Around the Horn: Outfielders
Rookie Bruce, incumbent Freel favorites for center-field job
By Mark Sheldon / MLB.com
CINCINNATI -- When it comes to Jay Bruce, it's not so much a question of if or when the outfielder will make his Major League debut in 2008. It's will he open as a regular for the Reds?
Although he'll be just 21 in April, Bruce's five-tool skills and recent history indicate it should be very likely.
A five-tool left-handed player, Bruce is coming off a 2007 season where he zoomed through three levels and was named the Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year. Many of the award's previous winners -- including Alex Gordon (2006), Delmon Young (2005), Joe Mauer (2003) and Rocco Baldelli (2002) -- were regular players for their teams by the following season.
The Reds, who have an opening in center field, aren't publicly ready to hand over the job to Bruce just yet.
"It'll be his first time in a big league camp," Reds general manager Wayne Krivsky said. "It will be good exposure for him. We'll see how things play out."
Since fellow five-tool talent Josh Hamilton was traded to the Rangers for pitcher Edinson Volquez in December, speculation ran rampant that center field was Bruce's for the taking. But Krivsky has maintained that the job is a four-way race between Bruce, Ryan Freel, Norris Hopper and Chris Dickerson.
"I know they'll go and compete for playing time. It will take care of itself," Krivsky said. "You want to let it play out by having the players compete."
Bruce was Cincinnati's first-round pick (12th overall) in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft. Last season, he batted a combined .319 with 26 home runs, 89 RBIs, 46 doubles and eight triples as he zoomed from Class A Sarasota to Double-A Chattanooga to Triple-A Louisville.
"Jay Bruce is special," Louisville manager Rick Sweet said in September. "I had [Ken] Griffey [Jr.] the first year he played, and Jay Bruce is in that category in my opinion. They're close to the same animal."
Even if Bruce started the season with the Reds, he wouldn't be a finished product. He struck out 135 times, compared to 47 walks, in 576 plate appearances. Sweet also said Bruce's baserunning skills need sharpening.
"He still makes mistakes," Sweet said. "There's a lot for him to learn. He's not afraid to listen."
Expect the hard-charging Freel to go all out, as usual, in an attempt retain his starting center-field job. Last season was disappointing and filled with injuries for the 32-year-old, who batted .245 with three homers and 16 RBIs in just 75 games. In April, he already signed a two-year extension through 2009 worth $7 million.
Durability will be the biggest question for the oft-injured Freel, who lost 81 games to two stays on the disabled list in 2007. In May, he suffered a concussion after an outfield collision with Hopper. His production was slow to return the following month, and the season ended with an August right knee surgery that repaired cartilage damage.
With Freel and Hamilton often out, Hopper got a long-awaited chance. A nine-year Minor League veteran who briefly appeared in 2006, the 29-year-old batted .329 with 14 steals in 121 games during his first full big league season. His .381 average over the final two months was second best in the Majors.
A slap hitter and push-bunt specialist, the speedy Hopper makes infielders nervous. He led the Reds with 37 infield hits, including 17 bunt singles.
The long shot of the group, Dickerson has no big league experience. He combined to hit .263 with 14 homers, 55 RBIs and 30 steals last season at Chattanooga and Louisville. The 25-year-old also showcased his skills in the Arizona Fall League after the season.
No matter who roams center field, they will be flanked by the Reds' two most tenured players and dangerous power hitters -- Griffey in right field and Adam Dunn in left field.
Healthy most of the year and playing right field regularly for the first time, Griffey had a resurrecting 2007. The 38-year-old batted .277 with 30 homers and 93 RBIs in 144 games -- his most played since 2000. Fans honored him as the National League's leading vote recipient for the All-Star Game.
A groin injury suffered in late September prematurely ended Griffey's season, but he's easily expected to be ready for Spring Training. Ranked sixth all time with 593 career home runs, he will get to resume his pursuit of 600 when the regular season opens March 31 vs. the Diamondbacks.
Dunn batted .264 with 40 home runs and a career-high 106 RBIs in 152 games last season. He is the only Reds player to hit 40 homers over four straight seasons. The Reds picked up his $13 million option in October, which will make him the highest-paid player on the club this season -- ahead of Griffey's $12.5 million.
This could be the final year together for Griffey and Dunn. Griffey is entering the final guaranteed year of his contract. Dunn can be a free agent after the season, too, but he has expressed interest in trying to work out a long-term deal.