WHY IMPROVING TO 90 WINS WITHOUT ADAM DUNN WOULD BE A HUGE CHALLENGE
The Reds, statisticians say, are poised somewhere between being in contention in the next two years and being the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Blow the expected Adam Dunn trade, they say, and the Reds would be the Pirates - unless Homer Bailey and prospect Joey Votto become stars, Josh Hamilton and prospect Jay Bruce become All-Stars and Ken Griffey Jr. defies the aging/injury process.
"The Reds must pitch and defend better to win," we keep hearing.
But here are the facts: If the Reds trade Dunn, there will be only two ways they could get into contention: 1) by replacing most of his offense and pitching and defending much better, or 2) by replacing all of his offense and pitching and defending reasonably better.
The math: To get into contention next year, the Reds must score at least 50 more runs than they allow. The runs scored/runs allowed stat can predict to within five victories either way how many games a team is going to win. The very best teams (95-plus wins) will score 100 more runs than they allow.
Given everybody's present pace, the Reds will score about 770 runs this season. The problem is that at the current rate, the Reds will allow about 815 runs. That ratio projects to a 77-85 win-loss record. The team needs to flip that ratio to make things interesting next season.
So, how do the Reds do it?
If they trade Dunn, they will need considerably more output from guys like Hamilton, Ryan Freel, Norris Hopper, Edwin Encarnacion and Brandon Phillips. If the Reds get that output, they barely will be able to make up for the loss of Dunn's offense.
Then - and here's the point - the pitching staff and defense would have to allow 130 fewer runs to have a shot at 90 wins, which is a reasonable number for winning the National League Central Division.
However, if the Reds keep Dunn and the other players improve as much as hoped (Freel and Hopper wouldn't get as much playing time as they would if Dunn weren't here), then the Reds would need to reduce their runs allowed by only 60 to reach 90 wins.
That would be a much easier bill to fill via free agents and minor trades.
How hard is it to improve pitching and defense by 60 runs vs. 130 runs? Let's explain it by the commonly understood concept of earned-run average. To save 60 runs in a season, the pitching staff would have to drop its ERA by .37; to drop 130 runs, the ERA would have to drop by .80. The Reds' team ERA is currently 4.70; saving 60 additional runs (assuming all are earned) would mean the staff ERA would need to drop to about 4.33. That's a reasonable improvement to make via free agency and some better performances from individuals already on the pitching staff and/or defense.
But improving by 130 runs would require the team ERA to drop from 4.70 to 3.90. That's not impossible, but it would be an enormous improvement. The last time the Reds staff had an ERA of 4.40 or lower was 2002 - not that long ago - and they were at 4.51 just last season. But the last time they had an ERA of 3.97 or lower? The strike year of 1994, although they were close in 1999. (Is it any surprise that only a strike and one loss to the New York Mets, respectively, kept the 1994 and 1999 Reds out of the postseason?)
To understand how much individual pitching will be required to reduce the runs-allowed by 60 vs. 130, one must understand a sabermetric principle called VORP (value over replacement player). Replacement players are defined as the expected performance of a journeyman "scrub" pitcher - say, a waiver-wire claim or a non-prospect called up from Triple-A - so VORP describes the improvement in runs saved over what that the journeyman pitcher should save.
Even adding the best pitcher in baseball last year - Johan Santana of the Twins - to the Reds staff would save the Reds just fewer than 80 runs; Santana had a VORP of 79.6 runs in 2006.
Here are the top pitchers, as measured by VORP, in 2006:
79.6 VORP - Santana, 233.7 IP, 2.77 ERA.
72.4 VORP - Roy Oswalt, 220.7 IP, 2.98 ERA.
68.9 VORP - Brandon Webb, 235 IP, 3.10 ERA.
68.0 VORP - Roy Halladay, 220 IP, 3.19 ERA.
67.8 VORP - Chris Carpenter, 221.7 IP, 3.09 ERA.
64.9 VORP - Bronson Arroyo, 240.7 IP, 3.29 ERA.
So, as you can see, none of these pitchers - by themselves - would improve the Reds by 130 runs just by being inserted into the rotation ahead of whoever the Reds' No. 5 starter would be next season.
Even if the Reds could do that, they'd still need to add a lot more talent to make up the 130-run deficit. (In case you're wondering, a plus-30-runs pitcher is someone who gives you 200-plus innings pitched with a league-average ERA. Think Dave Bush of Milwaukee or Zach Duke of Pittsburgh last year.)
But a 60-run improvement? That's doable. With some progress from the Reds' bullpen pitchers and by adding a good starter or two - say Bailey puts together a nice season, and the Reds add another starter in the offseason - pitching could improve by 60 runs.
WHY DUNN IS MORE VALUABLE THAN YOU THINK
The common misconception is that the Reds won't suffer a big loss in their offense if Dunn is traded. His relatively low RBI totals for a 40-HR-a-year man often are cited as evidence that he is not a run producer. But a statistic called runs created, which attempts to estimate the total number of runs a player contributes to a team's offense irrespective of the actions of others on their team, indicates that Dunn is, indeed, a major run producer.
Put aside what you think you know about the part that an individual player's batting average, home runs, RBI and runs play in a team's ability to score runs. A hitter's real job is to put runs on the scoreboard, no matter who scores them or drives them in.
Loosely defined, runs created is a statistic that attempts to convert all the contributions of a player's offense into the currency of runs. Hit a single? That's worth, on average, a certain fraction of a run. A double is worth more runs than a single, and a home run is worth more than that. Walks and stolen bases also are included, and outs generated at the plate or by getting caught stealing are subtracted from the total. The net result is an overall view of the total contribution of a player to the team's total runs scored.
The Reds had scored 470 runs as of Tuesday. Dunn led the team with 65 runs created, which accounts for 14 percent of the team's total runs scored. Griffey was second with 64 runs created, and from there it dropped to Phillips (56 RC; 12 percent) and Scott Hatteberg (44 RC; 9 percent).
Dunn's critics cannot logically argue that he's a lousy RBI man unless they know how many guys are on base in front of him. And one thing the critics might not know is that of the top 10 RBI men in the NL, only two (Prince Fielder, 244 runners, and Miguel Cabrera, 238 runners) have done more with less than Dunn (246 runners). In contrast, Andruw Jones' 65 RBI are largely because of the 317 runners he has had on base in front of him - 29 percent more opportunities than Dunn has had.
The math: When it comes to run production, Hamilton (if he stays healthy) might be able to replace Dunn offensively.
But who would replace Hamilton? Hopper and Freel? Realistically, the two would account for 50 fewer runs than Dunn and Hamilton. The Reds might get as many as 15-20 of those runs back with improved defense in left field (removing Dunn's negative fielding and adding Hopper's "plus" fielding) and maybe you could add 10 more if Freel returned to 2006 form (a huge "if" because Freel is older than you think and hasn't been that good defensively in the outfield this year).
WHAT THE REDS SHOULD SEEK IN TRADE
If the Reds insist on trading Dunn, they must quickly "replace" his offense, whether it be from the trade itself or elsewhere (free agents, other trades, etc).
Whom should they pursue? A young, go-get-'em center fielder who is a better hitter than Freel/Hopper and a better glove than Hamilton, the statisticians say. That way, the Reds can move Hamilton to right field and move Griffey to left. That way, they will upgrade all three defensive positions and not lose as much offensively by trying to replace Dunn with Freel and Hopper.
But nothing says the Reds have to trade Dunn. And if they can't get at least 80 percent of his value, they shouldn't.
HOW KEN GRIFFEY JR. FITS IN
It would make more sense to trade Griffey than Dunn because Griffey's trade value is higher. But the Reds are understandably interested in keeping Griffey because of his drawing power.
In keeping him, they risk Griffey's offense dropping off next season because of his age and recent track record with injuries. Or course, there's no guarantee he'll drop off next year; the way he's played this year is reminding people just how special a player he is. But at some point, one has to start expecting decline from the 37-year-old Griffey - especially when you're a team trying to improve rather than trying to maintain the status quo. He's a perfect player for a team trying to get into the playoffs - he's very productive right now - but he isn't a perfect player for the Reds, who might have a tough time making the playoffs before 2009.
HOW JAY BRUCE FITS IN
The Reds prospect with the silver bullet might be outfielder Bruce - but probably not by next year. The Reds must be able to replace Dunn in 2008 if they expect to compete.