There has been a lot of discussion about the Reds options in left field for the upcoming season. Much of the discussion has been focused on Jonny Gomes and the possibility of obtaining Johnny Damon (because the left fielder must be named Jonny or Johnny, you know). Some people want to see Chris Dickerson get the majority of at-bats out there, and many want Laynce Nix to get some playing time. Heck, some have even suggested Chris Heisey or Todd Frazier be given a shot.

What about Wladimir Balentien?

I admit, I’ve kinda ignored Balentien since he was acquired in a pretty good move by Walt Jocketty late last summer. Frankly, with an OPS+ of 82 in just under 300 ABs last year (between Seattle and Cincinnati), it isn’t like Balentien has done much to make us all sit up and take notice.

For some time now, I’ve been meaning to look a bit closer at Wladimir. After all, he had a good reputation as a prospect, and he’ll just be 25 this year. Might the Reds have an asset on their hands? We’re going to find out this year; Balentien is officially out of options, so he’ll either make the team out of spring training or the Reds will risk losing him.

Balentien ripped through the minor leagues, with outstanding power numbers and adequate, if not-overwhelming on-base skills. He has shown progress with his plate discipline over his career, which is a good sign.

In the majors, of course, Balentien has been overmatched. In 559 ABs, Balentien has posted a dismal 73 OPS+ (655 OPS) with this line: .221/.281/.374 and only 15 homers and 52 RBI. Wins above replacement: 0.8. His contact rate has been abysmal (70%; the MLB average is more than ten percentage points higher), due mostly to his problems with breaking pitches.

That certainly won’t get it done as a major league corner outfielder, even though his defense in LF appears to be decent to good.

Projections for 2010 are somewhat encouraging however, depending on where you look. The most optimistic is the CHONE projection, which sees Balentien putting up an 829 OPS on the strength of a .265/.342/.487 line, with 20 homers. CHONE also sees 2.4 wins above replacement, which isn’t a bad number at all for a 25-year-old (and that’s as good or better than any of the other LF options).

Marcel, on the other hand, projects Balentien for .240/.306/.395 with 10 homers. Other projections are between those two extremes (all of these projections are based on part-time duty, 300-375 AB).

Balentien hits right-handed, so you would think it would be natural to explore a platoon with a lefty (Nix or Dickerson). Not so fast, my friend. As noted by FanGraphs, Balentien actually has a reverse platoon-split; he’s better against right-handed pitchers!

The more I look at Balentien’s career, the more I think he could be a realistic option as a starting major league left fielder. He’s still a bit of an enigma to me, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him start off well, get a bunch of ABs as Dusty Baker tries to ride the hot hand, and really jump-start a decent major league career.

On the other hand, I could also see him swinging and missing a ton early and getting buried on the bench, destined to become the next Wily Mo Pena.

Personally, I hope he gets a realistic shot to be part of the left field conversation. He could be a big surprise, especially if he has made progress against breaking stuff.

Your thoughts?