Votto’s return creates a happy problem for Reds
On Tuesday, the Reds activated Joey Votto, but manager Dusty Baker didn’t write his name into the lineup against the Phillies, nor did he call upon him as a pinch-hitter even as the team eked out a 2-1 win. Votto was in the lineup on Wednesday as Cincinnati hosted the Phillies for a matinee, his first big league game since July 15 due to a torn meniscus in his left knee that required not one but two surgeries, the second to remove loose bodies; he played five games on a rehab assignment, including two sets of back-to-back games — all as a first baseman — but the team is concerned because he’s not 100 percent.
The Reds have the luxury of bringing Votto along slowly because, quite frankly, they haven’t missed him. Though he was hitting a searing .342/.465/.604 with 14 homers and 36 doubles when he went down — rate stats that ranked in the top three at the time, and a pace for doubles that could have challenged the major league record — the team went on a 15-1 tear shortly after he got hurt, allowing them to pull away from the NL Central pack. Even after cooling off, their record since then is a major league-best 33-16. Coming into Wednesday, Cincinnati is 83-54 overall, with an 8 1/2 game lead over the Cardinals in the NL Central, and one game behind the Nationals for the majors’ best record.
The Reds haven’t missed their slugging first baseman as much as they might because of the play of Todd Frazier. The 26-year-old rookie has hit .300/.347/.500 with eight homers since Votto went down, that on top of a successful stint covering for third baseman Scott Rolen when he was laid up for five weeks earlier this season due to a left shoulder injury. Overall, Frazier has hit an even more robust .289/.348/.532 with 18 homers in 400 plate appearances this season, numbers that have made him the top hitter in the league’s Rookie of the Year race (with apologies to the slumping Bryce Harper).
Votto’s return places Baker in an age-old quandary: how to squeeze three players into two spots. Beyond making sure that Votto isn’t rushed back too quickly, the obvious solution would be to send the rookie back to the hot corner, where he has emerged Rolen’s heir apparent. At first glance, this seems logical, as the 37-year-old pending free agent is only hitting .244/.325/.396 overall, but those numbers are obscured by his anemic .174/.238.304 showing before he went on the disabled list on May 11. Since returning, Rolen has hit a more representative .285/.374/.449, and since the All-Star break, he’s at .314/.408/.496, numbers that have helped fill the Votto-less void. Add in the fact that the eight-time Gold Glove winner is still an average or better defender according to most defensive metrics, and sitting him is no easy task even as he heads into the sunset of his career — particularly for a manager with a longstanding reputation for favoring veterans over rookies.
Frazier and Rolen are both right-handed, so no obvious platoon option presents itself, but it’s worth noting that Rolen has hit just .209/.312/.299 with one homer in 77 plate appearances against lefties this year, compared to .257/.330/.432 with five homers in 206 PA against righties. Those are small sample sizes,and if you expand them to include 2011 as well, the difference basically comes out in the wash (.226/.304/.379 against lefties, .249/.302/.402 against righties). Frazier, not surprisingly, has been stronger against lefties (.324/.359/.574 with seven homers in 145 PA) than righties (.257/.324/.487 with 17 homers in 376 PA) during his time in the majors (including 121 PA last year). So prioritizing the rookie against lefties is one option for Baker.
Another would be to take maximum advantage of Frazier’s versatility and find time for him in a few other spots. Frazier has played 178 minor league games in leftfield, as well as nine major league ones. Incumbent Ryan Ludwick has done well to recover his power stroke and hit .279/.348/.553 with 25 homers, the team’s second highest total, and he’s at an even more torrid .329/393/.646 in the second half, but a day off here and there down the stretch isn’t going to harm him. Likewise for second baseman Brandon Phillips — yes, Frazier even has 39 games of minor league experience at the keystone, the bulk of it in 2009 — but again, it’s hard to sit a player who has overcome a slow start to hit .323/.350/.489 since the All-Star break. It may be a stretch to suggest that Frazier could even provide shortstop Zack Cozart with an off day given that he hasn’t played there regularly since 2008, but he does have 112 games of minor league experience there, too. Frazier may not be a wizard at those less-frequented defensive positions, but then he doesn’t really have to be in order to spot there on occasion over the season’s final weeks. Playing him instead of the weak-hitting Miguel Cairo (.172/.200/.269) or Wilson Valdez (.196/.221/.216) when Phillips or Cozart needs a break ought to be a no-brainer, particularly as Baker will have no shortage of late-inning defensive substitutes if his team hasn’t pummeled opponents into submission.
The Reds are in great shape as they head down the stretch; the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds report places their likelihood of winning the division at 98.9 percent, and of making the postseason at 100.0 percent (read that as “higher than 99.949 percent.”) Given their cushion, Baker has the luxury of resting his regulars and of tinkering with his lineup down the stretch. in doing so, he can give the Reds their best chance at a healthy return for their best player while keeping all of his bats fresh, making the team that much more of a formidable opponent as October approaches.