The Reds dropped two of three to the Cardinals this weekend in St. Louis, dropping them out of first place for the first time this season. No doubt, this will send the message board denizens and talk show callers into a tizzy, calling for trades, demotions, and heads to roll. One of Dusty Baker’s chief attributes has been his ability to forsake the “knee-jerk” response and stick with his game plan. This positive, however, has bordered on stubbornness on occasion (see Corey Patterson and Willie Tavares) allowing struggling players with little hope of turning it around to remain in the lineup and hurt the team.
With Scott Rolen being placed on the disabled list, Dusty Baker needs to make two moves immediately to shore up his ballclub: Chris Heisey needs to play left field every day and Brandon Phillips needs to move to the cleanup spot.
Rolen’s absence triggers a series of dominoes that leaves the Reds in a precarious situation, as evidenced by them hitting 2-24 with runners in scoring position this weekend. With Rolen out of the cleanup spot, Joey Votto took on the role of Barry Bonds, being intentionally walked and pitched around the entire series. While it’s true that Votto is such a threat that Johnny Bench might not provide adequate protection hitting behind him, Scott Rolen’s ability to put the bat on the ball in key situations is much more daunting than Johnny Gomes. Gomes went on an anomalous tear last year hitting with RISP. He’s since returned to earth, hitting 4-24 (.167) thus far this season. The Reds didn’t trade Adam Dunn to get this kind of production (and defense) out of their everyday left-fielder. Jay Bruce is getting paid to drive in runs, but clearly isn’t ready for that cleanup position mentally yet, and I agree with Dusty’s reluctance to bat lefties Votto and Bruce consecutively. Bruce isn’t going to get Votto any better pitches to hit either. Brandon Phillips will.
Phillips has displayed an uncanny knack for hitting throughout the lineup during his career. He’s produced from just about every spot in the order. He’s actually performed quite well in that position, with a .280 career average and an OPS of .792 from the 4-hole. Add that he’s much less of a double play threat than Gomes or Bruce, and he has the ability to make teams pay for pitching around Votto.
Meanwhile, Chris Heisey is languishing on the Reds bench. Even in spot duty, the young outfielder has shown some speed and some pop. His career OPS is .767, just a fraction less than Gomes, while his average is 10 points higher. And Heisey’s defensive skills are much more valuable now with Rolen’s absence on the left side of the infield. Dusty needs to let Heisey play in a rotation with Gomes similar to the way he’s using Paul Janish and Edgar Renteria.
As far as third base is concerned, Baker should let young prospect Juan Francisco have a crack at the everyday 3B job. His potential for this club is off the charts, yet some consider him another Willie Greene or Edwin Encarnacion. Now would be the time to find out. Francisco is a natural third baseman, and could provide some additional power to the lineup. Miguel Cairo is a fantastic utility player, but asking him to take over every day for any extended period is not only too much for him, but weakens the bench.
So Dusty, listen up. This is how you should play during Rolen’s absence. Put Heisey in left and hit him number two. Move Phillips to the cleanup spot between Votto and Bruce. Let Francisco hit either behind Bruce or move up Hernandez/Hannigan into the 6-hole if you want to alternate lefty/righty matchups.
With Homer Bailey and Johnny Cueto’s returns still a bit away, the Reds can’t afford to go into an offensive drought. While Dusty’s patience has rewarded him in the past, now is not the time to wait. Giving away games in the competitive NL Central could be deadly come September. The time to act is now.