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!)

29 Responses

  1. Matt Steele

    I want you to be right and I want my thoughts to be proven wrong… but I’m just not convinced that he’s going to do much. CP was supposed to be fast and a good defensive CF… while CP wasn’t terrible in the field, I’m not sure how much better Willy will be.

    He would also be a much better base stealer if he got on base more (obviously) and that is my biggest concern with him at the top of the lineup

    Who knows… maybe he has undergone some significant changes to his approach and manner in the batter’s box… but until he proves it on the field, color me unconvinced.

    I’ll give Willy a chance, I don’t really boo hometown players anyway or speak that negatively about them. I’ll also give Owings a chance… but my predisposition towards them is unfortunately not the right fit for Cincinnati. I hope I’m wrong

  2. Mr. Redlegs

    Absolutely awesome thread starter. Arguments on both sides of the fence and the best part was comparing the BP annuals from last year to this year. Great job, great reader. I’m linking this bad boy.

  3. doug

    Chad, good stuff. I have to admit, I was right there with you beating my head against the wall and yelling from the rafters when we signed Taveras. With that said, the guy has actually impressed me between the WBC and spring training with his plate approach. He may only hit 1-2 HR’s, but if he keeps up a decent plate approach and keep up a solid walk rate I won’t complain much this season (about Taveras).

  4. Mark in CC

    I supported the signing at the time and nothing so far has changed my mind.

    I think the two year signing says alot about being committed to a plan and also what management really thinks of Drew Stubbs.

  5. Kerm

    I think when the Tavaras signing happened, some of us were still feeling the effects of losing Adam Dunn. I think you make some good points Chad, and I am optimistic that Tavares will be a component that this team has been missing, and hopefully will give Bruce, Votto, and Co. someone to knock in on a regular basis.

  6. Sultan of Swaff

    I find it almost inconceivable he won’t reach his career OBP average of .331. For the money and the speed, I think we’ll get what we paid for.

  7. Dan

    If can do better than, say, a .350 OBP and play above-average defense in CF, I’ll have no complaints.

    I, too, hated this signing at first and have come around a bit on it. I’ll definitely give Fast Willy a chance.

    I agree w/ you, Chad, on the defensive stuff too — Colorado’s outfield is so huge and the air is so thin, it wouldn’t surprise me if there were something weird and misleading about defensive stats from there.

  8. John

    I’m willing to give Taveras a chance. Thing is, I don’t think it’s Taveras that people are particularly worried about. What concerned me at the time and still concerns me and so many others is how Dusty Baker will use Taveras. If Taveras plays well and hits capably and steals bases and all that, then let him lead off. But if he has a Pattersonian OBP by June 1 and he’s still leading off, then that’s just bad managing. Just because you have few outfield options does not necessarily mean you have few lineup options.

  9. Dennis

    I was big on the signing of Taveras, and haven’t wavered, despite all the comparisons to CP. Willie’s actually 27 years old (not 28), which is a huge breakout year in baseball. I think we got him for possibly the best two years of his career.
    Last year, Willie mastered the art of stolen bases, with his amazing .900 success rate. Rickie Henderson averaged .800 over his career.
    This year, if Willie can learn to master the art of patience at the plate, and if he could push his OBP to .400 (which is what Henderson averaged over his career), then I boldly predict he steals 100 bases this year, provided Dusty Baker doesn’t get in his way.
    Willie is considered the fastest player in baseball, with an ability to go from home to first in 3.56 seconds. Jose Reyes, even batting left handed, can only average 3.9 seconds to first.
    Willie may completely disappoint us, but on the other hand, considering he is 27 and in his breakout year, I’m totally optimistic on the guy.

  10. pinson343

    Great post, Chad, by far the best post I’ve seen on Taveras.
    I remember him best in his Houston days and if he can play like that, along with improved base stealing and getting on base a little more, wow.

    I mostly liked the deal at first, but assumed we’d also pick up an RBI guy to play LF. We didn’t do that. I like Dickerson’s defense and athleticism, but he’s got to be considered a question mark for 2009. Add in Gomes and Hairston and we have an iffy situation in LF.

    Bottom line: I’m much more concerned about LF than CF.

  11. Cary Loughman

    What I find most stunning is the flip flop of BP that would make John Kerry blush. He must’ve turned them down for a date to the prom.

  12. Dan

    Dennis, I’m sorry, but every time you put “Willy Taveras” (non-tendered by the Rockies) and “Rickey Henderson” (first-ballot Hall of Famer, best leadoff hitter of all time) in the same thought, you lose credibility with me.

  13. Josh

    Fay says Keppinger traded to the Astros for a PTBNL.

  14. Trade rumors UPDATED – Redleg Nation

    […] I’d be surprised if anything came of this, but just the thought is scary enough. Matthews is the most overpaid player in the majors. He’s a fifth outfielder for LAnaheim. No thanks. I prefer Willy Taveras. […]

  15. Matt Steele

    I don’t think age 27 and 28 are years for breakout seasons but rather an athlete’s prime years. So I don’t expect a remarkable improvement on his career line but it’s possible that he can reach an OBP at about ..350

    If he gets to .400 though, for the season, I will buy everyone on here a new Mercedes.

    I also thought that Carl Crawford was considered the fastest player in baseball no?

    Regardless, speed doesn’t mean much if you can’t get on base (see: Joey Gathraight, fastest and perhaps most athletic player in baseball over the past few years and can’t get on base to save his life)

    As for Colorado giving off misleading defensive stats…. I don’t really think that there is any evidence for that… no more than there was any evidence that Wrigley field or Candlestick park affected defensive stats/ability either.

    I’m optimistic about the season, but I hesitate to get too optimistic over Willy. I would feel much better if he wasn’t batting leadoff and we had perhaps other offensive weapons around him, but I feel like we might rely on him a little too much.

  16. brublejr

    Great read Chad. I’ll give him a chance based on what he has shown all of spring. .350 OBP or better is what is needed from him this year to be productive.

  17. Tom Diesman

    I’ll give Taveras a chance, but only because I have to because the Reds were foolish enough to sign him. So I’ll be praying that the damage is lessened by Taveras returning to a league average OBP and average to slightly above average defense in CF this season.

    I still maintain that his SBs don’t make up enough for his bad hitting. His lifetime numbers are .283 .331 .337 .668. Factoring in his CS to OBP and SB into SLG, he is something around a .283 .311 .423 .734. So while his SBs do add quite a bit of value to his offensive production, he is still far shy of the average major league CF of last year who put up a .752 OPS.

  18. Chris

    Good stuff, though I’m constitutionally inclined to bitch about guys like Taveras.

    As for BP, they really did flip-flop on this. I assume a different writer wrote the Denver chapter this year. What can you say when a guy loses 150 points of OPS for no discernible reason?

  19. Chad Dotson

    Just trying to play the devil’s advocate. I got the idea from looking at the Taveras entry in last year’s BP while waiting for this year’s edition to arrive by mail.

  20. Fireball44

    I’ll say now what I said when they signed him…

    If Taveras can put together a season with a .350 OBP, good defense in center, and steal 50 bags with a low % of getting caught, then this isn’t a bad signing. Now, that was when I thought we were going to sign an RBI guy to play left, so I like this even less. I would MUCH rather we have signed Abreu to play left and had Dickerson or Hairston play center, but that’s neither here nor there.

  21. pinson343

    “I would MUCH rather we have signed Abreu to play left and had Dickerson or Hairston play center, but that’s neither here nor there.”

    I’m with you on that, Fireball.

  22. jinaz

    BPro really has become only a small step up from other baseball publications like ESPN. They claim authority and objectivity, but they’re becoming less and less credible and more and more like every other media outlet to my eye. The loss of Woolner, Fox, and now Silver has seriously depleted their stock of top-notch analysts. Your post, Chad, is a terrific example of the consequences of this.

    On Taveras’s fielding: FWIW, the Fan’s Scouting Report was very high on Taveras last season, with Colorado fans rating him as a well above-average defensive center fielder (equal to Carlos Gomez, Grady Sizemore, and Coco Crisp).
    http://www.tangotiger.net/scouting/pos2008_CF.html

    And TotalZone, which uses a different raw dataset than bUZR or THT’s RZR, projects Taveras as above-average compared to other center fielders.
    http://www.baseballprojection.com/taverwi1591.htm

    I think there’s a good chance that something is wrong with the park factor corrections (or something) for bUZR, in particular, as the dropoff in his ratings was extremely abrupt between Houston and Colorado. I could be wrong, but I’m not at all convinced that he’s a question in the outfield, and I think he’s probably going to be a plus defender for us.
    -j

  23. GRF

    Chad, let me echo the comments on this being a great idea for a thread. I also think we all are hoping for the best both for and from the guy.

    That having been said, I remain really skeptical about the signing. I understand this is not his fault, but putting aside the two year contract is something along the lines of “other than that how was the play Mrs. Lincoln?” Granted that no one appears to have fully appreciated how the market was going to develop, but this is just a terrible contract for a team with limited resources. We will never know if it really crowded out another option like Abreu but he would have to perform above even his best career performances to justify the deal in this market. If he plays to his career averages, Hopper and Dickerson were replacement level options in center at much less cost.

    The BP blurb is interesting, but it also came after a 2007 season where he played only about a 100 games. Here is what they said after full seasons in 2006 and 2005:

    2007

    He hits enough singles to give him a little bit of a batting average, and of course he`s a fast runner, but as a regular, Taveras is something of a disaster. He has no power and little patience, and his occasional stolen bases do nothing to make up for that. Putting him in the everyday lineup and batting him leadoff or second, thereby giving him a higher percentage of the team`s plate appearances, is just doing the opposing pitcher`s work for him. Taveras`s speed does make him a plus defender, something that will help cover the gaps at Coors, but he won`t provide the Rockies with a top-of-the-order hitter any better-equipped to help them than Juan Pierre was.

    2006

    A better player than most think, Taveras didn`t exactly light up the scoreboard in his first full season in the majors, but his defense was astonishing, to the tune of 31 runs saved over a replacement center fielder. He showed some significant plate discipline and even a little power in the minors. If he can avoid the minor hamstring and hand injuries that hampered him at times last year, he might be able to combine all the skills he`s shown and have a reasonably valuable career.

    In the three full seasons he has played, his highest OBP is .331 and his highest SLG is .341. I think the 2005, 2006 and 2008 full seasons are probably more representative of what we can expect of him than the partial 2007 season. Also, given he has played most of 4 years in the bigs at this point I don’t see how we can expect any real massive jump in his performance. I would love it if he could get the OBP up to .350, but with three full seasons well below that number, I think we can be hope for it but not expect it.

    That leads to my other complaint that his weaknesses just magnify an already existing problem. I agree that OBP is not the be all and end all of offensive statistics, but I think it is pretty well established it is very important. If we had other guys that were getting on base, we could perhaps afford Willy’s inability to do so more easily. But with all the on base issues in the lineup I think the problem is just going to compound itself.

    I admit I do not know what to think on the defense. It is possible the decline was Coors, it is possible it is something else. If he can save 30 some runs in the outfield, given our defensive issues, that would be great, but given the offensive issues we already had, I am just not sure even that would be worth it, and again the more recent experience is neagtive.

    Again, I am going to root for Willy and hope I am wrong on all this and that we end up creating havoc with the running game, and will gladly eat my words if that is the case. I just am not optimistic that is going to happen.

  24. preach

    I dunno, I know he is plus defensively, but using the word ‘astonishing’ is by far overstating it. I’ve watched an aweful lot of him these past three seasons and if we are strictly talking about the glove, I would rather have Patterson in CF. I’ve seen Willy take some strange angles and look a little lost on some things that a defensive specialist should be able to easily handle. His great speed allows him to adjust, but he’s far from the defensive superstar that is being portrayed. I put a premium on the stolen base that I know a lot of guys do not, and of course Willy isn’t CP at the plate, so I definately would rather have him on the team. But if that’s the greatest compliment I can pay the man, then this needed to be a one year deal period.

  25. RiverCity Redleg

    Chad, I agree with you 100%. This is exactly what I said in the comments when we first acquired him. I.e. we should give him a chance and he is not Corey Patterson. I mean, if he can steal 68 bases with a .300 obp, imagine what he can do with a .350 obp, or even a .330. My point is give the guy a chance, he could be very fun and exciting to watch. And if he does end up sucking (a definite possibility), we have to trust it will be addressed earlier that the CP situation was.

  26. per14

    “And if he does end up sucking (a definite possibility), we have to trust it will be addressed earlier that the CP situation was.”

    RiverCity I agree with what you said. But, I disagree with that last sentence. I don’t see a reason anything will be different esp. because this is a 2-year contract plus it was Jocketty’s “big” signing. He’ll give Taveras plenty of rope as will Dusty.