I keep seeing how the Reds have really compromised their defense in center field by swapping Choo for Stubbs. First of all, I don't expect Choo to match Stubbs defensively, but it's not like we're trying pass off a glove like Wily Mo Pena's at the position. I keep seeing that he's only played 10 MLB games in CF and how the Mariners gave up on him in the middle early in his minor league career. First of all, looking at the Mariners' results over the last nine years I wouldn't be quick to call them the final word on baseball evaluation. I don't keep up with them very closely and it's likely I'm missing someone here, but I don't recall a good CF in Seattle since Mike Cameron and they had to trade Ken Griffey Jr to get him from the Reds. It's not like we're trying to push a square peg into a round hole. Perhaps Choo is a bit oval, but we'll see how much next season.
I think one key to making the transition easier is the presence of Chris Heisey. I've said this for a while: I don't know if he's starter material, but at his current role as "fourth outfielder" he's one of the best in the game. He brings a solid glove to all three OF positions and has a lifetime OB of .315. Ideally you'd want something higher from leadoff, but that's respectable for a reserve and he hit southpaws better in 2012 than he did previously. Now I'm not saying he's Stubbs equal with the glove, but he's no slouch either. Statistically his range is right around league average in CF. It drops off compared to average when he's in the corners, but a lot of that probably has to do with Stubbs's presence in CF. Also, keep in mind that the Reds play in one of the most hitter-friendly venues in all of baseball and management searches high and low to find pitchers can keep the ball down in attempts to reduce fly balls. Also, less range to cover means more overlap and in those cases, the CF typically records the putout.
Anyway, many have conceded that GABP has a smaller outfield and less range to cover, which sounds like good logic. Then skeptics are quick to point out that we still play half our games on the road. Ok, well lets look at that: we need a CF in 81 road games. Ten of them will be played at AL parks giving opportunity to move Choo to DH. We're going to have to find an extra bat somewhere for those games and Heisey will be the top candidate. He hit RH/LH equally well in 2012 and in 2011 he had 18 HR in about half of the PA a regular gets.
Now Choo has never started more than 153 games in a season. He's 30 years old now and playing a more difficult defensive position so there's no reason to think that he'll match that total in 2013. If we get 140-145 starts from him I'm fine with that. Granted some of those days off may be neccessitated when he gets nicked up or something that is beyond control and the chances are the same for that happening during a homestand as a road trip. However, with a little planning we could target a dozen or so days off while on the road and he's still be available to pinch hit. Days off combined with AL rules give another CF option to a quarter of the road games right off the bat.
Now, not all the road games will be in spacious parks. Unfortunately being in the NL means most of them will. It's more difficult to assign how many are really small. You can look at dimensions, but they don't always tell the full story because of unique designs of OF walls. For instance Wrigley has two scallops in the corners requiring some extra distance to clear that is not needed if the ball is hit just inside them. If I had detailed dimension info on every field and CAD software available to calculate I could get a more precise ranges that outfielders have to cover. Pardon me if I don't go to that trouble. Also other geographical factors outside of dimensions affect venues like altitude, wind currents and average temperatures.
A side note: This is off the subject, but historically looking at Wrigley it is now considered close to league average statistically. Old timers can easily remember the days when it was considered a hitter's paradise and stories of how visiting pitchers would feign illnesses when they learned that the wind was blowing out on days when it was their turn in the rotation. It shows how the game has changed.
Statistical data doesn't really tell the full story either. In any given year stats are effected by the talent of the home team (good power hitters/weak pitchers) as much or more than the physical characteristics. I get a kick out comments when we play opponents with some veterans that have been around a while: "Player XYZ likes GABP because he's hit over .400 lifetime here". Did you take a look at the pitching staffs he faced over most of those appearances? He doesn't necessarily like the park, he liked our pitchers, same as the rest of the league. Those comments are becoming less frequent as we've improved our staff over recent years. Another anomoly is Coors Field who statistically is the best hitter's park, but is still spacious. When it gets down to it, there is a level of subjective opinion in evaluation of parks, hence opportunity for error, but I'm thinking Philadelphia, Arizona, and Milwaukee are comparable to GABP. That's sixteen more road games. We don't play in the NL West so that limits games in the some of the more spacious outfields to only one trip per season.
Another factor is Ryan Ludwick in LF. He'll be 35 and he only started 109 games last season. That number would have been higher if he hadn't started off poorly with the bat. He's probably not going to start much more than 130 times in 2013. When he's out, they can plug in Heisey in LF. He has more range which will take some pressure off of Choo in CF. Theorectically, they could move Choo over to LF and put Heisey in CF, but I doubt they'll resort to that.
Now don't get me wrong, there's an element of risk in moving Choo to CF, but with the projected improvement to the offense it's definitely worth it. There's always the chance he could go out there with a range that will have fans complaining he's the next Adam Dunn and blow up the whole plan, even in GABP. However, he's athletic and has plenty of arm, so the worst case scenario is unlikely. I'm just thinking that with strategic utilization of other outfielders the risk can be minimized. Shoot, every day Heisey is not in the lineup he is available as a late inning defensive replacement and one would expect an improved offense to provide more opportunity for sacrificing a bat late in the game for a stronger glove when they are protecting a lead.
The 2012 Reds pitching was outstanding and a big part of that was the defense behind them. No question we've given up some of that and Choo will allow some balls find grass that would have been gloved had Stubbs remained out there. Also, we have legitimate post season aspirations and if that happens we'd want Choo's bat in the lineup even in a venue like Washington or an NL West team. Still, and maybe I have a prescription that is a bit too strong in my rose colored glasses, right now I don't see it as the huge defensive sacrifice that some are making it out to be. I'm aware of the old adage that "you have to be strong up the middle" but even though I don't expect Choo to match Stubbs, I'm not so quick to throw in the towel and say that he's going to be a big handicap.