2007 Reds / Reds - General

Case Study: Care and Feeding of Young Third Basemen

(Editor’s note: I bumped this post to the top. Don’t miss today’s Down On The Farm, which is just below.)

We’ve been round and round about how the Reds have treated Edwin Encarnacion (benched repeatedly, demoted twice, pulled from a game, etc.). I have my theory, too, that Jerry Narron isn’t especially suited to working with young players.

Rather than rehash that story, I thought I’d take a look at how another team does it. I live in San Diego, where the Padres spent the first month suffering through the struggles of rookie 3b Kevin Kouzmanoff. The Padres traded promising (and popular) young 2b Josh Barfield (.280, .318, .423, 21 SB last year) to Cleveland in exchange for Kouzmanoff (over 1000 OPS at two levels last year). That, obviously, put a lot of pressure on the 25-year-old, and he really struggled. Kouzmanoff “hit” .121 .178 .209 (387 OPS) in his first 101 PAs.

San Diego fans are pretty patient; the team is winning; and Kouzmanoff’s defense has been better than expected. That said, people started beefing about Kouzmanoff. it didn’t help that Russ Branyan, the primary alternative, has been drilling the ball (.224 AVG, but .356 OBP and .531 SLG – in Petco).

Manager Bud Black and GM Kevin Towers stuck with the rookie, though, and he’s come around nicely. In the 8 games heading into Thursday’s game, (starting when the Reds came to town), he’s hit .522 .586 .957 (1,543 OPS), and has 2 game-winning hits and that walk-off walk against the Reds.

The S.D. Union Tribune looked at the situation Thursday:

Kouzmanoff is appreciative. “Obviously, they had a lot of patience,” he said.

Said Towers: “We always tried to keep a long-term outlook because we really thought the guy was our third baseman of the future.”

During the final homestand in April, the club, in fact, discussed demoting Kouzmanoff. But Russell Branyan, the team’s other third baseman, was on the bereavement list, and Kouzmanoff began to show modest improvement before going on a tear this month that includes a towering two-run homer in the seventh inning last night.

Towers said Kouzmanoff’s stellar results in the minors led the Padres to believe that he would improve. Further, “there weren’t a lot of viable options” at third, Towers said, adding: “He never let his offensive woes affect his defense. And to me, he never looked beaten, even though he was struggling at the plate.”

This is the most important part, to me:

Speaking generally, shortstop Khalil Greene said a youngster’s development can hinge on several variables.

“The one thing you want to do as a young player, more than anything, is feel like you belong here and fit in,” Greene said. “That’s more difficult if you’re looking over your shoulder and feel like if you don’t have a good game, you’re gone.”

“Third baseman of the future”. . . “stellar results in the minor leagues” . . . “not a lot of viable options” . . . those sure sound familiar. Unfortunately, so does “looking over your shoulder” and worrying that one bad game will lead to demotion.

17 thoughts on “Case Study: Care and Feeding of Young Third Basemen

  1. I agree with your post, but unfortunately, here’s the problem:
    “San Diego fans pretty patient; the team is winning; and Kouzmanoff’s defense has been better than expected.” The Reds aren’t winning and Encarnacion’s defense isn’t better than expected.

    I think Aramis Ramirez’s history is another good comparison. He had a terrible Fpct early in his career. He had a good offensive season followed by a poor one. He turned out OK. This team is apparently not winning anything this year, so EdE should be at 3rd every night for the Reds.

  2. Not even a comparative argument.

    Kouz is a rookie, finding his way. Encarnacion had almost 200 games coming into this season and regressed in almost every facet of his game. He was making costly mistakes the big league club, in a skid, could not afford.

    If he goes to the minors, away from the pressure, works on a few things, great. If his errors and mental lapses and etc. cost Louisville games, big deal.

    It was the right move and hopefully the “refresher” helps a promising young player.

  3. FWIW, from Christina Karhl at BPro:

    Turning to Encarnacion, if the demotion was a matter of lighting a fire under him, as several have suggested, it seems he didn’t miss the point. Down in Batsville USA, he rattled off seven multi-hit games in 11, cranking out a .413/.426/.674 line that shows you can hit your way out of Kentucky as readily as off the island (Hispaniola, in Encarnacion’s case, lest we forget). As for whether or not this was really necessary, or if the Reds really did themselves a disservice by having guys like Keppinger and Juan Castro start five of the eleven games during the demotion, that can best be answered by whether or not they’re trying to get Encarnacion back into the picture as one of the key components of their lineup, or if their disgust (and Hamilton-fancying) hasn’t gotten to the point that they just don’t turn third over to Ryan Freel and trade their now-undermined third base prospect. If it’s the former, and the punitive demotion ends up being credited for Encarnacion’s turnaround, it’ll be part of the “good Krivsky” list, but if the latter, it may end up being as egregiously expensive as the Kearns/Lopez trade.

    I agree with Greg. The Reds aren’t winning anything this year. It’s time for Jerry to tell EdE to play third and not to worry – he won’t be hearing footsteps. But I do think a move across the diamond is likely at some point in the future, a la Doggie.

    And that begs the question of what we do with an apparent surfeit of first basemen. Dunn should have been at first all along. EdE may be better off there, and Joey sez , “What about me?”.

    Whether it’s right or not, I think Dunn is gone at the trading deadline and if not then, during the off season. So is the future (i.e. 2008 version) EdE at 1B and Votto in LF? And will that mean I won’t get my wish and see Farney shuffled off to Buffalo at the trading deadline?

    Inquiring minds want to know.

  4. Of course, I likely made an unwarranted assumption above – that EdE would remain a Red.

  5. Everyone thinks first base is an easy position to just pick up but it’s not. The first baseman has to pick up all the dirt balls players like EE throws at you or any other bad ball. What are the Reds going to get out of Dunn? Sure he strikes out a lot but he shows signs of improving. He has 12 home runs and how many of those have been solo shots?

    In the first 35 games, Narron had 7 different clean up hitters. He continues to change the lineup and because of that no one feels comfortable in the right spot. Maybe he is the person to get rid of rather than trading away the roster and switching everyone’s position.

  6. Jeff,

    I didn’t mean to imply that first was “easy”. But going from 3B to 1B is a rightward move on the defensive spectrum. It’s a move that has plenty of precedent. And it’s almost always done because of a perceived defensive deficiency at a more difficult position. In EdE’s case, it reduces the need to throw the ball as frequently and it seems that his more egregious errors are of that variety (haven’t looked it up so consider this anecdotal).

    I’m not in favor of trading Dunn. His SOs don’t bother me. After Casey was traded, I wanted to see Dunn at first. Going into 2006, both Dewan and BPro’s FRAA (not the best defensive metric but still) had Dunn at -4 at 1B (small sample size caveat). Just for comparison, average FRAA for all HoF 1B is -2. If Dunn could have made a successful conversion, he would have been more valuable both to the team in the present tense and as a trading chip, since the number of possible trading partners broadens to include the non-DH league.

    That didn’t happen and we have what we have. I would rather keep Dunn, but his cost coupled with the perception that he’s a one-dimensional player makes it highly likely that he gets moved to the DH league sooner rather than later. He will be more valuable at the trading deadline this season (or this off season) that next year during his walk year. Since I don’t believe Adam Dunn will be part of the next Reds’ championship team, and since I think he’s a good guy who doesn’t deserve to constantly have to shovel himself out from under the s**t piled on him by ignorant fans, I’ve reluctantly concluded it’s time to see if Dunn can be turned into a player(s) that will be part of our next championship. Hell, if nothing else it will force Marty to find a new whipping boy.

    On the subject of Narron – feh. Sure he needs to go but unless you replace him with a manager willing to play the kids and shepherd their development, it’s just swapping deck chairs on the Titanic. And other than luring Davey Johnson out of retirement – assuming he’s got his personal life all cleaned up – I don’t know who you hand the reins to that would be any better. Got any ideas?

  7. We had a fairly lengthy Dunn at first base discussion a long time ago. A couple of things I remember: his Fpct at first also ranked among the bottom of MLB first baseman and the number of chances a first baseman gets in a game is much larger than the number of times a LFer touches the ball. My conclusion from that was that moving Dunn to 1st would create more total team errors than if he stays in LF.

  8. Dunn at 1st….not again. But he would be a better option there then EE. EE needs to work diligently on defense at 3rd. He must want to play 3rd. He has played some 200 games in Cinncy and still has wretched defensive skills. 1st base is the least defensive place on the field but still you must have some ability there. That is why Conie and Hattieburg were signed. Votto in Louisville is an ok defender and will be good next term up here.

  9. As Greg and Redsfan point out, there are definitely differences b/w the situations in SD and with the Reds.

    But I’d argue that the differences make the Reds’ decisions less defensible, not more:

    – EE isn’t an unproven rookie – he’s earned the benefit of the doubt and time to work out of slumps (fielding and hitting) without “looking over his shoulder.” If Kouzmanoff deserves that chance, EE definitely does.

    – Second, the Padres are in contention; the Reds ain’t. The Padres are in a pennant rance, and don’t have that much room to spend time on player development.

    In contrast, everyone now seems to acknowledge that whether EE plays like Brooks Robinson or Johnny Bench at 3b, or hits like Mike Schmidt or Tom Lawless, the Reds are going to be in basically the same place (last).

  10. Greg,

    Don’t wish to go over old ground. I probably read that discussion in lurk mode.

    Fpct isn’t a particularly useful defensive metric (unless of course all the errors were on bobbled throws). I think Dewan’s’ +/- system gives a better picture. But despite the choice of metric, we are dealing with small sample size, so both of us are doing some projecting here.

    I’m not saying Dunn would be ideal at 1B. But there was a chance that his defense with work might approach league average (and it might not, of course). A near league average 1B with his bat is significantly more valuable that one of the worst LF in the game with the same bat. I think that’s worth a gamble. So I think it deserved more than a fortnight in ST before a decision was made. Particularly since any honest evaluation of the 2006 team would conclude that winning anything was a longshot.

    (Before you hit me over the head with the final standings, remember that the Reds played 12-under baseball from 1 May on. It wasn’t a good team, so using 2006 to focus on building for the future would have been both reasonable and prudent,)

  11. Yep, he’s played over 200 games at the major league level at age 23…and hit very well.

    But also he’s been…jerked in and out by Narron, he was scapegoated for “non-hustle”, he was shipped out the day after a 2 error night.

    Yet the team said that he worked as hard as anyone (and I’ve not heard anyone say differently, even off the record, though my sources are limited).

    So, I can’t imagine why he’d be looking over his shoulder all the time…

  12. Dunn’s had a lot of work in LF in an attempt to make him league average, so I’m not sure he would be improve to league average with work at first base.

    Assuming he could improve at first, he should move to first. Assuming he couldn’t improve at first, he should stay in LF.

    I thought he played a lot of games at first before his ST “experiment” but I haven’t looked it up recently.

  13. I think Dunn’s defense is fine in LF, given his bat. He’s much improved over years past. I wouldn’t fool with moving him at this point.

  14. Last night, he made a bad decision on a dive – something Ryan Freel does on a nightly basis. Literally.

  15. First, I want to apologize for bringing up Dunn and 1B. I realize that it’s been flogged to death throughout Reds fandom. Sorry if it stirred up the waters unnecessarily.

    It was more in the context of the observation that we seem to be amassing a fair bit of offensive firepower that may belong at the rightward end of the defensive spectrum.

    Chris, I’m not anti-Adam. But realistically, I think he’s going to be moved – or allowed to walk at the end of 2008. So I think it’s time to follow Branch Rickey’s maxim and try and turn Dunn into some useful parts for the next championship run. I would prefer to keep him, but I don’t think that’s the way our front office is thinking – when they think at all.

    So, I can’t imagine why he’d be looking over his shoulder all the time…

    Right, and given that I’m not sure GABP is going to be the venue where he works it out at 3B. There’s a psychological factor and if Edwin thinks Narron is perched on the dugout rail doing his best imitation of Snoopy as a vulture, it’s no wonder he’s got a case of the yips. Of course, this is another point of evidence in the case against Narron’s retention.

    Greg – Dunn played 108 games at 1B from 2002-2006 and made 13 errors.

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