It has been cold here in Colorado for a series of months. Then, despite the calendar suggesting that it was a day in May that otherwise should feature some warmth, I woke up to 36 degrees and a steady, cold rain - with snow falling in sheets just west in the mountains.
Today’s weather isn’t what prompted me to dive into the festering problem with the Cincinnati Reds outfield. I’ve been meaning to write about the precipitous decline of Adam Duvall in left field for several weeks now, honestly, but a combination of both struggling for words and the hope that he maybe, maybe will burst out of his hibernation kept the keyboard dusty for the time being. A brain like the one with which I’m saddled is constantly on an insatiable search for metaphors, however, and the gloom outside my windows today was enough to prompt digital pen to digital paper.
Here we are, on May 3rd, and Duvall owns a 64 OPS+ and a meager .163 batting average. His 58 wRC+ to date ranks tied for the 14th worst in all of baseball among qualified hitters, tied with teammate Billy Hamilton on that illustrious list. Unlike the likes of Hamilton, Ketel Marte, Lewis Brinson, and Jose Iglesias - all of whom sit just a bit worse than him on the wRC+ pecking order - Duvall no longer brings elite defense to the table, at least by the metrics that have judged him as slipping in that regard for two-years running.
And while the 117 PA he has logged in 2018 still remains an admittedly small sample, the crater his offensive numbers fell into opened up long before the start to this year. You’ll remember that he hit just .212/.277/.385 (.662 OPS) in 72 games after the All Star break last year, culminating with an awful September that saw him hit just .226/.278/.286 to wrap the season.
None of this is meant to pile on Duvall, who has been a gem of a find since coming to the Cincinnati Reds from the San Francisco Giants as the secondary piece alongside Keury Mella in the Mike Leake deal. Duvall’s 2016 was an excellent revelation, one that came out of nowhere and achieved wonderful success. It also isn’t to say that Duvall is completely toast, as he’s sporting an unsustainably low .183 BABIP this season despite a career-best 41.3% hard-hit rate. (That hard-hit rate, for the record, ranks 37th among all qualified hitters in the game today; among those players with higher hard-hit rates, Ryan Zimmerman’s .200 BABIP is the only one anywhere close to a sniff as unlucky as Duvall’s.)
Where the problem bubbles to the surface is when you remove your focus from Duvall himself and look at the larger issues facing the Reds right now. At 7-94ish, they own the worst record in all of baseball in a year that was, is, and will continue to be dedicated to the fervent rebuild we’ve slogged through for four years already. Duvall, on the other hand, will turn 30 years old this year, and while the low average thump, sub-.300 OBP, and palatable defense at the bottom of the defensive spectrum has been serviceable enough to not really be the problem for the Reds in their losing of late, it certainly does not scream I’ll be what fixes the team going forward.
Were there no obvious replacement for Duvall on the roster, that’d be one thing. However, the presence - and emergence - of Jesse Winker paired with the burgeoning success of Scott Schebler means the Reds just might have their pair of corner outfielders for the near future, and need to let them play as often as possible. Perhaps just as important to the cost-conscious Reds is that both Winker and Schebler will make league-minimum salaries again in 2019, while Duvall and his back to back 30 dinger seasons are set for an arbitration raise as he turns 30 - and given that process’s archaic use of traditional stats to award raises, that raise projects to be rather significant.
So, the Reds are a bit stuck. Schebler, while talented and athletic in his own right, should merely be an emergency or spot CF, especially when Billy Hamilton’s defense is one of the few driving success factors for a young rotation that needs all the defensive help it can get. That means the Reds will have three guys for two spots each and every game from here on, and will be tasked with both playing Winker and Schebler enough to let them develop and flourish while also getting Duvall enough reps to maybe, maybe maintain some semblance of trade value as the year gallops forward.
That latter issue is the one that sticks out to me as the most glaring in this instance. For one, the Reds have continually been one of the very few teams in MLB willing to play players daily with a distinct lack of on-base ability, and the others who often have - I’m looking at you, Baltimore - aren’t exactly having seasons in 2018 that suggest they’ll be looking to make additions anytime soon. Also, for better or worse, the Reds haven’t exactly been proactive in moving peripheral pieces of their roster in recent years while they still have some semblance of value, which we saw a bit in the Billy Hamilton trade rumor market from this past winter.
The obvious scenario is that we’ll continue to see each of the three corner OFs rotation through their two spots every day, meaning some 33% of the time we’ll get to smack ourselves and wonder why Jesse Winker isn’t in the lineup for a team that’s a billion games under .500 and publicly still ‘rebuilding.’ That generic answer should have baked into it that the team is doing its best to showcase Duvall for a potential trade, though, since his value at present is creeping perilously close to his future value to this current team, which is essentially nil.
I’d wager that dilemma has already become quite obvious to the 29 other front offices across the game of baseball, too, meaning even an uncharacteristic run of production from Duvall won’t do a terrible amount to increase his stature beyond his career numbers. That, frankly, is just how things go when you’re about to turn 30 with a career worth of statistics to suggest what you truly are at the plate and in the field. Nevertheless, that’s what the Cincinnati front office will have to sell their way through as trade season ramps up, lest the Reds let the value of another one of their assets approach zero before finally trying to move on.