SweetSpot: Todd Frazier

SweetSpot TV: Rapid Fire!

June, 24, 2014

We're back after a vacation and some technical difficulties! Eric and I discuss the Cardinals' pitching, the hot Todd Frazier, the Reds' offense, the AL Central, Masahiro Tanaka as an MVP candidate and two other very important questions. Enjoy!
A glance through Sunday's results and some quick thoughts ... at least one for every team!
  • A's 11, Orioles 1: I wrote about Manny Machado's embarrassing episode here. How much of this is frustration by Machado? While he has had four two-hit games since May 31, his season line is a mediocre .235/.291/.346. Last June 30, he was hitting .321/.350/.489 with 35 doubles (remember when he was on a record pace for doubles in a season?). Since then he's hit .238/.278/.360 with 16 doubles in 107 games. Pitchers have been able to tie him up inside (.204 on inside pitches) and get him with primarily offspeed stuff outside (.236). For the first time, Machado is learning that baseball is hard. He needs to make those adjustments at the plate. ... The fielding metrics love Josh Donaldson's fielding and he passes the eye test with great plays like this one. If I'm voting today, he's my AL MVP.
  • Mariners 5, Rays 0: Felix Hernandez had one of the best games of his career on Sunday, with a career-high 15 K's in just seven innings. Remember when we were all worried about that no-strikeout game a few weeks ago? Since then he's 5-0 in six starts (he didn't get the win on Sunday since Seattle didn't score until a two-out, five-run rally in the ninth) with a 1.99 ERA. Jeff Sullivan suggests one reason for his success is Mike Zunino's ability to frame those pitches low in the strike zone. ... I love when managers do this: Ten days ago Endy Chavez wasn't good enough to be on the team and now Lloyd McClendon is batting him first or second. ... David Price, Alex Cobb, Jake Odorizzi and Chris Archer are all underperforming their FIP. I don't think that gives any solace to Rays fans.
  • Angels 4, White Sox 2: Interesting move by Mike Scioscia to intentionally walk pinch-hitter Adam Dunn in the ninth to bring the go-ahead run to the plate. But the batter was backup catcher Adrian Nieto, who had entered earlier for Tyler Flowers, so the White Sox had to let him hit. ... Any doubt that the AL West is the best division in baseball right now? ... Robin Ventura had used Nieto to run for Flowers in the eighth after a leadoff walk. That didn't really make sense since the score was 4-0 at the time. ... Tough sweep for the White Sox since Sunday's loss came on the heels of leading 5-0 in the eighth on Saturday with Chris Sale pitching.
  • Astros 14, Twins 5: With George Springer, Jose Altuve and now Jon Singleton, the Astros have been interesting to watch for the first time in years. They're 16-9 since May 13 and have averaged 4.7 runs per game. ... How about Springer for the All-Star Game? Hitting .251/.346/.497 with 12 home runs and that's come after a slow start. With just one steal, hasn't flashed the stolen base part of that 30/30 potential, however. ... Don't exactly understand the Kendrys Morales signing for the Twins. The Twins are 29-32 and while that puts them in the wild-card race, it also means they're not that good. Morales isn't really a difference-maker. Wonder if he becomes trade bait in July if the Twins fall out if it.
  • Red Sox 5, Tigers 3: If anyone can stop a Red Sox losing streak, it's Joba Chamberlain. ... Big Papi doesn't miss 83-mph hanging sliders. ... I have mixed opinions on the Tigers right now. They're 33-26, but have outscored opponents by just nine runs. I wonder what Justin Verlander is right now and the late-inning relief has been shaky, although to be fair Joba had done a decent job before Sunday's ninth-inning blow-up. The offense looks mediocre beyond the awesome 1-2 punch of Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. It still seems like they should run away with the AL Central, but maybe we'll get a race like the past two seasons.
  • Indians 3, Rangers 2: The Indians are fifth in the AL in runs and while Michael Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall have been great, I think there's still more upside from this group, especially from Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana. ... This is one team that could really use David Price. He'd look pretty nice alongside Corey Kluber and Justin Masterson, but not sure the Indians have the prospects to get a deal done (they're not trading Francisco Lindor). ... Just not going to be the Rangers' year. Now Mitch Moreland, not that he was hitting great, is out for maybe the rest of the season after he had ankle surgery, and second baseman Rougned Odor had to leave Sunday's game with a sprained shoulder.
  • Royals 2, Yankees 1: The other day, I heard Yankees announcer John Sterling say the Yankees can only play better the rest of the season. Is that really true, however? This looks like a classic .500 team to me. ... Gotta love Ned Yost. He's hitting the players with the two highest OBPs on the team (Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain) fifth and seventh for the most part.
  • Cardinals 5, Blue Jays 0: Impressive back-to-back shutouts for the Cards in Toronto. ... Amazingly, the Cards have now homered in back-to-back games for the first time since May 7-9, snapping a 26-game stretch without homering in consecutive games. ... That lack of power remains one of the most important issues in the National League moving forward. ... You do wonder how the Blue Jays' rotation will hold up. Mark Buehrle is due to slide (he lost Saturday) and Sunday starter Drew Hutchison has been inconsistent and is coming off Tommy John surgery so you wonder about fatigue later in the season with him.
  • Giants 6, Mets 4: Hard to find a flaw right now with the Giants. Tim Lincecum wasn't great on Sunday -- allowing three runs in six innings -- but when he's the weakest link on the club that's how you can have the best record in baseball. ... Brandon Crawford remains an unsung member of the team, very good at shortstop and contributes with the bat. ... As bad as the Mets lineup looked on Sunday, the Mets are averaging 4.0 runs per game, right at the NL average. I hear the lineup being criticized a lot as being awful, but it's not, it's actually mediocre.
  • Dodgers 6, Rockies 1: On Sunday, the most expensive payroll in the majors rolled out a lineup that had Chone Figgins leading off, Scott Van Slyke batting fifth and playing center field, somebody named Jamie Romak batting sixth and playing right field, somebody named Miguel Rojas batting seventh and weak-hitting Drew Butera hitting eighth. And they won! ... Charlie Blackmon since May 1: .246/.289/.405. ... The Rockies are 2-11 their past 13 and their next 27 games are all against teams currently with a winning record. They may be 10 games under .500 by the end of that stretch. It was fun for awhile.
  • Diamondbacks 6, Braves 5: I think it's too late, but the D-backs are 20-15 since April 30. ... Chase Anderson is 5-0 in five starts. Is he this good? Probably not. His FIP is 4.54 but his ERA is 3.14. He had a 5.73 ERA last year at Triple-A Reno. He doesn't throw hard (average fastball is 90 mph) but has thrown strikes so far and hasn't hurt himself. ... Not sure how much longer the Braves can ride the Aaron Harang bandwagon (six walks on Monday). ... Tommy La Stella has hit .400 in nine games although with no extra-base hits. That's what he is, a guy who can hit for average and put the ball in play. He won't be a huge offensive contributor since it will be an empty average, but he should still be an upgrade over what they got from Dan Uggla the past year-plus (including defensively).
  • Brewers 1, Pirates 0: Yovani Gallardo had his best start of the season. I think he's a huge key to the Brewers winning the NL Central. ... If I'm filling out my All-Star ballot today, Jonathan Lucroy gets my vote as starting catcher. ... Is this what Starling Marte is, a .230 hitter? With 68 strikeouts and just 16 walks, he clearly has holes in his swing and areas he can be pitched to.
  • Nationals 6, Padres 0: You rarely see a pitcher dominate with just his fastball, but that's essentially what Jordan Zimmermann did, with nine of his 12 K's coming on his fastball. ... Zimmermann has lowered his ERA from 4.07 to 3.17 with two scoreless starts. Is he back to the guy who dominated in the first half of last year? We'll see, but those two starts came against the Phillies and Padres. ... The Nationals have the best ERA in the majors since May 1 at 2.87. ... This upcoming road trip to St. Louis and San Francisco will be an interesting test for the Nationals to make a statement that they're more than just a .500-ish team. ... Chase Headley will always have that second half of 2012. Will he go down as the least likely season RBI leader ever?
  • Marlins 4, Cubs 3: The Marlins continue to hang in there, although let's see if Henderson Alvarez's injury is serious (he left in the sixth with a hip strain after his scoreless streak ended at 26 innings). ... Next 16 games are against teams with losing records, so an important stretch to play well. ... Lineup is still more than just Giancarlo Stanton -- seven of the eight regulars have an OPS+ better than league average. ... In general, I still like this club and expect them to hang around in the NL East. ... Have the Cubs found a starter in Jake Arrieta? In 16 starts with them, he has a 3.18 ERA. Maybe leaving Camden Yards helped his confidence or maybe at 28 he's finally figuring a few things out. He's also being limited to 5-6 innings per outing. There are some gray areas in the numbers but he does have a 2.58 FIP this year to go with his 2.50 ERA, primarily because he's allowed just one home run. I'm still a little skeptical, as home runs have always been a big problem for him.
  • Reds 4, Phillies 1: Speaking of bad lineups, maybe it's time Bryan Price demotes Brandon Phillips and his .305 OBP out of the third spot? Not that Price has a lot of good options. He's hit Todd Frazier, the team's best hitter this season, in the second spot quite a bit recently, but he was hitting sixth on Sunday. So Price hit his hottest hitter sixth in order to lead off his lineup with three guys with OBPs of .288, .267 and .305. ... As for the Phillies, don't even get me going on Ben Revere, who drew a walk leading off a game for the first time in his career. He's hitting .282 ... with a robust .298 OBP. It's National League baseball, 2014 style!

Reds' Leake, Frazier have big parts to play

April, 16, 2014

When you look at the Reds and Pirates, it’s easy to get caught up in the big stars: Andrew McCutchen and Joey Votto, both National League MVPs, both leading candidates for the face of the game, both of them engines to power the possible in two NL Central cities with postseason expectations. But after completing Monday’s slugfest and then seeing Mike Leake outpitch Pirates ace apparent Gerrit Cole on Tuesday night, it’s important to remember that there’s a lot more to both ballclubs.

If either team is going to make it to October, they’ll need more than just Votto or McCutchen doing their thing, so perhaps the most interesting things to take from two bruising boxscores were the performances of some of the other guys. A big part of any Reds’ bid to contend is going to be their getting big years from that young, sturdy rotation, and whether Leake can repeat last year’s breakout season is a big part of that.

So far, the indications are strong that he’s going to be able to continue beating people with that big sinker-change combo that started coming together for him last season after he worked hard to add a changeup to his repertoire in the spring. Beyond eight strikeouts Leake got nine ground-ball outs on Tuesday against just three in the air, a nice encore after a 17-5 grounder/fly split in his eight shutout innings against the Cardinals last time out. Short right-handers without a big fastball may never be reliably popular, but if Leake keeps inducing ground-ball outs at this rate, the Gap’s fences will end up seeming that much farther away. Add in his outshining Cole, and it had to be an especially satisfying game for Reds fans.

Another nice development for Cincinnati? Seeing Jonathan Broxton nail down his first save of the season. Not that we should get too worked up about it -- the Broxton bandwagon might only come in a subcompact after several disappointing seasons since his Dodgers heyday -- but with so many teams struggling to find a serviceable guy to finish games, if Broxton can be adequate for a couple months, or even split the gig with Sean Marshall until Aroldis Chapman comes back, they could be better off than many teams with bigger names blowing ballgames in the ninth.
[+] EnlargeTodd Frazier
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesTodd Frazier celebrates mashing his fifth home run of the season.

The other guys worth following closely in the early going were part of the reason why there so many crooked numbers in both boxscores. That’s because they both might have some breakout potential in them: Reds third baseman Todd Frazier and Pirates second baseman Neil Walker.

Frazier's happy news was his clouting the sixth-inning two-run homer to right field off Cole that gave the Reds the lead (cemented by Leake's two-run blast). It was his fourth homer of the year, a great start for a guy looking to forget his 2013, not to mention his epic collapse in September 2012. Not that it took much, but Frazier is already one of the most reliable righty power sources in the brief history of the Great American Ballpark since it opened for business in 2003. Among right-handed hitters with 500 or more career at-bats in the Gap, he’s fifth all-time in slugging percentage (.467) and Isolated Power (.210), trailing Rich Aurilia, Scott Rolen, Jonny Gomes and Edwin Encarnacion -- none of them still with the Reds. (Heck, Aurilia and Rolen are both out of baseball.) And while Brandon Phillips has lost sixty points of slugging when he’s hitting anywhere but in his home park (.463 home, .402 everywhere else), Frazier’s career .186 ISO on the road reflects a power stroke that should play anywhere.

Thanks to his hot start, if Frazier can put up something more like the .500 SLG he almost delivered as a rookie, he’s going to be a more important part of the Reds’ offense batting behind Votto and Phillips and Jay Bruce than headline hog Billy Hamilton will ever be starting in front of them. Indeed, as Mark Simon noted earlier today, Bruce is fighting a war of adjustments he isn’t winning early as infields shift heavily against him, while Phillips is being Phillips. The guy who might be able to step up for the Reds is Frazier.

As for the Pirates' Walker, they know something about anticipation too. In the broad strokes, you might wonder what happened to him after his rookie season in 2010, when he put up an .811 OPS. In the three years since, he’s bounced around on a slightly lower level, from .742 to .768 to .757, all good seasons, all reflecting a good player, but all that notch below his big rookie season and the expectations you might have spun from it. It’s the difference between a good player and the second star player the Pirates don’t really seem to have in their lineup beyond McCutchen. It’s the kind of seeming stability that encouraged a projected .748 OPS for him from Dan Szymborski before the season.

However, not that Walker is on a tear after ripping three home runs in his last two game, it’s worth identifying trends in his performance record that can make you think that maybe he’s just now putting it all together. Last year, his walk rate went past nine percent for the first time. His .167 Isolated Power in 2013 matched that of his career high from his rookie season. If not for a 50-point tumble in BABIP that same season, we might have been talking about a guy coming off a classic age-27 peak season last year. Instead, we got those aggregate numbers over the past three years that make it seem as if he’s been standing in place.

Which is a long way of saying we’re little more than two weeks into what should be an exciting season in the NL Central, and there’s a lot to look forward to.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.

Reds' righty bats need to start hitting

August, 4, 2013
Now 11 games over .500 after beating the Cardinals on Saturday night, the Cincinnati Reds might seem like they’re in a good spot with the fifth-best record in the league. As long as they continue to be just that wee bit better than mediocre, they can probably count on making it as far as the one-game wild card play-in. The Phillies have already excused themselves in the last week, while the Diamondbacks and Nationals don’t seem likely to achieve escape velocity from their orbits around .500.

While a third trip to the postseason on Dusty Baker’s watch seems likely, though, this isn’t as strong a team as it looks like at first glance. The lineup that ranks fourth in the league in runs scored with 4.3 per game might appear to be humming along with Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto getting on base and Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce driving them in.

But it’s far from a perfect offense. Despite gaudy RBI totals generated by getting to bat behind Choo and Votto, Phillips isn’t a perfect cleanup man. The Reds are getting below-average offense from five different positions, including second base, the others being catcher, short, left (absent Ryan Ludwick) and third base.
[+] EnlargeDevin Mesoraco
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesDevin Mesoraco's hot bat since the break could help cure some of what ails the Reds.

Third? Didn’t the Reds just get a top prospect break through there? Sadly, not so much. Todd Frazier has struggled badly as a sophomore, with a .718 OPS that represents a 100-point tumble from his rookie season; add in last season’s September fade and that Frazier is producing a woeful .581 OPS on the road, and you might wonder if he’s really a long-term answer.

One of the especially crippling problems the lineup has is the woeful performance of its right-handed hitting regulars against right-handed pitching, or almost half of the Reds’ plate appearances. Even with the advantage of getting to hit in a bash-boosting ballpark like the Gap when they’re home, the Reds’ righty bats are hitting a pathetic .219/.274/.330. Big culprits include everyday players such as second baseman Phillips (.673 OPS vs. RHPs) and shortstop Zack Cozart (.634). Chris Heisey was supposed to help improve the offense when he came back from the DL to man left field; instead, he has chipped in a .558 OPS versus righties.

How bad is the issue? The team’s collective .604 OPS from righties against righties through Friday night’s action ranks 14th in the National League, bettering only the Marlins. Using Baseball-Reference.com’s OPS indices for league-relative splits, if 100 would be normal, the Reds’ 74 for righty-on-righty performance barely betters the Marlins’ 71. When you’re better at something than one of the worst offenses in the era of divisional play, you don’t really get to brag, you merely hope that nobody else notices.

Unfortunately, the Reds won’t have that luxury, especially not if they’re matched up against the Cardinals -- and either one of the Birds’ top-tier right-handers, Adam Wainwright or Shelby Miller. While anything can happen in sudden death, that sounds more like one-and-done than something won as postseasons go.

One source of improvement is supposed to be left fielder Ryan Ludwick, out since Opening Day and working hard to get back in action to prove that his surgically repaired shoulder is sound while also trying to get his bat back up to speed. Ludwick is the rare righty whose career line is stronger against right-handed pitching (.811 career OPS, versus .774 against lefties). If Baker’s preference for Ludwick to get another week-plus of minor-league playing time is any guide, Ludwick will be back in action mid-month.

Maybe Ludwick helps fix the problem, but that leaves the Reds with just two weeks to evaluate him and make a decision on whether they need to add a bat before the waiver trade deadline, compressing an already tough decision into an impossibly small timeframe. Kvetching about sample size will be pointless -- there won’t be enough results to say much of anything either way. They’ll simply have to make a tough call.

Happily enough for the Reds, Saturday’s game provided more than just a win against the Cardinals, it also gave them a reason to believe things might be getting better where Devin Mesoraco is concerned. Ripping a pair of home runs on Saturday gave him four since the break. If Mesoraco is finally settling into a groove at the plate, it can’t come a moment too soon for a Reds organization that had expected him to have long since blossomed into a top-tier hitter at catcher, going all the way back to when they made him the 15th overall selection in the draft in 2007. The well-worn bromide that catchers develop later doesn’t have a lot of statistical support for it, but if Mesoraco finally breaks out in his age-25 season, it couldn’t come a moment too soon.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

Which Reds sophomore do you like best?

February, 26, 2013
Heading into the 2012 season, the Reds had three rookies lined up to be regular parts of their lineup. Zack Cozart was the everyday shortstop. Devin Mesoraco was, if not the No. 1 catcher, number 1A. Todd Frazier was the super-sub and Scott Rolen injury caddy. We know how it worked out.

Mesoraco seemingly flopped and was sent down near the end of the Triple-A season. When he returned to Cincinnati he was barely allowed to stand up off the bench. Cozart provided excellent defense at short, but his offense, especially his .288 OBP, was less than many Reds fans had hoped for. Frazier was the breakout star. Injuries to Joey Votto and Rolen provided him with nearly a full season's worth of at-bats. He briefly injected his name into the Rookie of the Year race, and his .273/.331/.498 line at the end of the season made a lot of people really happy.

So, coming into the 2013 season, there seems to be a clear hierarchy among those three second-year players. Frazier is the rising star. Cozart is the solid contributor. Mesoraco is looking for a second chance. When we look closely at the numbers, however, flaws in that line of reasoning begin to materialize.

When Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) comes up, it's usually in reference to how lucky a player was (or wasn't), and that's exactly how I'm going to use it here. BABIP tends to hover around .300 (it was .297 in 2012), but can fluctuate for hitters just as it does for pitchers. That is, there's some chance involved in every player's BABIP. We can tell what a player's seasonal BABIP should have been based on the number of line drives, flyballs and ground balls he hit. (Check out this RotoGraphs article for more.) Frazier was very lucky last year. Based on the kind of balls he put in play, his BABIP of .316 was about 20 points too high. That is, he had some dying quails and a few ground balls with eyes, something that's reflected in the fact that he saw zero production dropoff moving from Triple-A to the majors.


Which Reds sophomore do you like the most long-term?


Discuss (Total votes: 1,028)

Cozart and Mesoraco had the opposite problem. Cozart's BABIP was 35 points too low and Mesoraco's was 40 points too low. It is no surprise then that each player saw his numbers fall more than we would normally expect from a player transitioning from Triple-A to the majors.

Then there is age. Cozart and Frazier are both entering their age-27 seasons this year. Mesoraco is entering his age-25 season (though he's almost three years younger than Cozart). And finally, there's the fact that Mesoraco and Cozart both bring more defensive value than Frazier. According to FanGraphs WAR, Cozart and Frazier provided almost exactly the same value last year because Cozart's defense was so much better than Frazier's.

What it all means is that it would be unsurprising if Frazier had the least impressive 2013 and the least impressive career of these three players. That doesn't mean he's a bad player, it just means we shouldn't judge a player based solely on one season's worth of data (or, in Mesoraco's case, part of a season). Especially when that data is heavily influenced by luck, as it was for these players.

Jason Linden writes for Redleg Nation.
Our friend Jonah Keri has dared to brave one of those lists to end all lists -- he ranks the 50 most valuable trade properties in baseball. With the winter meetings slated for next week in Nashville and trade rumors flying violently across cyberspace, it's the perfect time for such a list. Like the one Bill Simmons does for the NBA or the Dave Cameron does at FanGraphs, this isn't simply a list of the 50 best players in baseball. Contracts, service time and age matter. Here's the first part of Keri's list (honorable mention to No. 32).

Since this is meant as great debate fodder, some quick thoughts.
  • SportsNation

    Which of these young starters has the most trade value?


    Discuss (Total votes: 1,031)

    Keri lists a bunch of young starters as honorable mention -- Jeremy Hellickson, Derek Holland, Trevor Cahill, Mat Latos, Lance Lynn, Jarrod Parker, Matt Harvey, Trevor Bauer, all of whom have at least three years left of team control. While Keri groups all those guys together, he says to keep an eye on Harvey and Bauer. I completely agree on Harvey, who looked very impressive in his 10 starts with the Mets, both visually and statistically. I think Bauer rates behind all those other guys; I know the hype, but I see a guy who hasn't proven anything at the major league level with some command issues in the minors (4.2 walks per nine). It requires too much projection to put him on the same level as guys like Latos, Parker and Hellickson. But which one should rate highest? I'd probably go Parker, Latos, Harvey, Hellickson and Holland. What do you think? Let's put it to a poll.
  • No Matt Cain. The Giants owe Cain $121 million, thus the reluctance to include Cain in the top 50. That's a lot of money and pitchers are always big health risks, but Keri lists Wade Miley at No. 49. Yes, Miley is dirt cheap, but I'm pretty sure Cain would still bring a bigger haul -- in part because he is signed to a long-term contract, but also in part because Miley still has to prove he can do this again.
  • Honorable mention for Todd Frazier. Keri cites some sort of man crush on Frazier. I don't see it. Nice rookie season, but he's already 26 and never hit this well in the minors. I wouldn't be surprised to see him drop off next year.
  • Elvis Andrus and Andrelton Simmons at 46 and 45. I like both these guys, glad to see they made the top 50. In fact, they may be underrated. For example: Desmond Jennings at 39? If the Braves or Rangers called up and offered the Rays their shortstop for Jennings, I'm pretty sure the Rays think about 26 seconds before saying, "Done." Jennings was already 25 in 2012 and posted a .314 OBP. He does other things to help you win, but I love the defense and acceptable offense Andrus and Simmons offer.
  • Alex Gordon 34. Very underrated player. Signed for four more years at $44 million.
  • Mike Moustakas at 32. I know he's cheap for the foreseeable future and under team control for five more seasons. But he also posted a .708 OPS last year. That's, umm, not good. After a hot April, he hit .231 the rest of the way. Yes, first full season and all that, but I'm not quite on the Moustakas bandwagon. In fact, ignoring the prospect hype, is Moustakas any better than Kyle Seager? Yes, Moustakas is a year younger, but Seager had better numbers in a much tougher place to hit, playing in a tougher division. Seager hit .293/.324/.511 on the road; Moustakas hit .205/.260/.364.

Anyway, great list. The bottom part of it is actually a lot more fun to debate than the top 10. Part 2 on Tuesday on Grantland.

A voter's 2012 NL Rookie of the Year ballot

November, 12, 2012
Bryce Harper Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post/Getty ImagesBryce Harper's strong debut season helped the Nationals finish with the best record in baseball.
As one of the few entrusted with a National League Rookie of the Year vote this year, there wasn’t really that much drama to making a selection, at least not for me. After September, it was clear that Bryce Harper should win, and that’s who I put atop my ballot.

Of course, Harper made it easy for me, capping his already incredible introduction to the majors with a tremendous final month, hitting .330 AVG/.400 OBP/.643 SLG (with 18 extra-base hits) in September. If the season had run just five months, the choice between Harper, D-backs lefty Wade Miley and Reds cornerman Todd Frazier would have been much, much more difficult.

As of the last day of August, Harper was at .254/.324/.432 -- respectable for a teenager pushed into a pennant race, but not exactly eye-popping. At that same point, Frazier was hitting .293/.352/.549, and Miley was 14-9 with a 2.85 ERA and 14 quality starts (using runs, not scorer’s opinions) in 23 turns. If the race was between anybody, it looked like it would be between those two, with Harper holding the bronze. But Miley had a mediocre September (posting a 5.40 ERA in six starts), while Frazier imploded, hitting just .176/.235/.257. After all Frazier had done to help carry the Reds to the top of the division, it was a shabby way to end an otherwise superb season. Frazier also played a much better third base than he got credit for, which mattered to me in the end for reasons I’ll get into later.

Now, admittedly, the trophy is supposed to be Rookie of the Year, not rookie of the month of September, but making a judgment based on their performances over the full spread of the season made it easy for me to select Harper over Miley (who I put second) and Frazier.

Harper’s sizzling finale also cinched what’s already an annual temptation when it comes to picking the Rookie of the Year Award, which is favoring the guy you think has a better future ahead of him. That’s very much what you are not supposed to do when voting for Rookie of the Year, though, which I suppose helps go a little toward explaining why history and the voters have given us some pretty lamentable selections. Todd Hollandsworth, anyone?*

[+] EnlargeAndrelton Simmons
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireAndrelton Simmons played in only 49 games this season, but his defense made him a standout rookie.
The only difficulty I had was with the expectation that you have to vote on the performance within the season in question. Reviewing rookies, it’s hard not to vote for the guy you’re most excited about. Follow a guy through his touted rise through the minors and then see him deliver on the promise you’ve been anticipating, and it’s hard not to get jazzed by that, as a fan or an analyst.

Which is why I had to spend some time thinking about my third-place vote more than the top of the ballot. Not that Frazier won’t have a nice career, but I was tempted to recognize the rookie who was perhaps the most flat-out impressive to watch play, and a guy who figures to be an impact player on offense and defense for years to come: Atlanta shortstop Andrelton Simmons.

Because of injury, Simmons played only a third of the season, so there really wasn’t much of a case to make. I looked back at Willie McCovey winning the award in 1959 as a precedent for touting a player with so little actual playing time. McCovey played in 52 games for the Giants, notching 219 at-bats but a 3.0 WAR; he was the unanimous selection. Simmons was worth 2.8 WAR in his 49 games for the Braves, so I coulda, I mighta and perhaps I shoulda given him a third-place token vote. Maybe it’s a visceral thing, watching him play defense, because it feels like he might be for the Braves what Elvis Andrus is for the Rangers.

It’s hard to believe Simmons might have generated 54 defensive runs saved over a full season, as Baseball Info Solutions suggests. That’s one less than what full-season leaders Brendan Ryan of the Mariners (28) and Darwin Barney of the Cubs (27) cranked out combined, so it’s sort of hard to take seriously. But it does suggest Simmons is going to be one of the biggest impact players on defense for years to come. Add in a much better bat than expected, and he’s somebody you won’t forget.

In the end, I couldn’t overlook Frazier’s full season -- including his own fine glove work at third base. As much as I wanted to vote for Simmons, I gave Frazier my third-place vote. But 10 or 15 years from now, we’ll be talking about Simmons in contrast to Harper when we debate who's the biggest star from the NL’s rookie class of 2012.

*OK, not even that excuses Hollandsworth, still one of the most lamentable selections for any award ever; he had no business beating Edgar Renteria or Jason Kendall. The horror, the horror.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

From ESPN Stats & Information, the longest average home run distance in the National League (minimum 15 home runs):

Bryce Harper, Nationals: 414.1 feet
Justin Upton, Diamondbacks: 413.8 feet
Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies: 413.7 feet
Wilin Rosario, Rockies: 413.3 feet

Harper's raw power isn't a surprise, of course, although it's still impressive that he edges out guys who play in Arizona and Colorado. D.C. might have plenty of hot air, but not the thin air of those places.

As for the NL Rookie of the Year, I think Harper is now the clear leader, and not just based on his publicity advantage over other top candidates. Since Aug. 17 he's hit .301/.358/.596, with nine home runs and 19 extra-base hits in 136 at-bats, raising his season OPS by 63 points. Reds fans will advocate for Todd Frazier, who does have a higher OPS on the season, but the comparison between the two isn't that close. Frazier has been a platoon guy at times, and while Frazier was superb filling in on a regular basis for Joey Votto, Harper has scored 92 runs while playing very well in center field on an everyday basis.

My No. 2 guy is actually Diamondbacks left-hander Wade Miley, 16-10 with a 3.25 ERA, pitching in a tough home park.

NL rookie WAR leaders (via Baseball-Reference):

Harper: 4.0
Miley: 3.4
Norichika Aoki, Brewers: 3.0
Zack Cozart, Reds: 2.7
Lucas Harrell, Astros: 2.6
Andrelton Simmons, Braves: 2.5
Frazier: 1.9
Rosario: 1.9
Mike Fiers, Brewers: 1.9

Aoki's solid season has gone unnoticed, but he was a big reason the Brewers clawed back into the wild-card race. Miley has been terrific. But Harper is the Rookie of the Year in the NL.
It's a good dilemma: Too many players, not enough starting positions.

With Joey Votto activated, Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker will have to decide what to do about his lineup. With Votto out since July 16 following knee surgery, Baker has been able to use Todd Frazier as his primary first baseman with Scott Rolen playing third. Rolen, who looked done the first two months of the season, has responded with an excellent second half, hitting .320/.420/.513 in the second half. Rolen, of course, is a veteran and we all know Baker loves his veterans. But the rookie Frazier is slugging .539 and hasn't been exposed with regular playing time since the All-Star break, hitting .306/.352/.522.


What should Dusty Baker do about the Reds' lineup?


Discuss (Total votes: 766)

In my chat session today, a reader threw out the possibility of playing Frazier in right field with Jay Bruce moving to center in place of Drew Stubbs (.219/.285/.356). Frazier has made five starts in the outfield this year, but all came in left field. Bruce, meanwhile, hasn't played center field since his rookie season in 2008. The trouble with that alignment -- or playing Frazier in left and Ryan Ludwick in center -- is that you weaken yourself at two positions, center field and right/left field. Neither Bruce or Ludwick should be considered a center fielder and it seems unlikely that Baker would play around with his defensive alignment this late in the season, even if it means getting Stubbs' bat out of the lineup.

Another reader pointed out that Tony La Russa played Skip Schumaker in center field last postseason, even though he hadn't played there in the regular season. Indeed, Schumaker had played just 13 innings all season in center field but started there four games in the postseason, including three World Series games. Schumaker had come up as an outfielder and started 59 games in center in 2008 before moving to second base, but it was still a risky move by La Russa.

Maybe Baker thinks Bruce can handle center. Bruce has basically rated as an average right fielder the past two seasons (minus-3 Defensive Runs Saved), so probably wouldn't be a disaster in center. Maybe when Bronson Arroyo -- the most extreme flyball pitcher in the rotation -- starts, Baker plays Stubbs. In the end, I'd predict Stubbs remains in center, with Rolen starting the most of the playoff games at third and Frazier serving as a pinch-hitter deluxe/occasional starter.

What would you do?
Let's of good debates in today's chat: We discuss Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera in the AL MVP race, whether or not Ryan Braun is an MVP candidate in the NL, whether or not some teams should consider a three-man rotation in the playoffs, plus the most amazing play I've ever seen in person. Check it all out -- and more -- here.
Have you recovered from the epic Keith Law-Kevin Goldstein prospect podcast from Wednesday? If so, join Keith and myself as we return to the majors for Thursday's Baseball Today.

1. Was Wednesday's Angels-Rangers game the best game of the season? We discuss Yu Darvish's struggles and potential problems with the Angels' bullpen.

2. The Rangers called up Mike Olt but is there a place for him to play?

3. Bobby Abreu, Hideki Matsui and Derek Lowe have been cut loose by their teams. Have we seen the last of them in a big league uniform?

4. Hey, the Mariners have won seven in a row. They just called up relievers Carter Capps and Stephen Pryor. Do these two really throw 100 mph?

5. User emails bring up Eric Hosmer's struggles, Todd Frazier's rookie season and Desmond Jennings' sophomore slump.

All that and more on Thursday's big show!
There's something beautiful when a baseball team goes on a long winning streak. The nature of the sport is that it's immensely difficult to win 10 games in a row like the Cincinnati Reds. One great game by an opposing starter; three bad pitches by a relief pitcher; one crucial double play not turned or blooper that falls. It doesn't take much to end a streak.

The only other team to win 10 in a row this season was the New York Yankees. Last season, only the Texas Rangers and Detroit Tigers had streaks of 10-plus wins a row. The Reds stretched their streak to double digits with a 7-2 win over the Colorado Rockies on Sunday as Drew Stubbs and Jay Bruce homered in the fifth inning to break the game open.

"A lot of pressure coming into the game knowing we won nine in a row, but I just attacked them," winning pitcher Mat Latos said. "Today it was in the back of my mind, but it's baseball. Just play."

In honor of 10 straight, here are 10 random thoughts about The Big Red Hot Machine.

1. Are they the best team in the National League?

I'm not quite ready to make that declaration. While it's impressive that their past six wins have come on the road, let's keep in mind who the Reds defeated: the Diamondbacks (one win), Brewers, Astros and Rockies. The Astros are fielding a Triple-A team right now and the Rockies aren't much better. The starting pitchers the Reds faced: Joe Saunders, Marco Estrada, Yovani Gallardo, Michael Fiers, Wandy Rodriguez, Lucas Harrell, Bud Norris, Drew Pomeranz, Christian Friedrich and Jonathan Sanchez.

The Reds are combined 25-8 against the Astros, Brewers, Cubs, Padres and Rockies. The Nationals, 61-40 overall compared to the Reds' record of 61-40, have played those five teams 10 fewer games by comparison. The Reds still have 23 games left against the Astros, Brewers and Cubs; the Nationals get only 12 games against those three clubs.

2. But they've done this without Joey Votto.

True. The Reds are 11-2 since Votto went on the disabled list on July 16 because of knee surgery. Todd Frazier has started 10 of those games at first base (with Miguel Cairo starting the other three). Frazier has hit .269 with one home run and five RBIs since July 16, but Scott Rolen has played well at third base, hitting .306 with two home runs and five RBIs in 10 games without Votto. So while the Reds have missed Votto they haven't necessarily received zero production in his absence either.

3. Speaking of the Nationals, they've barely allowed fewer runs than the Reds.

Good point. For all the hype about the Nationals' rotation, the Reds have allowed just four fewer runs (in one less game), 362 to 358. The Nationals have a 3.25 staff ERA to the Reds' 3.26. True, the Nationals' rotation has a better ERA -- 3.13 versus 3.56 -- but the Reds' starters have pitched 32 more innings. That's allowed the Reds to concentrate more of their relief on their best guys -- although led by Aroldis Chapman and Sean Marshall, the Reds have the deepest and best bullpen in the league right now. They have six relievers who have pitched at least 35 innings and Sam LeCure's 3.47 ERA is the highest of the bunch. Amazingly, despite their home park, the Cincy bullpen has allowed the fewest home runs in the league. It's a knockout bunch and the depth ensures Dusty Baker isn't going to burn any of them before September.

4. Homer Bailey. Speak.

I predicted Bailey as a breakout performer before the season and he hasn't disappointed, coming on strong of late. He's 9-6 with a 3.53 ERA, including a 2.45 ERA over his past eight starts. Baker has responded by trusting Bailey to go deeper into games -- he's pitched eight innings in four of those eight games. As a fly-ball pitcher, Bailey is going to give up some home runs, especially in The Great American Ball Park, but he throws strikes and 12 of the 17 home runs he has allowed have come with the bases empty. He has allowed a .206 average with runners in scoring position, which has kept down his ERA. Maybe he didn't developed into the No. 1 or 2 once projected one he was a prospects, but he's finally a solid No. 3 or 4.

5. Will they make any moves?

The lineup is still very right-handed, with only Votto (when he returns) and Bruce swinging southpaw. Having both Miguel Cairo and Wilson Valdez as backup infielders is a waste of a roster space. Don't look for the Reds to make a big move, but expect Walt Jocketty to pick up a veteran left-handed bat for the bench or a platoon role in the outfield.

6. OK, the leadoff spot.

Yes, it has been a problem all season, with an MLB-worst .246 on-base percentage and .508 OPS. Baker has been hammered all season for sticking primarily with rookie shortstop Zack Cozart despite his poor production while hitting there. We'll see how Baker constructs the lineup once Votto returns. He obviously prefers to have a righty hit between Votto and Bruce (a strategy that I think is vastly overrated), but with Ryan Ludwick hitting well of late, maybe he keeps Ludwick in the cleanup spot and moves Brandon Phillips to leadoff.

7. What about the Pirates?

Hey, they're still hanging tough. It's rough when you go 7-3 like the Pittsburgh Pirates have over their past 10 games and still lose three games in the standings. "They're not going to go away, that's fairly obvious at this point," Bruce said after Sunday's win. "We have some series left with them, but any time you can gain a game it's great." Mark this upcoming weekend down on your calendar: Pirates at Reds, the first three of nine games remaining between the clubs.

8. Aroldis Chapman is back on track.

He had that huge blip in June when he lost four games in seven appearances, but since then he's appeared in 15 games, recorded 13 saves, and struck out 33 of the 53 batters he's faced. National League hitters, be afraid.

9. Hey, what about Todd Frazier for Rookie of the Year?

Frazier remains a big surprise, hitting .277/.333/.523. No, his future isn't as bright as Bryce Harper's, but his numbers certainly are better than Harper's .261/.338/.430 line. He has been one of the unsung heroes of the 2012 season.

10. The man with the toothpick.

It's easy to dish out criticism to Dusty Baker. When I do my weekly chat, it's become a running joke: Somebody makes a sarcastic comment about Baker's managing. I'm not saying it's deserved and he has been torn apart going back to his Giants days and his Cubs days, much of it justified. But he has also gotten a lot out of this team -- good seasons not only from Bailey but Bronson Arroyo, whom everyone assumed was washed up, and Mike Leake.

Sure the players always deserve most of the credit (or blame), but as we head into the final two months, I found myself rooting for Dusty. Hey, managers who have accomplished much less and made bigger blunders have won World Series titles. Maybe it's Dusty's turn.
Maicer IzturisGary A. Vasquez/US PresswireElliot Johnson has one thing to say: Catch me if you can!
With a Monday night full of injuries for us to discuss, a seemingly healthy Keith Law and myself were eager to discuss the greatest game on Tuesday’s Baseball Today podcast !

1. Losing Joey Votto for a month shouldn’t cripple the Cincinnati Reds, especially if Todd Frazier can continue his performance. Just how good has Votto been?

2. Meanwhile, the news should be harsher for the Toronto Blue Jays concerning Jose Bautista. Who is youngster Anthony Gose and what does he bring to the table?

3. And finally, the Red Sox won a game but potentially lost Big Papi. We discuss the battle of the Sox and return of Kevin Youkilis.

4. Our emailers want to know about Ryan Dempster’s BABIP, testing strategic development in the minor leagues and draft compensation strategy, among other things.

5. Tuesday figures to be another big night in baseball, with Roy Halladay and CC Sabathia returning, Trevor Bauer facing a more legit offense and the "contending" Orioles trying to avoid allowing three touchdowns in Minnesota.

So download and listen to Tuesday’s Baseball Today podcast and please, don’t pull a groin in the process. Stay healthy!
Bad news for the Cincinnati Reds: Joey Votto is expected to miss three to four weeks after arthroscopic knee surgery.

Dusty Baker's initial move was to move rookie third baseman/left fielder Todd Frazier to first base and insert veteran Scott Rolen at third base.

While Rolen did deliver a big two-run single in the Reds' 4-2 victory over the Cardinals on Sunday night, he's been struggling all season when he has played, hitting .197/.260/.314 entering Monday's action. His struggles go back to 2011, when he posted a .279 on-base percentage. Considering Votto's .465 OBP was the best in the majors, we're obviously talking about a significant drop in value, as much as two wins on the hitting side over four weeks.

Baker has always been loyal to his veteran players, so he undoubtedly will give Rolen two weeks to keep his spot in the lineup. But the Reds will have to make a quick decision on Rolen's viability. They'd be wise to look for another guy who can play first base via the trade market -- maybe Ty Wigginton from the Phillies or Bryan LaHair from the Cubs.

The Reds have already been rumored to be interested in Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino, a move which would push Drew Stubbs into a reserve role (assuming he isn't part of a deal). Victorino, a switch-hitter, would also provide the Reds a much-needed bat from the left side. Votto and Jay Bruce are the team's only southpaw swingers currently on the 25-man roster. That's another reason to go after LaHair.

If there's a silver lining for the Reds, it's that it comes at a soft spot in their schedule: Including Monday's game against Arizona, 24 of their next 27 games are against teams currently with losing records.

Reds getting production from all over

May, 24, 2012

The Reds received a game-changing grand slam in the sixth inning to take a 5-2 lead against the Braves on Thursday night, leading to their sixth consecutive victory and their first sweep of the Braves since 1980. It wasn’t superstar Joey Votto who provided the knockout punch, nor was it mainstays Brandon Phillips or Jay Bruce. The home run came off the bat of one of the Reds’ many unheralded young players: 23-year-old rookie catcher Devin Mesoraco.

The blast also marked Cincinnati’s 10th home run of the series, leading to 14 of its 16 runs in the series. Winning with home runs is nothing new for this Reds squad, not at Great American Ball Park and certainly not in the Joey Votto era. But Votto didn’t hit a single homer in the series. Neither did Bruce. Phillips hit two. Instead of the three stalwarts on this Reds squad, it was the supporting cast leading the way: Mesoraco (1), Drew Stubbs (3), Zack Cozart (2), Todd Frazier (1) and Mike Leake (1).

[+] EnlargeCincinnati Reds
AP Photo/Al BehrmanDevin Mesoraco's grand slam in the sixth inning on Thursday put the Reds ahead for good.
Leake’s homer backed up a quality start on Monday, and the other home runs backed up quality starts from Mat Latos (Tuesday), Bronson Arroyo (Wednesday) and Homer Bailey (Thursday). The Reds saw scoreless outings from five different relievers and saves converted by three. To accomplish this in any series is excellent; to do so against the second-highest-scoring team in the league in one of the best hitters’ parks in all of baseball is another.

Depth and pitching have set this year’s Reds squad apart from last year’s version, a preseason favorite for the National League Central crown that was eventually lapped by both the Brewers and Cardinals. The 2011 season saw a 156 OPS+ from Votto and 119 OPS+ marks from both Phillips and Bruce. No other full-time starters came close; only part-time players Chris Heisey (113), Ramon Hernandez (113) and Miguel Cairo (101) even mustered an above average mark.

This season has seen the likes of Paul Janish, Edgar Renteria and Jonny Gomes excised in favor of Cozart (.727 OPS) and Frazier (.887). It has seen Stubbs come to life after three horrible series to open the year -- he owns a .266/.324/.430 line since April 17 to go with his typical fantastic defense. It’s seen Ryan Hanigan pick up his game as well, with a .794 OPS in 27 games as the starting catcher.

Johnny Cueto owns a phenomenal 2.22 ERA over 33 starts dating back to May 2011, but it was the other four Cincinnati starters who held down the Braves this week. Latos started out cold, but has a 2.35 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 23 innings in May. Arroyo has a 121 ERA+ after allowing a near-record 46 home runs last season, owning an absurd 44-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his first 58.2 innings. Bailey and Leake have had their rough spots, but they fit well in the back of the Reds’ rotation -- a tough job with half of their starts coming in the bandbox in Cincinnati.

The bullpen has established itself as one of the league’s best. Regardless of what one thinks Aroldis Chapman’s role should be, it is undeniable that he is the league’s best reliever. In the four-game sweep of the Braves, he pitched two more scoreless innings. Chapman fronts a bullpen full of talented pitchers: Jose Arredondo, Logan Ondrusek and Alfredo Simon all own ERA+ marks of 137 or higher. Sean Marshall shouldn’t be counted out either despite a rough start -- he was one of the best relievers in baseball over the past two seasons.

The Reds currently sit atop the NL Central, with a half-game lead over the Cardinals. As usual, Votto, Phillips, Cueto and Bruce lead the way. But if the Reds maintain their current success and carry it through to a playoff run, it will be because this year they didn’t have to do it all themselves.