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Friday, May 11, 2007

Encarnacion and Milton out, Burton and Keppinger in

Lots to talk about today.

First, I did profiles on Burton and Keppinger prior to spring training, and they are still relevant, as their performances this year haven't changed my take on them. You can also read about Jared Burton's spring training performance in my spring training pitching review. I like both of them, and think they can help the Reds--though I'm more confident (short term) in Keppinger than Burton. In a good-case scenario, Keppinger could a Gregg Jefferies-type of hitter for a few years. That's useful, especially off the bench. Burton might be an ok middle reliever this year if he can maintain control of the baseball.

Second, Milton's injury is a bit convenient, but from the sound of things is legit. Bobby Livingston is the most likely candidate to pitch on Sunday. I hope he pitches so well that they can't get Milton back into the rotation--I think Eric could turn out to be valuable out of the 'pen, especially if Stanton continues to struggle.

The biggest news, however, is Eddie Encarnacion's demotion. Last season, the 23-year old Encarnacion had a fine offensive season, hitting 0.276/0.359/0.473, and was the team's best clutch hitter, leading the Reds with 1.95 offensive win probability added. Writing for The Hardball Times Season Preview this spring, I said this about him:
While perhaps not as surprising, third baseman Edwin Encarnacion (.276/.359/.473) had an excellent first full season from an offensively despite receiving a lot of
negative attention for making errors....

...I also look for improvement from Encarnacion, who had a great offensive year but still can improve as a hitter. With continued improvement on his footwork, Eddie should become an asset in the field as well.
I still don't see how I could have said otherwise. Everything he'd done thus far in his young career pointed to great success in the future, a point that was echoed by some of the top prospect evaluators on the net. Unfortunately, he just hasn't gotten it done this season. He was awful in April, hitting 0.221/0.294/0.260(!). Over the first week+ of May, he's been slightly better (0.208/0.321/0.375), but still at a pace well below what he showed last year. It's not just bad luck either--his PrOPS on the season is just 0.709--better than his actual 0.588 OPS, but still unacceptable.

Furthermore, Encarnacion's defense has continued to be substandard, which was emphasized in his last game of the season, when he made two critical errors that led to yet another loss. On the season, his two errors dropped his fielding percentage below even last year's low mark (0.914 this season vs. 0.916 this season). More importantly, his Zone Rating, which measures ability to convert balls hit into his zone into outs, was also lower, at 0.700 this season vs. an already below-average 0.741 last year.

I'm a big fan of Encarnacion, and, like Narron and Krivsky, I still think he's going to be a key part of our team moving forward. One and a half bad months isn't going to change my view on that. But the guy hasn't been getting it done. Period. Hopefully, a month in AAA is what he needs to get his career back on track. I look for him to go down to AAA and rake for a month (or less) before getting called back.

Hopefully that will be the case. Freel, who will start most of the time in his stead, is most valuable as a part-time super-utility player and is not a good solution at 3B for the long-term. His line of 0.261/0.344/0.360 is darn near replacement-level for a third baseman, and even if he gets his OBP back up to the ~0.370 range that we expect from him, he'll be marginal at best at a position that should be contributing some pop. The good news is that Freel has historically been good defensively at 3B, so at least he'll make positive contributions there. ... I will say that I'd expect Keppinger to get a start a week or so at 3B while Eddie is in AAA, because Freel needs that sort of rest to stay fresh. I'm keen to see how Keppinger does.

Demoting Eddie is a regrettable move, but a necessary one--and hopefully one that the Reds can reverse within a month's time.

Update: I seem to be in the minority in supporting this move. Fair enough. Here are some alternative perspectives:

Christina Kahrl
The organization threw a similar tantrum over Encarnacion's fielding problems last year, and nobody was impressed when they punished him and themselves by sitting him down. It's just not very bright to make yourself worse because you're unwilling to accept one of the prices of playing someone who's an offensive asset. You run the risk of giving yourself a complete zero in the lineup (a desultory 'mission accomplished' there when the likes of Keppinger or Castro are penciled into starting roles), and scapegoating Encarnacion because he had the misfortune of being the only everyday player to get off to a slow start seems juvenile. Last I checked, Encarnacion didn't spend the better part of a year obsessed with the intricacies of building the league's worst bullpen, but then I guess a five-week slump on the field is more expensive than a multi-month bad run in the front office. Except in the standings, of course, but that's all Encarnacion's fault too, right?
JD Arney:
The point is the Reds aren't going to be a serious contender for the NL Central this year, so there's no reason not to stick with your long term future at third base. If this decision was made in a vacuum maybe I could see it, but when you pair it with Narron benching EdE earlier this year for idiotic reasons and Narron playing guys like Rich Aurilia over EdE last year it just seems obvious that Encarnacion isn't getting a fair shake. It's sad that he's struggling, but it's not altogether surprising. It can't be easy to perform at such a high level knowing damn well that your club's management isn't behind you at all, and that at the drop of a hat you could be sitting on the bench. Or in AAA.
I don't really disagree with the above excerpts. My take on it is based on the assumption that sending Eddie down to AAA will be good for his long-term development as a ballplayer, and that he'll be back up with the Reds in about a month--similar to what was done with Kearns in 2005, though perhaps better justified. There's a reasonable argument that he'll be just as well served playing in the majors with the unflinching support of his manager. I do think that his offense and defense have been unacceptable this season so far, but at the same time, I also have a lot of faith that he'll return to where he was last season even if left alone--and might even improve.

I don't buy the argument that if the bullpen is the biggest problem, Krivsky et al. can't make other moves to try to improve the offense and/or starting rotation. ... But it doesn't excuse Krivsky from doing something to improve the pen. I still wonder what might happen if Livingston would stay in the #5 spot (why was he demoted?) and Milton was used as a situational lefthander out of the 'pen. Might be good.

The Reds are in a tough situation, and I don't pretend to have a solution at this point. All I know is that it's a pretty miserable time to be a Reds fan, and must be an even more miserable time to be a Reds player.
Photo by AP/Al Behrman