Paul Janish (The Enquirer/Joseph Fuqua II)

Orlando Cabrera (2010)
Alex Gonzalez (2009, 2007)
Jeff Keppinger (2008)
Felipe Lopez (2006)
Rich Aurilia (2005)

Between 1974 and 2004, the Cincinnati Reds were fortunate to be able to pencil in the names of Dave Concepcion or Barry Larkin at the shortstop position nearly every Opening Day. Now take a look at the group of names above. You may have surmised that those are the shortstops who have started for the Reds on Opening Day since Larkin’s retirement.

Yes, the stench is nearly overwhelming.

This year, Paul Janish is expected to take his turn at the most important defensive position on the diamond for Cincinnati, and his performance is one of the keys to the Reds’ chances to repeat as NL Central champs.

In one important way, Janish presents an immediate upgrade to the list of has-beens at the top of this post. Every single one of the shortstops above were poor defensively with very little range (although a couple had been good in their younger days). Janish is the opposite; Soft-J has a reputation as an elite defender and he should help make the Reds stronger up the middle than they have been in quite some time.

There are questions about Janish, however, and those revolve primarily around whether or not he will hit enough to merit a starting spot. Here’s the way FanGraphs sees it:

Janish has posted 2.0 WAR in his first two significant stints in the Major Leagues. His bat hasn’t been anything stellar, but since his disastrous first stint in 2007 (42 wRC+ in 89 PAs), Janish has shown moderate patience and good contact. He doesn’t have much pop, and some bad luck and a fly ball heavy batted ball profile has led to low BABIPs. It is those two factors which have largely driven his poor batting lines to date.

Between 2009 and 2010, Janish compiled -15 batting runs, and that’s with a BABIP in the .260s. Despite his issues with fly balls, it’s hard to imagine Janish will continue to have such poor results on balls in play. His .260/.338/.385 line in 2010 appears to be pretty representative of Janish’s abilities, although probably with a SLG closer to .360. His minor league numbers are poor, but the two parts of his game that have played the best in the majors – walk rate and contact rate – are the quickest to stabilize. 600 plate appearances still isn’t a huge sample, but for both statistics it is above the reliability thresholds stated here.

His bat probably only plays at shortstop, but that’s not a problem for Janish. According to Baseball America, Janish has “nearly flawless footwork, soft hands and a plus arm.” UZR was insane over Janish in 2009, rating him at +11 in only half a season. That seems outrageous, but DRS and TZL nearly completely agree. He wasn’t quite as impressive in 2010, possibly due to splitting time between SS and 3B in the small sample, but he was still above average.

The MARCEL projections see Janish hitting at a .237/.313/.362 rate. That’s certainly not great, but it’s better than the numbers Orlando Cabrera posted last year. If Janish plays defense the way everyone expects, he’s a good bet to be an average (or slightly above-average) shortstop. There is value in that.

Of course, we can’t discuss Janish without discussing the Edgar Renteria factor. Cincinnati signed Renteria in the off-season, and GM Walt Jocketty says that Renteria will be Janish’s backup. Most of the Loyal Citizens of the Nation believe that Renteria will be named the starter at some point (see the poll on this page). At this point, I’m just going to express some skepticism and I will pretend that Janish is going to be the full-time starter, since that’s what Jocketty continues to insist. Janish will have to play well early in order to convince the Reds that they can really let him play this time around, instead of making yet another switch to the over-the-hill veteran shortstop.

I think Janish would have been a good starter for the Reds last year (instead of Cabrera, and he was a better choice than Gonzalez the previous year), and I continue to believe that he’s the best bet for this team. It will be nice to see a shortstop every day who can field the position with some flash. Of course, perhaps the most value that Janish can bring to the Reds is that he’s an excellent stopgap, a cheap bridge to the probable shortstop of the future.

That shortstop is very likely Zack Cozart. Cozart will start the 2011 season at AAA Louisville, but there are some within the Cincinnati organization that expect Cozart to be the shortstop for the Reds very soon. There is a reason why people are high on Cozart. Take a look at what <a href="Baseball Prospectus“>Baseball Prospectus had to say about the kid:

Just when it seemed safe to declare Cozart’s 2008 power surge dead, he set a career high in homers. The additional power came at the cost of some plate discipline, so the overall package wasn’t more productive than the 2009 model, but the righty held his own despite climbing to the minor-league ladder’s highest rung. As one of the best defensive shortstops in any team’s system, Cozart doesn’t have to excel with the stick to get the call, but he’s done plenty to dispel his former all-glove reputation, and might well have surpassed Orlando Cabrera at the plate last season had he gotten the chance. Edgar Renteria should take plenty of pictures of his first season as the Reds’ starting shortstop, because he likely won’t get another.

High praise, and I agree that Cozart has a good chance to be the starter in 2012 (whether taking over from Renteria or Janish). Of course, even if Cozart becomes the shortstop Reds fans have been waiting for, we still have to give him time to prepare.

In the meantime, Paul Janish is a good bet to provide some good play at shortstop for Cincinnati. If Soft-J is able to man the position adequately, the Reds will be in good shape as they hunt for a second consecutive playoff appearance. He’s the X-Factor.