If you haven’t heard, the Reds are rebuilding and have acquired and drafted an impressive group of young, talented players. That’s important because teams that rebuild typically have insufficient talent throughout the system, which is why they were bad in the first place.
The Reds mostly likely hit rock bottom in 2015 and have begun their ascent to more respectable levels. The heights to which they will rise depend on how well they develop the young talent they’ve collected. The way they’ve handled young pitchers thus far is perplexing at best, but we can clearly see the Reds development plan for their position players.
They’ve rightfully stayed with Jose Peraza in spite of his struggles this season and troubling offensive profile. Scott Schebler looked lost for the first few weeks of April, and the team’s patience with him has paid dividends. Last season, when Eugenio Suarez hit dreadfully in May (.173/.229/.357) and scuffled at third base early, the Reds let him adjust.
Giving young players with limited MLB experience a chance to adjust to the most advanced game on earth is prudent. It usually takes both pitchers and hitters time to figure out the speed of the game and overcome weaknesses that MLB players can expose. Mike Trout struggled early, as did Clayton Kershaw. It happens to almost everyone.
How long teams give a player to figure it out depends on many factors including progress made, age, and other players waiting in the wings. Players can provide value in different ways as well.
Billy Hamilton is playing in his fourth full season at age 26. If you believe the defense and base running metrics, he has been an above-average player overall producing between 2.0 and 3.7 WAR over the last three seasons. He’s the best combination of defense and base running in the game.
His problem has always been with the bat, and if we are honest, he hasn’t really improved since he reached the Majors. Right now, Hamilton’s 56 wRC+ places him among the five worst offensive players in baseball. He’s never been better than 21% worse than league average with the bat.
Do his virtues overcome his shortcomings at the plate? How long should the Reds wait for Hamilton to improve? Those are difficult questions to answer, especially with a potential elite bat waiting in the wings.
Jesse Winker has seemingly played in the Reds system since the dawn of creation. In reality, he was drafted as an 18-year-old in 2012 and methodically made his way through the minors, ranking as high as 26th on national prospect rankings (MLB). To this point, Winker has slashed .298/.398/.450 in his minor league career and currently sports an .810 OPS at AAA.
While impressive, Winker does have his deficiencies. By all accounts, Winker is a below-average runner who will likely be middling defensively. Since coming to AAA, Winker has also experienced a power outage that’s concerning for a corner outfielder.
Keep in mind that Winker did show plenty of power from rookie ball through AA. In 2015, after struggling to start the season in AA Pensacola, Winker slugged .497 and posted a .186 ISO from June 2nd until the end of the season. He hit 11 home runs in 345 plate appearances during that span and 13 dingers overall that year. The power is there somewhere and could re-emerge at some point.
Maybe it’s already begun. In Winker’s last six games spanning AAA and the Majors, he’s doubled six times, a sign that he might be beginning to drive the ball with authority.
Even if the power doesn’t return in full force, Winker has proven that he can punish a baseball. Eric Longenhagen at Fangraphs gives Winker’s future bat grade a 70 on the 20-80 scale, which is elite territory. It’s hard to find anyone that doesn’t like Winker’s approach and hit ability. But as we know, Winker has not only hit well at AAA, he’s hit a positional roadblock as well.
The Reds corner outfielders, Adam Duvall and Scott Schebler, have bashed opposing pitching for 35 home runs thus far in 2017. The two sluggers have mirrored each other in production with Duvall producing 117 wRC+ and 1.4 WAR to Schebler’s 116 wRC+ and 1.3 WAR. No one in their right mind would want to take those two out of the lineup, though a trade could be a possibility.
Winker’s ready, but it would take removing Hamilton from the lineup and moving Scott Schebler to centerfield to get Winker everyday at bats. That move comes with its own set of risks. While Schebler is athletic, he is a significant downgrade from Hamilton and likely a poor centerfielder. Winker may also be a downgrade in right from the current structure.
And yet, at 23, Winker is likely the future in one of the corner spots. If this truly is the year of sorting, the Reds shouldn’t keep him in purgatory forever. He needs a couple hundred at bats in the Majors to begin to adjust.
To get Winker those at bats, the Reds could bench Hamilton or explore some type of platoon system where Schebler slides over to center three or four times a week.
Benching Hamilton completely is tough because he is still only 26, and his defense makes up for plenty of the sins of the pitching staff. I can’t bring myself to that point yet even though I see the argument. It doesn’t help that Schebler looks like an extreme drop off on defense.
But the Reds will have to make a decision sooner or later about which three outfielders they want to play going forward and to wisely decide, Winker needs to play substantially this season. If not right now, it needs to happen soon.
Maybe the Reds package a current outfielder with something else at the trade deadline. If so, Winker will get two months of regular playing time. If all four outfielders remain, the Reds should make Billy a part-time player and give Winker as many plate appearances as possible.
He’s too good to keep down in AAA forever. If Winker’s time isn’t now, it better be coming very soon. At some point, the future needs to become the present.