Patterson Throws Wrench in Bruce Plan
by Bryce McRae
on March 18, 2008 @ 05:39:36
As good as Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto or starting pitcher Homer Bailey may become, the prospect with arguably the most potential in the Reds' system is outfielder Jay Bruce. His outstanding 2007 numbers resulted in Bruce being awarded the Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year. The Reds were thinking Bruce could push for the starting spot in center field this spring, despite never having participated at the major league level. However, there are a few players in his way - outfielders Corey Patterson, Norris Hopper and Ryan Freel - and manager Dusty Baker has a well-known reluctance to entrust starting spots to young players.
Major Dominance in Minors
Overall in the minors last year, Bruce hit .319 with 26 home runs, 89 RBIs and 80 extra-base hits. Bruce began 2007 beating up on pitchers at high Class A Sarasota. In 67 games at that level, he hit .325 with 11 home runs, 49 RBIs and 49 runs. A promotion to Double-A Chattanooga did not slow him down at all, as he hit .333 with four home runs, 15 RBIs and 10 runs in just 16 games. He ended up finishing the season with Triple-A Louisville, where he hit .305 with 11 home runs, 25 RBIs and 28 runs in 50 games.
Bruce possesses excellent bat speed for a prospect, which should help him in the majors. However, working against him are two big roadblocks. First, he has played just 66 games above Single-A ball and could use some more experience. Second, the team recently signed Patterson, which could signal their intention to start Bruce in the minors. It has also not helped that Bruce (hamstring) has missed time this spring with a mild strain of his left quadriceps muscle.
A free agent until earlier this week, Patterson, 28, was scooped up off the free-agent pile after Baker asked for another veteran outfield presence in camp. The move will also reunite Baker and Patterson, who spent three years together with the Chicago Cubs. Patterson played in 132 games for the Baltimore Orioles last year, hitting .269 with eight home runs, 45 RBIs, 65 runs and an impressive 37 stolen bases. His average was on the rise, as well, because he hit .313 after the All-Star break. He has also displayed some power in past seasons, hitting 16 home runs during the 2006 season. Perhaps the biggest thing for Patterson, though, will be having his former manager in his corner. He has also made a strong impression early in spring training by going 9-for-19 (.474).
Hopper, 29, played 56 games in center field for the Reds last year, hitting .363 with 30 runs and 10 stolen bases. Over the course of the season, Hopper hit .329 with 51 runs and 14 stolen bases in 121 games. He has the potential to steal more than 20 bases while also hitting for a high average. He brings a potentially high batting average to a team that desperately needs that type of hitter. One thing to keep in mind is that, in 890 minor league games, Hopper has a career .289 batting average and .343 on-base percentage. Those marks are considerably lower than his major league marks (.332 and .379, respectively, in 142 games) in less time. This could very well be an indication that Hopper's numbers are headed for a correction if he were to get regular playing time. He has gone 10-for-36 (.278) this spring.
Freel, 32, batted .245 with 15 steals and 44 runs in 277 at-bats last season. It was a down year after he left spring training as the team's everyday center fielder. A concussion and knee problems tore apart his season, but injuries are nothing new to Freel. His somewhat reckless style of play, while commendable, has also led him to the trainer's room on plenty of occasions. Before 2007, Freel was never considered a regular part of Cincinnati's lineup, partly because of his versatility and partly because of the players in front of him. However, in the previous three seasons (in which he averaged more than 442 at-bats), Freel never batted below .271 and swiped at least 36 bases in each year. He has gone 14-for-37 (.378).
With the options available for the Reds, it should make for an interesting battle at this position. Baker's favoritism of veterans would seem to work against Bruce; it would also seem to work in favor of Patterson, Hopper and Freel. Reds management might want to give fans hope for the future, and nothing would show that more than having Bruce starting on opening day in center field. However, Baker wants to put a lineup on the field that he trusts and believes gives him the best chance to win.
Of the three players that stand in Bruce's way, Freel is the least likely to win the job in center. One reason is that he's versatile enough to back up at second and third base as well as in any spot in the outfield. Another is that, at this stage of his career, he doesn't represent dependability in an everyday option. Freel isn't worth drafting except in deep NL-only leagues. Hopper is an intriguing option, but his major league experience comes from a small sample size, and there is reason to believe that he won't succeed as a regular. If Hopper wins the job, he could be worth a a draft pick in NL-only leagues and perhaps a late one in deep mixed ones because he has some upside, but his playing time isn't safe.
The fantasy value for each player could change by opening day, but at this point, consider Patterson to have the most fantasy potential. He would likely give your team a big boost in the steals category, and his numbers could be quite good while playing at the hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. Baker lobbied for the Reds to sign a veteran outfielder for quite some time, and he certainly made no secrets of his affinity for Patterson. Due to his history with Baker, and Baker's preference for veterans, it appears the center field job could be Patterson's to lose. Baker has even alluded to the fact that Patterson could be his leadoff hitter, which makes his value very intruguing. He could be taken in the final rounds of mixed league drafts, and his stock is on the rise. He does come with some risk because he isn't a lock to hold the job all year, either.
Finally, if Bruce wins the job, look at him in the mid-to-late rounds of a mixed league draft. With his potential, he could put up numbers that have him bringing him home another piece of hardware at the end of the year, that being the National League Rookie of the Year Award.
About Bryce McRae
Bryce McRae is a Managing Editor with KFFL and has been involved in fantasy sports since 1999. He joined KFFL as a volunteer writer in March 2005 before becoming a Hot off the Wire Analyst in March 2006. He began working in his current capacity in September 2008. His work has appeared on fantasy sports sites such as Yahoo! and CBS Sportsline as well as in print. He graduated from the University of British Columbia in 2008 with a B.A. in History and U.S. Studies.
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