COMMENTARY | The first news to come out of Cincinnati Reds spring training camp was regarding Shin-Soo Choo and his "new" position.
During the offseason, the Reds acquired Choo from the Cleveland Indians to play center field and lead off. Looking at offensive statistics, the reason for the trade is obvious: Choo hit .283/.373/.441 last season and has hit .307/.386/.486 in 461 career plate appearances leading off. Reds leadoff hitters hit an abysmal .208/.254/.327 last season.
The trade was needed from an offensive standpoint, but many Reds fans have been wondering if Choo is a "whole package" center fielder. If he's not, who is?
Excluding non-major league-ready players (Billy Hamilton, Denis Phipps), let's start with Xavier Paul. Paul hit well for the Reds last season (.314/.379/.465) but mostly as a pinch-hitter. Paul truly succeeded in that role and has played only 9 games in center, starting 85 overall.
Chris Heisey hit decently last season, too (.265/.315/.401), but has played only 75 games in center and started 176 overall. If offensive production is a priority (which it should be), Heisey isn't much better than that guy the Reds traded to get Choo.
Jay Bruce, who has played 35 games in center, and Ryan Ludwick, who has played 44, can definitely hit. The question then regards defense. Could Bruce or Ludwick be better defensive center fielders than Choo?
If we're going to compare those three defensively, what matters most to me is runs. First step, speed, hands, and arm strength are all valuable measures of success but in the end, players give up or save runs -- and runs win games. (The three haven't played enough games in center field to yield significant defensive statistics, in my mind, so I'll look at their career outfield numbers).
In terms of value, Choo's fielding runs above average last season (-17.0), which is based on ultimate zone rating (arm, range, errors), was worse than Bruce's (-5.5) and Ludwick's (-4.7). For reference, Stubbs' fielding value was 6.8 and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim CF Mike Trout was at 11.4.
So why not play Ludwick or Bruce in center? In an interview with John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer, manager Dusty Baker said that center field is a more physically demanding position and that he would worry about it hurting Bruce's offense. This concerns me as well. With regards to age, Bruce (who will be 26 when the season begins) seems most able to handle the physical demands of center field compared to Choo (30) and Ludwick (34). However, Bruce is able to dominate at the plate, and I'd like him to stay healthy as he will almost assuredly be wearing red longer than Choo and Ludwick. If Baker weighs in the risk of injury and offensive production, keeping Bruce in right field is a logical move.
In addition to his lack of playing time in center field, Choo's apparent lack of confidence is also concerning.
"I'm not comfortable there yet," Choo told Fay. "At the major-league level, I played 99 percent of my games in right field. I'll try. I'll work on it this spring training. We'll see how they're thinking. If they're not (happy), somebody else will be playing in center field."
Choo went on to tell Fay that he'll try the best he can and that he's aware of the skeptics.
I asked Fay on Twitter how much weight he places on Choo's apparent lack of confidence and he disagreed, saying that Choo just knows it's a big move.
"When I played center field in Seattle, I was a rookie. I was so nervous," Choo told Mark Sheldon of MLB.com. Heading into his ninth season, Choo said he's comfortable at the major-league level and that the transition will be a lot different.
In the end, I trust Walt Jocketty and Dusty Baker. If they didn't think trading for Choo was a good idea, it wouldn't have happened. If Choo is giving up more runs than producing them, he won't be in center.
Andrew J. Roth studied journalism at Lehigh University and received his Master's from the University of Illinois. He has been following the Reds and Major League Baseball since he met Barry Larkin in 1993.
For Reds and other sports tweets, follow him on Twitter @AndrewJohnRoth.
- Sports & Recreation
- Ryan Ludwick