Reds Have Surpluses At Several Positions
The Reds' infield of the future coalesced near the end of the 2010 season. With the arrival in Louisville of catcher Devin Mesoraco, the Reds' Triple-A club could take infield practice without a non-prospect ever touching the baseball.
From Mesoraco to first baseman Yonder Alonso, third basemen Todd Frazier and Juan Francisco and shortstop Zack Cozart and even second baseman Chris Valaika, the Bats' lineup was filled with young players with bright futures. All but Valaika ranked among the Reds' Top 10 Prospects heading into 2011.
In a different situation, almost all of them could have been seeing regular time in the big leagues in 2011. But with Cincinnati, they were the Plan B at every infield position.
Before the season was over, all six of them had spent time in Cincinnati. None had picked up more than 200 at-bats. Heading into 2012, Francisco has lost his rookie eligibility, but Mesoraco, Alonso, Cozart and Frazier are still among the Reds' Top 10 Prospects with another year of Triple-A experience under their belt. Valaika and outfielder Dave Sappelt will make the team's Top 30 Prospects list, but both of them are fighting for big league roster spots as well.
If you're a Reds' hitting prospect, bright futures currently come with a built-in delay.
Neither Francisco nor Frazier is going to push aside Scott Rolen as long as the veteran third baseman is healthy. Cozart and Mesoraco head to spring training with a chance to be starters, but in both cases their arrival times were delayed by the presence of veterans in Cincinnati—Edgar Renteria in Cozart's case, and Ramon Hernandez for Mesoraco.
And then there's the case of Alonso. He's arguably the team's top hitting prospect, a title he's held for much of the past three seasons, but Alonso is a first baseman in an organization that has 2010 National League MVP Joey Votto manning that spot.
When scouts talk about a player developing patience, they're usually talking about working counts as a hitter. But if you dream of playing in Cincinnati recently, it hasn't hurt to be patient in the dugout as well.
"Being in Triple-A has taught patience," Frazier said. "That's the big thing."
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It's a problem the Reds are somewhat happy to have. After years of struggles, the Cincinnati farm system is no longer barren. Homegrown products such as Votto, Jay Bruce and Johnny Cueto are the team's stars. They have been supplemented by regulars and contributing backups like Drew Stubbs, Chris Heisey, Ryan Hanningan and Paul Janish.
In 2011, more than 60 percent of the Reds non-pitcher plate appearances came from players the team originally drafted or signed. For pitchers, 55 percent of the Reds' innings came from homegrown players. Five years before, only 33 percent of plate appearances and 8 percent of the innings pitched came from homegrown talent.
It's hard to argue with that kind of improvement, which has come in part through a philosophy of taking the best player on their board come draft day, position surplus be damned. But it has created a problem of sorts. At multiple spots around the infield, Cincinnati has big league-ready prospects who are blocked by current big leaguers.
When the Reds drafted Alonso with their first pick in 2008, Votto was halfway through an excellent big league rookie season. Then-general manager Wayne Krivsky and scouting director Chris Buckley were well aware that Votto might be the Reds' first baseman for years to come, but they found Alonso's ability to get on base and hit for power too alluring to pass up. So they picked Alonso ahead of Georgia shortstop Gordon Beckham.
Beckham, who has since moved to second base, was in the big leagues the next spring for the White Sox. Alonso still is waiting for a full-time big league job three years later. Alonso finally made the big leagues, potentially for good, in late July. Cincinnati tried him in left field, with mixed results, and even started him for one game at third base, a position he had never played in an official minor league game. (Thankfully for Alonso and the Reds, no ball was hit to him that night.)
A knee injury that required minor offseason surgery ended Alonso's season early, but his knee is feeling better, and he has said he will spend the offseason working on conditioning and agility to make him a better candidate for the left-field job.
"It was night and day from the beginning to the end of the season," Alonso said when asked about his comfort level in the outfield. "There were things I needed to learn. The coaches did such a good job with me. Chris Heisey was a huge help, and Drew Stubbs and Jay Bruce as well. They tried to simplify things for me. This year I'll try to take it to a different level . . . Just wait to see me in spring training, you'll see the work."
Alonso will compete with the likes of Heisey and Sappelt for an everyday spot. But as the offseason trade market heats up, he also could be a key to any offseason deals the Reds work out. Frazier or Francisco could be in a similar situation.
Frazier, a supplemental first-round pick in 2007, has nearly 2,000 minor league at-bats. But for now, his best shot at a big league job in Cincinnati is as a versatile utilityman. He played five positions while getting 121 big league at-bats last summer.
"You have to be realistic with the nature of the game. I have Scott Rolen ahead of me. Maybe I have to work on another position. Whether it's first, third or other positions everything's taken," Frazier said. "It was pretty cool getting two callups (in 2011), but I want to be up for a long time."
If Cozart and Mesoraco claim everyday jobs as expected in 2012, the same issues may crop up again. Yasmani Grandal, the team's 2010 first-round pick, gives Cincinnati another potential everyday catcher who has already reached Triple-A, while shortstop DiDi Gregorius, another Top 10 Prospect, is expected to see time at Triple-A in 2012 as well. And Billy Hamilton, another of the team's top prospects, is coming up behind Gregorius at shortstop.
At some point, the Reds are likely to make deals, but for now, Louisville fans may see some very familiar faces when the 2012 season begins.