Ah, spring. When every talented prospect with a few weeks of Double-A experience is knocking on the door of the majors. And I'm afraid I'm assigned the unfortunate duty of knocking these tyros down a notch or two, until the Almighty (read: me) decides they're actually ready to play at the game's absolute highest level (or maybe the National League). Case in point:
- Reds first-base prospect Yonder Alonso's supersized hitting ability should pave his express trip to the Major Leagues. It might have by now if there wasn't one very sturdy obstacle blocking the 22-year-old's path.
It's only the best hitter on the team and a fellow first baseman in Joey Votto.
This was a dilemma seen coming from the very moment Alonso was selected seventh overall in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft and signed to a five-year, $4.55 million Major League contract. At the time, Votto was still a rookie but a successful one, but Cincinnati has a Draft policy of taking the best available player and not selecting according to need.
Alonso reached Triple-A last season and his Major League promotion is only a matter of time -- if he can find a place to play. To that end, the Reds have worked him out this spring at third base and both corner-outfield spots. It's dispelled the common speculation that when Alonso was eventually called up, it would be Votto whom would be moved to left field.
"It will take some time to figure it out," Cincinnati general manager Walt Jocketty said. "That's why we want to see [Alonso] at different positions. He's got a great bat and Joey is going to be at first base for a long time. I don't see moving Joey."
Drafting the best player is a perfectly reasonable policy. As near as I can figure, the only flaw is that if you wind up having to trade the kid -- say, because his only position is played by someone better -- you might get slightly less than full value because your prospective trading partners know you have to trade him. That's a small (and perhaps nonexistent) thing, though.
For the moment, let's dispense with the notion that Alonso is ready for the majors. He's played only 29 games above Class A, and wasn't outstanding in those 29 games. As John Sickels points out in his new book (which you should buy), as a professional Alonso's got a .211/.326/.296 line against left-handed pitchers ... and was little better while starring for Miami.
There's also little reason to think he would last long in left field, or at third base. Almost 23, Alonso is a big fellow and will only get bigger and slower. He's just not someone the Reds can play right now, and probably won't be at any point this year.
Alonso's future? Well, that's up to the front office. If the Reds are willing to entertain the notion of trading Votto a year or so from now, they should groom Alonso as their First Baseman of the Future (which would include getting him a ton of at-bats against Triple-A pitchers, along with extra BP against left-handers with good breaking balls). If they're not willing to trade Votto, then Alonso should be placed wherever he's most likely to succeed, with the aim of driving his trade value as high as possible.