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January 19th, 2009 By Isaac Thorn | Sports | Posted In: baseball

Alex Gonzalez, the Forgotten Man

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I can't go on writing "The Reds should sign (insert free agent's name here)” blogs much longer. Pitchers and catchers report soon enough, and who the Reds sign, if anyone, isn't likely to be a very big-time move.

(Although, out of the pool of players named in Mark Sheldon's recent article, I would be most excited about seeing Nomar Garicaparra wearing a Reds hat come April. Nomar is the Grant Hill of Major League Baseball – an incredibly hard-working, well-liked supertalent whose career has been hampered by injury after injury... seemingly without end. Remember when Nomar tore his groin and collapsed at home plate? That was a particularly difficult injury to watch. If Nomar could stay healthy for three quarters of the year, he could really help this team.)

The reason for considering Garciaparra is the Reds’ uncertainty at the shortstop position. So, besides this high-upside – though admittedly unlikely – addition to the infield, we should be less concerned with new acquisitions at this point and more concerned with figuring out what Alex Gonzalez can contribute and how tied to the team's success or failure he is.

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Checking the roster as of today, it appears that the catchers will be a lot better than they have been in recent years, which isn't saying much. Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips having solid, if not spectacular years seems likely.

Despite a few throws intended for the second baseman that will bounce into right field, Edwin Encarnacion is going to have really solid power numbers, clutch hitting and continued overall improvement. People love to microanalyze what Encarnacion doesn't do well, yet these losers who spent high school doing ollies instead of actually playing baseball well-respected friends and colleagues of mine fail to see other aspects of his growth as a player. He is becoming more disciplined at the plate and learning to make the pitcher work harder to get him out. In 2007 Encarnacion only drew 39 bases on balls. Last year he drew 61. He's going to be 26-years-old this year. Let's not act as if he's a 35-year old desperately hanging on to his job.

In short, the outfield is going to be just fine as well. Where you have the biggest question mark on this roster – more so than starting or relief pitching even – is at shortstop. Alex Gonzalez played in 103 games for the Reds since the team signed him in 2007. His attendance record as a Red is similar to this writer's attendance record at UC during his studies there. The thing is, when Gonzalez was able to play he played well. In fewer than 500 plate appearances as a Red, he’s hit 16 homers.

My theory is that in a ballpark like GABP, you've got to get at least a dozen home runs out of every player who takes the field for you more than half the time. I like Jeff Keppinger, and maybe his performance declined last year after the kneecap fracture he sustained, but he doesn't have the power that Gonzalez does. If Gonzalez can play every day, provide the defense for which he was signed and hit more than 15 home runs, I believe the Reds’ odds of contending become much greater.

All the other "What if?" scenarios seem easier to compensate for than this shortstop situation. I may end up being wrong on this one, but I think that if Alex Gonzalez isn't able to produce for one reason or another, that the Reds’ chances of staying in the hunt are greatly diminished. Let's hope that Gonzalez returns healthy and gets hot early. The Reds have a young, fun team to watch. Imagine if they started winning.

Image: Reds shortstop Alex Gonzalez doing something cool because he's not injured.

 
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