In the wake of an off-season which saw the Reds make few moves of note, General Manager Walt Jocketty and company received a significant bit of criticism for the signing of Willy Taveras to play center field. Much of that criticism was fueled by the recent Corey Patterson debacle, and the fear that Reds fans were about to see a repeat of that 2008 disaster.

Full disclosure here: I led the charge to hammer the Reds for signing Taveras at the time. Lately, however, I’ve been wondering whether we are underestimating Taveras and the positive impact he could have on the 2009 Reds. I’m going to try to make that case here.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: I simply cannot defend the decision to give Taveras a two-year contract. Giving Taveras a two-year deal, when all reports indicated that no one else was willing to give him much more than a minor league deal, is a terrible waste of resources for a team on a budget.

Ignoring 2010 for a moment, what does Taveras bring to the table in 2009? Taveras’s critics focus on a few specific items that are not without merit. First, his 2008 numbers with Colorado were simply dreadful: .251 batting average, .308 OBP, .296 SLG. Just horrific. On top of the fact that Taveras stunk at the plate, his defense the last two years in Colorado, by most measures, was not good at all.

So, his critics have said, if he can’t play good defense, and he is a sinkhole at the plate who will be hitting leadoff under Dusty Baker, what good is he? Baseball Prospectus 2009 sums up the argument against Taveras pretty well in their latest annual:

After four years as a starting center fielder, two with Houston and two with Colorado, Taveras has few surprises left, yet the Rockies only just figured out that the only thing he can do is run. That skill allows him to cover plenty of ground in center and steal bases, but that’s really it — he has little in the way of on-base skills and even less power. The Rockies tried to trade him, but when they realized that nobody was interested, they just let him go, nontendering him. In one of the winter’s biggest surprises, he got a two-year, $6.25 million deal with the Reds; apparently their taste for quality in center was ruined by Corey Patterson.

Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? What were the Reds thinking?????

Okay, now let’s try to defend Taveras. First, remember that he just turned 28. That is helpful to keep in mind, as it helps color the way we look at the guy (i.e., he’s not set to decline just yet).

Now, I love Baseball Prospectus. Those guys are usually right on target, they’re smart, and I’m a huge fan. I just bought their latest book. They don’t like Willy Taveras, and they make a good case.

But what did BP say about Taveras, just twelve months ago? Here’s the entry from Baseball Prospectus 2008:

Groin and quad injuries limited Taveras to 97 games in 2007. When healthy, he was a critical part of the Rockies’ performance, giving them a true defensive center fielder — a great one, actually — for the first time in franchise history. His glove, along with that of Tulowitzki, knocked enough runs off the board to make the soft-throwing Rockies staff an effective one. Taveras has been working this offseason to improve his conditioning with an eye toward staying in the lineup. If healthy, he’s a down-ballot MVP candidate thanks to his speed-driven batting average and Gold Glove-quality defense in center.

Wow. Big difference between the two evaluations of the same player within twelve months of each other.

Again, I love BP, but a guy doesn’t just change from a “down-ballot MVP candidate” to Corey Patterson in one year. Taveras is just 28. Isn’t there a reasonable chance that we’ll see the guy BP saw before last year? I say it’s possible.

Let’s talk about Taveras’ defense. Yes, it was not good for the last two years, according to the advanced defensive metrics. Before that, however, Taveras’ defense was simply outstanding during his time with Houston. He was a great fielder.

Isn’t there a reasonable chance that the “decline” in Taveras’ defensive ratings was due to the crazy conditions in Colorado, rather than any actual decline in a kid who should be entering his prime? I say it’s not just possible, but probable…and a great defensive center fielder will be very valuable for a team that was as bad defensively as the Reds were last year.

Another positive for Taveras is his baserunning ability. The guy stole bases at a better than 90% clip last year, piling up 68 SBs. That’s a not insignificant talent. I’m not big on stealing bases, because if you don’t steal at a good rate, you are giving up precious outs needlessly. A guy who can steal like Taveras, though, really can be an asset, turning singles into doubles and doubles into triples.

To be fair, Taveras’ SB rates have never been as good as they were last year, though he’s improved steadily. This is a one of those skills that players can learn (i.e., reading pitchers, etc.). Isn’t it reasonable to believe that Taveras has really acquired a skill to steal bases more effectively, thus making him even more valuable than he otherwise would be? I say it’s possible.

Now, I can’t really defend Dusty putting Taveras at the top of the order. He’s more of a 7/8 hole hitter. But there is some reason to hope that something has clicked with Taveras, in terms of his on-base skills (as we’ve already discussed). Guess who leads the Reds in walks this spring?

Yep, Taveras (spring OBP: .378). Actually, he’s tied with Joey Votto, but Willy has 12 fewer ABs. Even better, Taveras ranked in the top ten of all World Baseball Classic players in walks. Taveras walked 6 times in only 13 plate appearances. He posted a .615 OBP! In total, that’s twelve walks in 57 plate appearances. No one can argue with those numbers.

(Editor’s note: guess who led the WBC in walks? Yep, our old buddy Adam Dunn.)

Yes, it’s an absurdly small sample size, and I don’t think we should make too much of his spring performance. If nothing else, though, it’s reason to hope that Taveras is taking seriously the importance of getting on base. He’s not going to be a Brandon Phillips-type free swinger.

If Taveras can put up numbers somewhere close to his 2007 Colorado numbers, combines that with great defense (a clear weakness for the 2008 Reds), and an ability to swipe a base without getting caught very often, Willy Taveras will help the Reds. I think he can do all that, and even exceed those 2007 numbers. Maybe that’s my annual spring optimism talking, maybe not.

Taveras is decidedly not Corey Patterson. He had a terrible year last year in many respects, but I truly don’t believe he’s as bad as he showed last year. On the other hand, he’s not a “down-ballot MVP candidate either.” More likely, he’s somewhere in between.

I can live with that. I’m willing to give Taveras a chance to prove himself to me in 2009. There are signs that he could be an average or better player, when you consider his defense and baserunning abilities. There is value in that type of player.

So give Willy Taveras a chance! (Or use the comment section below to tell me why I’m crazy!)