where hitters go to be cured, wallowing in the baseball equivalent of chicken soup.

Well, the Cincinnati Reds’ home stadium — Great American Ballpark — isn’t any more pitcher-friendly this season. In fact, it’s the leading home run park in the majors, according to park factor, a statistic that compares the rate of stats at home with the rate of stats on the road.

Here’s the difference:

The Reds, who host the St. Louis Cardinals this weekend (MLB on FOX, Saturday, 4:05 p.m. ET), are one game back in the NL Central due to their pitching, not their hitting.

This is not a club that craves the acquisition of a Cole Hamels or Zack Greinke; the Reds made their big move for an ace in December, acquiring right-hander Mat Latos from the San Diego Padres in a blockbuster trade.

No, this is a club that needs one of two things — a leadoff hitter or a right-handed cleanup man. Brandon Phillips, while not an ideal solution in either spot, can fill one of them. But the Reds, who rank only eighth in the NL in runs, clearly require an offensive upgrade.

While it’s tempting to picture MVP front-runner Joey Votto hitting in front of the Padres’ Carlos Quentin — or even better, the Twins’ not-yet-available Josh Willingham — club officials view the addition of a leadoff man as more realistic.

But first, a word about the pitching.

As the season resumes, the Reds rank third in the NL with a 3.39 ERA, trailing only Washington and the Los Angeles Dodgers. They are slightly better on the road (first in NL) than at home (seventh). But their rotation and bullpen are almost equally strong, both placing in the top four.

The ‘pen, even with the All-Star performance of left-hander Aroldis Chapman, qualifies as a surprise — the Reds have gotten exactly four innings out of three relievers who were expected to be mainstays, right-handers Ryan Madson and Nick Masset and left-hander Bill Bray.

The rotation, in contrast, has been a picture of health, with the Reds using the same five starters all season. Right-hander Johnny Cueto is fourth in the league in ERA, while Latos, after a mostly rocky first half, has produced a 0.72 ERA in his past three starts, striking out 28, walking four.

But can the Reds keep this up?

Well, none of their starters is dramatically exceeding expectations. Chapman has rebounded nicely from his first slump, and his workload shouldn’t be a major concern — he threw only 63 innings between the majors and minors last season, but a combined 109 in 2010.

Still, some regression is likely, which is why the offense must improve. As it stands, the Reds are third in the NL with a plus-42 run differential, but 42 percent of their runs come from homers, the fifth highest percentage in the majors, according to STATS LLC. The original blueprint was for their offense to be more efficient than this.

Phillips batted .350/.417/.573 out of the leadoff spot in the final 38 games last season. Manager Dusty Baker intended to use him in the same role this season, with Scott Rolen batting fourth. But Rolen, again bothered by shoulder trouble, got off to a poor start, and Baker dropped Phillips to the cleanup spot after less than two weeks.

The status of Rolen hangs over the Reds; Todd Frazier has emerged as a younger, better, healthier alternative, with a .901 OPS in 200 plate appearances. If not for the presence of Rolen, perhaps Baker could hit Frazier fourth and return Phillips to leadoff. But for now, a trade for a leadoff man would be more logical, helping lengthen the lineup.

Shortstop Zack Cozart, in his first full season, currently is hitting leadoff, and it’s too much to ask of a developing player. The Reds are last in the NL with a .203 batting average from the leadoff spot, last with a .247 on-base percentage and next-to-last with a .318 slugging mark.

So, who’s out there?

Twins center fielder Denard Span. Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino and left fielder Juan Pierre. Cubs right fielder David DeJesus. Athletics center fielder Coco Crisp, who is not performing well this season.

Span, under club control at affordable salaries through 2015, would require too great an acquisition cost for a team that recently parted with four players for Latos. So might DeJesus, given the Cubs’ desire to include cash in any deal to secure better prospects.

Victorino vs. Pierre is interesting — and at the moment, Pierre appears much more attractive. Neither bats leadoff for the Phillies, but Pierre has a .344 OBP to Victorino’s .311 this season, and he’s owed less than $400,000 the rest of the way while Victorino is owed more than $4.5 million.

Maybe Victorino could be this year’s Rafael Furcal, igniting after getting traded to a better team in his free-agent year. In any case, either he or Pierre would be an upgrade for the Reds. Virtually anyone else in the leadoff spot would.

Two years from now, maybe sooner, the Reds won’t be in this bind — infielder Billy Hamilton will be leading off and catcher Devin Mesoraco will be batting cleanup. But at the moment, something needs to be done.

A team that pitches this well at Great American Small Park cannot let it go to waste.

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