Position Roundtables: Starting Center Fielder
Starting Center Fielder: Jeremy Reed
Like Jose Lopez, we’ve written a lot about Jeremy Reed the past year and a half. Like Lopez, perception of his abilities have been all over the board, as people responded wildly to performance spikes. After he nearly hit .400 in a September trial last year, the public opinion was overly excited, labeling him ready to be an elite player immediately. Following a disappointing rookie season offensively, the fanbase has amassed thousands of broken bones leaping off the bandwagon.
This is a case where perception just hasn’t matched reality. Reed was never the second best prospect in baseball, despite what Baseball Prospectus tried to tell folks. He wasn’t ready for stardom after a streak of singles falling in during his debut in Seattle. And, on the flipside, he’s also not a guy who can’t hit for power, is a poor baserunner, and amasses all his value by being an elite defensive player. The myths of Jeremy Reed have swung from one side to the other, but, astonishingly, few people seem willing to see him for what he really is.
Jeremy Reed is a high contact hitter with gap power, average speed, good instincts on the bases, and a solid understanding of the strike zone. He doesn’t have world class range in center field, and his physical skills are best suited defensively for a corner spot, though he doesn’t really have the arm to play right field regularly.
That’s all been true for three years, but because of extreme performances on either side, he’s become a polarizing player. Hopefully, 2006 is the year where people can finally see Reed for what he truly is; a very solid young player who excels at nothing but has a solid all around game. He’s not a gold glover and he won’t win a batting title, but he’s a talented player making the league minimum and filling a hole at a premium position. Oh, and he’s just 24 years old. We should all be glad the Mariners didn’t deal him.
Reed demonstrates a larger phenomenon we see a lot in players, which is the “star or scrub” polarizing effect. Few players are allowed to be just good, or okay: they have to have something they do that’s excellent, or they must be vilified. You see this most often with position players: a catcher who doesn’t hit very well will gradually cultivate reputations as defensive wizards, while those that can hit become barely competent glove men.
This is Reed’s problem: he comes in to play center and there’s no way he’ll be as good defensively as Cameron was. At the same time, his hitting was pretty awful, so he ended up being attacked from both sides.
Which means he must totally suck. There’s no room for players who are cheap and help the team out if they’re not definately good one way or the other. And that, really, is Reed’s misfortune. If he hits .280 with better walks, he’ll get out from a lot of the criticism for not helping offensively, but he still won’t be seen as a key contributor, because he’s not going to be a good fielder either. But being average, young, and cheap helps the team a lot.
There’s a way out of this, though — if Reed can do even better making contact, he becomes a quite valuable player quite quickly. He’s fast enough running that if he gets his average up to .300 he’ll hit 30 doubles pretty easily, and then you’d really like to have him hitting in front of some high-average guys (maybe ninth, ahead of Ichiro) to get the most value from that.
But that’s beside the point. Reed, even as an average center fielder, is worth a lot to the team. Adam Jones is great and all, but he’s not going to be here this year for certain (and despite the justified enthusiasm for his performance in the minors, if you look at his five-year forecast, he doesn’t develop into the kind of player Reed is now for a couple of years).
Reed’s here now, and he’s fine. He’s certainly not a problem for the team. He might want to talk to his agent about trying to cultivate an image as a joker, or a dirt dog, or something — if he had some kind of easily-identifiable hook other than (as you note) failed super-prospect, I think he’d be forgiven for not being amazingly awesome. And he deserves that.
I have no issue with Jeremy Reed. My only issue with his 2005 season? That Mike Hargrove chose to sit him against lefties on a number of occasions — while it’s true Reed struggled mightily against left-handers, the team wasn’t going anywhere anyway and he’s a young player who needs experience. But I digress.
Given his minor league numbers and the tools Dave mentioned earlier — gap power, contact hitter, solid strike zone judgement — Reed appears, to me at least, to be in line for a big step forward in 2006. I’d stick him in the #2 slot in batting order and leave him there for a few months even if he gets off to a slow start, because I can’t imagine he has another .254/.322/.352 season in him. Making nearly the major league minimum, playing solid defense, and hitting .280/.350/.440, he’s the sort of player you’re thrilled to have around.
At least until Adam Jones is ready.
Adam Jones, by the way, is a good prospect, clearly the second best guy in the organization behind Jeff Clement. But I think as fans we’ve been far too quick to write his name into the 2007 line-up. The guy has played less than a handful of games in center field, and while his offensive performance was solid, he’s still got a ways to go. The potential is definitely there, but he’s not knocking on the door. He’s a ways off, and a lot can go wrong before he hits the show. There’s no way I’d be making any kind of roster decisions in trying to make room for Adam Jones. When he’s ready, they’ll find a spot for him, but he’s still a pretty high risk prospect, and there’s a significant chance that he won’t be ready for quite a while.