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Youth Movement: Jeremy Reed

In many respects, it was a disappointing season. One of the most talented young outfielders in baseball, Reed was handed the starting center field gig for the Mariners out of Spring Training, but he never really settled into a groove, finishing the season with an OPS well south of .700. Outside of a pretty good May, he was a bad hitter, slapping the ball instead of driving it while struggling to make consistent contact for the first time in his professional career. A wrist injury eventually put the finishing touches on what could've - and probably should've - been a much better year. Going forward, there are a lot more questions about what Reed will bring to the table than there were a year ago, and how he responds to them will go a long way towards determining how good the Mariners are as a team for the next several seasons.

Background: Drafted 59th overall in the 2002 draft, it didn't take long for Reed to establish himself as the favorite to become the White Sox' center fielder of the future. A disciplined line-drive hitter in college, he came out and held his own in Kannapolis before breaking out in a big way in 2003. Sent to A-ball Winston-Salem to begin the year, Reed hit .333 with a 41/17 BB/K (you read that right) over a half-season before getting promoted to AA Birmingham, where he became the first player to hit .400+ over at least 200 at bats at or above AA since Erubiel Durazo in 1999. Reed's incredible ability to not suck got him ranked as the #1 prospect in the league by Baseball America and #2 overall by Baseball Prospectus, an indication that he had the tools to be an upper-echelon player and the stats to back them up. Promoted to AAA in 2004, Reed maintained terrific control of the strike zone but saw his batting average take a hit (dropping from "totally awesome" to "still okay"). He'd pick things back up a little bit in Tacoma following a midseason trade, though, and after ending the year with 23 hits in 58 at bats during a September call-up to Seattle, Reed became the popular pick to win the 2005 AL ROY. Needless to say, it didn't really work out like that. Which brings us to today. Obviously, the guy still has a ton of promise, but Reed's rough 2005 season lowered his stock in the eyes of many to the point at which his name was being bandied about as possible trade bait for Bronson friggin' Arroyo. With Adam Jones on the way, Reed's status as the team's long-term CF is up in the air. He needs to hit, and he he needs to hit soon.

Offense: Jeremy Reed has a skillset that can succeed in the Majors. Look at the two guys to whom he's most often compared - both Rusty Greer and, to a lesser extent, Mark Kotsay have carved out productive careers as line drive-hitting outfielders with good eyes. By knowing the strike zone, those guys have been able to lay off of bad pitches, forcing the pitcher to come back over the plate and throw something hittable. All that's left to do is perhaps the easiest task as a batter - hit the ball hard. When you're able to stand at the plate with a bat in your hand knowing that you're only going to swing at strikes, and that the pitcher's probably coming with a fastball, you have it made.

Strange, then, that this is precisely where Reed ran into trouble. Although he occasionally got mixed up, we didn't really see him swing at bad pitches very often. Rather, the problem was that, once he worked the count and got a strike, he didn't really know what to do with it. He wasn't hitting the ball with much authority; even his home runs seemed like lazy fly balls (I'm thinking specifically of the one to right field in Tampa Bay). If you consult the Hardball Times, you find out that, out of 143 qualified hitters in baseball, Reed ranked 114th in Line Drive Percentage, with a paltry 18.0%. That's not going to get the job done, particularly for a groundball hitter.

While I obviously can't say this with any degree of certainty, I'll guess that opposing pitchers probably noticed that Reed wasn't hitting the ball very hard, and adjusted their approaches because of it. His April BB/K was 12/11; for the rest of the year, it was 36/63. As the season went on, pitchers realized that he wasn't much of a threat, so they attacked the zone rather than pitch around him. Because, hey, why not? What was he going to do about it? The result was that Reed saw more strikes and fewer opportunities to draw a walk. On top of that, he'd have to swing earlier in the count in fear of falling behind 0-1 or 0-2, further reducing his walk rate. Lacking much strength, Reed was never able to make the pitchers pay for their confident aggression, so he spent the duration of the season slapping fastball after fastball at the middle infielders.

With a quicker, more forceful swing, it only would've taken a few wall-balls or homers for Reed to force opposing pitchers to be careful again, but for whatever reason - weak upper body, bad wrist, trouble getting Tuesday's Gone out of his head and focusing on the ball, whatever - it didn't happen, so pitchers really didn't have anything to worry about. In a way, Reed reminds me of Sean Burroughs, who broke into the big leagues with the same kind of story. After being a consistent .300 hitter in the minors with a terrific eye (193 walks, 177 strikeouts), he still has yet to repeat his success in the Majors, with an empty .282 batting average and an eroded BB/K (111/198) over parts of four seasons. The reason: Burroughs doesn't have any power. Less than 30% of his hits went for extra bases in the minors, and less than 20% of his hits have gone for extra bases in the Majors. There's just nothing for a pitcher to worry about, because the worst he's going to do to you is hit a single into the outfield. When you don't hit the ball hard very often, your eye doesn't do you much good, because you're just getting fed a steady diet of strikes. It's hard to have much success that way.

The difference between Burroughs and Reed is in how they got to be such "weak" hitters. With Burroughs, it's all about swing mechanics - I remember Kevin Towers mentioning last summer that seeing Burroughs try to hit was like watching him swing a tennis racket. With Reed, the problem appears to be that he just hasn't done enough work in the weight room, because his swing isn't the problem (it doesn't help that he was fighting a bad wrist for the latter portion of the summer, but he was having issues before that ever happened).

The good news? Not being strong enough will be a hell of a lot easier for Reed to fix than a mechanical problem, and not only because he has or currently does share a locker room with Ryan Franklin, Jamal Strong, and Mike Morse. With the proper conditioning program and enough determination, anyone can bulk up and have the body they wish they had in college, so with Reed, I think it's only a matter of time. It's not even all about extra-base hits, either; it's just about generating the bat speed necessary to make the ball jump off your bat on a consistent basis. Reed's extra-base hit rate is the same as Mark Kotsay's, but the difference is that Kotsay hits the ball hard a lot more often (#8 Line Drive Percentage in baseball last year). That's enough to keep pitchers honest, which leads to deeper counts and more opportunities to get on base. Bingo, you have yourself a good hitter.

I think that, in the end, Reed'll wind up somewhere between Mark Kotsay and Road Rusty Greer (that is, the half of him who didn't play in Arlington). I doubt he ever hits for Greer's power, but he should walk a little more than Kotsay. PECOTA projects a career peak of .288/.361/.424 with a BB/K pretty close to even, and I think that's reasonable. All it'll take is a little more muscle, and everything should fall into place.

How do you explain Reed's miracle half-season in Birmingham two years ago? I think it's a combination of factors - (1) that BB/K shows that he was seeing the ball very well, (2) it's generally just easier to hit for a high average in the minors than it is in the Majors, and (3) where guys in the Majors are able to locate all over the zone, guys in the minors have a greater tendency to groove it down the middle when they need a strike. Throw in a mention about limited samples and the volatility of batting average and I think you're most of the way there. Maybe Reed was a little stronger two years ago, too. Who knows. What matters is that we have a pretty good idea of what his problem was in 2005, and that, when things are clicking, he can be one of the better hitters in the league. And as long as Reed does enough work on his end, I think people in Seattle are going to realize that pretty soon.

Defense: Ah, that other point of contention. The topic of Reed's defense has sparked some heated discussions over the past year and a half, mainly centered around the likelihood of him becoming a long-term asset in center field. When Reed was first acquired, we heard that he'd have to move to a corner before too long because he was overmatched in center, and a few trips to Cheney lent some additional substance to this belief - Devin and I watched him look ridiculous on at least a half-dozen balls in the gap, and Trent compared his route-running ability to "a man getting chased by bees." The general consensus around these parts was that Reed would start the 2005 season in CF, but that the organization would identify this as a problem before too long and try to find a way to move him over.

Yeah. Wrong. Reed made a habit out of showing off his range and making jaw-dropping catches while parallel with the ground, earning himself more coverage on Sportscenter than the rest of the team combined. He looked terrific, and the pendulum kind of swung to the opposite extreme, where people began labeling him as one of the best defensive outfielders in the game.

The truth, like always, lies somewhere in the middle (at least for now). Reed is clearly not the disaster we thought he'd be, but he's no Mike Cameron, either. The numbers just don't bear that out. Safeco inherently inflates defensive numbers for outfielders, making Reed look better than he really is. The Hardball Times Annual has the Mariner outfield coming out at about 16 runs above average on the year, so if you assume that a lot of that comes from Ichiro and a little from Winn, Reed was probably somewhere between 0-5 by himself. That's good, and much better than I expected, but it's not elite. Of course, the fact that he made so much progress so quickly suggests that he might take another step forward in 2006, so being 5-10 runs above average over the course of the season isn't out of the question. He's a contributor with the glove, even when he's not a contributor with the bat.

Other Stuff: Jeremy Reed has been a durable player for most of his career, but when he injured his wrist running into a wall last summer, I think we all realized that his style of play is conducive to more than its fair share of DL stints. Whenever you have a guy who dives all over the place with such careless disregard for his own body so often, you're going to have to worry about him hurting himself and missing a few weeks of action. It's not a big problem, and certainly nothing like that black cloud that haunts Chris Snelling in his sleep, but it's something to consider.

Just like we did with Lopez and Betancourt, we can also talk about Reed's baserunning ability. Depending on how many Mariners games you watched, and which ones those happened to be, there's a fairly high probability that you came away with the impression that Reed is a disaster on the basepaths. Not so. Only when he tries to steal them.

No matter how you look at it, going 12-23 on SB attempts is awful, and it costs the team runs. He doesn't have a terribly successful track record of stealing bases in the minors, either - a 72.5% success rate is okay, but it was only 66% above A-ball, which isn't real good. Reed has enough speed and knowledge to be something of a threat on first base, but he's probably not going to be stealing 20 bags a year without a lot of work.

That's not the only way to do damage on the basepaths, though - it's just the most obvious. There's also the matter of taking the extra base without getting thrown out, and while it's subtle, it's definitely there, and it just so happens that Jeremy Reed is pretty good at it. The Hardball Times Annual (again) ranked him 19th in the league last year when it comes to being smart and advancing around the basepaths, which is neat for a guy in his first full season. It's pretty clear that he has a good idea of what he's doing when the ball's in play, and not only does that help the team score runs, but it also shows that Reed is a sharp player with a good mind for the game. This is a guy who's always studying the smaller things so that he can be every bit as good as his natural ability will let him. He still has a lot of work to do, but Reed has a great attitude and approach to the game, and will do everything in his power to have a long career in the big leagues.

("Brief") Summary: If you just take a cursory glance at the numbers, you won't be very impressed, but Jeremy Reed hitting .269/.338/.364 in his first 556 Major League AB's isn't that bad, and not real far below where we would've expected him to be. He hasn't been able to hit the ball real hard very often, but a lot of that will come from experience and conditioning, and he's still only 25 years old. Give him time. Even with Adam Jones' rapid ascent through the system, Reed deserves a lot more time to figure things out at the plate simply by virtue of the progress he's made in the field. He's not the kind of guy who's going to suddenly take off - Reed's improvement will almost certainly be more gradual and smooth - nor is he ever going to grab any MVP hardware, but I have to think that he's one of the "safer" young players in the league to project, because he has the skillset and drive to become a successful Major Leaguer, with almost zero burnout potential. Jeremy Reed is going to be good. Just how good is entirely up to him, but I don't see any reason to question his motivation. With Lopez, Betancourt, and Reed, the Mariners are going to be very good up the middle for a very long time.