This year’s free agent market has been extremely slow in developing, and there are still big-name guys waiting to find out where they fit in. The opportunity is ripe for a team like the Reds, with a little cash to spend, to find a rare deal. But the Reds are a weird team right now, and it’s been difficult to figure out what would be a good move, even if it comes for less than market value.
The Reds so far have traded for a veteran catcher and signed two speedy outfield-type guys to presumably bat at the top of the order. They’ve said all along that they’re looking for a right-handed hitting power hitter to play left field. But that guy doesn’t exist in the free agent pool anymore. And even if he did, his signing would throw the Reds’ batting order into a strange mix of skills.
The first problem is that there is no clear No. 2 hitter. Jeff Keppinger is the most appropriate candidate — he sees a lot of pitches and doesn’t strike out much — but he probably won’t be a starter. Jerry Hairston, Jr. is a possibility if he’s healthy and Willy Taveras can hold onto the leadoff spot. These are OK options.
But that means Brandon Phillips continues to bat fourth when he’s really more of a “not ideal two-hole hitter but a good guy to have at the top of the lineup” type hitter. But past limitations at righty power bat have forced BP to hit fourth, separating strikeout kings Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn. And this year young lefties Joey Votto and Jay Bruce need to be separated by someone.
So even if the Reds were to sign the elusive power hitting left fielder who hits for a decent average (yea, not Adam Dunn), it would send Phillips up in the order but take away a defensive position from Hairston, unless shortstop Alex Gonzalez never returns from injury.
The real problem, then, is that Edwin Encarnacion is taking up a power-hitter defensive position, playing bad defense and not hitting cleanup. Encarnacion is definitely a decent hitter — he still has upside, though his development has demonstrated a very slow progression over the past couple years. He’s probably a No. 5- or 6-type hitter at this point, and that’s where he’ll probably be this year, but it’s too bad because he would greatly benefit from a little protection. But he doesn’t deserve it if he can’t lay off a two-strike outside breaking ball.
So even in “The Year of the Cheap Free Agent Hitter,” the Reds can’t fit anyone into their lineup. Some have speculated that Bobby Abreu would be a good fit here, and he’s a very good hitter who would probably bring the Reds a couple draft picks after he leaves as a free agent in a couple years. But it doesn’t make sense unless you’re going with Phillips in the two-hole and Hairston wherever else. Plus you have to put EE between the three lefties.
At this point, the Reds would be best suited by trading Encarnacion for pitching and then signing Ty Wigginton or trading for a third baseman who can hit fourth. Wigginton is a better hitter than Encarnacion, plus you’d pick up big league ready pitching (lefty starter Jonathan Sanchez has been rumored as a possible match). And even if you have to trade Homer Bailey and another young player for the likes of Colorado third baseman Garrett Atkins, you’re picking up guys from the Encarnacion trade to replace them.
Encarnacion is a bit young to throw him in with Griffey and Dunn as part of the “I’m a decent offensive player but my team never wins” category. But he’s not going to become what the Reds need and he’s in the way of someone who could.