The Cincinnati Reds have a problem. Itís a good problem, but itís a problem.
They have outstanding first baseman Joey Votto just beginning his career at the major league level and a top prospect waiting in the wings at the same position.
What to do with top prospect Yonder Alonso? That is the question for Walt Jocketty and the Reds' brain trust as the mid-season trading period heats up.
The Reds really like Alonso. They liked him enough in the June, 2008 first-year player draft to take him with the seventh-overall selection. They gave Alonso a $2 million dollar signing bonus and signed him to a five-year, $4,55 million major league contract.
Consider that first basemen Eric Hosmer (Royals No. 3) Justin Smoak (Rangers No. 11) Ike Davis (Mets No. 18) and Allan Dykstra (Padres No. 23) were also selected in the 2008 player draft. It was a class loaded with hard- hitting corner infielders.
But with Votto being such a strong presence at first base, what does the team do with Alonso? More about that later. For now, letís take a closer look at him.
Yonder Alonso was born in Cuba and moved to the United States when he was 10 years old. Baseball is in Yonderís genes, as his dad was an outstanding baseball player in Cuba, having played for the Havana Industriales.
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound left-handed hitting Alonso attended Coral Gables High School in Florida and attended University of Miami. He had an outstanding three-year career in college, joining his team at the College World Series in his freshman year.
Prior to attending Miami, Alonso was drafted in the 16th round in 2005 by the Minnesota Twins. But in 2005, Alonso decided that he wanted to go to college and improve his skills as well as his overall draft ranking. It worked. He signed that lucrative major league contract that assures his status on the Reds' fast track.
Alonso has some pop in his bat. He is seen as having power hitting potential and fairly good mechanics at the plate. There are some flaws, but overall, he has good mechanics. He is a disciplined hitter with good plate coverage and average to above average pitch recognition. Those qualities are important if Alonso hopes to keep his strikeouts to a minimum and maximize his bases on balls. His patience has allowed him to be selective and drive the ball to all parts of the field.
Still developing at only 23 years old, Alonso has the potential to gain additional strength and power that will result in more home runs. To date in his two-year minor league career, Yonder hasnít smashed the fences down, but he has shown promise with six home runs at two levels this season. A broken hamate bone (hand) in 2009 set him back. He is now at full strength.
I saw Alonso play in the 2009 Arizona Fall League. He was still gaining strength in his hand after the injury and wasnít very impressive in the fall season. In 23 games he hit .267/.353/.395 with two home runs over 86 at-bats in a hitterís league. He also made three errors at first base.
Ironically, those stats mirror his production to date in his minor league career. In 101 at-bats at Double-A Carolina to start the 2010 season, Alonso hit .267/.388/.406 with three home runs. To date, at Triple-A Louisville he is hitting .251/. 288/. 372 with four home runs in 207 at-bats over 50 games played. Heís also stolen three bases.
There are critics who claim the Reds missed totally on Alonso. They think he should be hitting much better against minor league pitching. Iím not so sure. Again, heís only 23 years old and not fully developed physically or in his overall skill set.
Above I indicated that there were flaws in his mechanics. When I saw Alonso this past fall, he had a noticeable flaw in his swing, but it was really the only mechanical issue I had with his approach. Not unlike Ike Davis, Alonso dropped his hands as the trigger for his swing. Pitches that were low were easier for him to reach than those up in the zone. Often the barrel of the bat and the arrival of the pitch were in perfect sync. That resulted in Alonso putting an excellent swing on the ball. However, his bat plane was already out of the pitch path when pitchers threw the ball at his waist or above. I think both he and Davis would be better served by eliminating that drop in their hands. It's worth noting, however, that his bat speed was at least average or better on balls he could reach. His corner-to-corner coverage was very good. I saw little difference in his approach against left-handed pitching, often times an issue for left-handed power hitters. He has shown recent improvement against left-handed pitchers.
What to do with Alonso? Certainly, the Reds arenít going to disrupt the career of Votto and move him to the outfield. Actually, they tried Alonso in left field for 14 games this season, but he isnít fast and he isnít very agile. He doesnít profile as a third baseman because of the lack of range and that same lack of agility. Besides, the Reds have top prospect Todd Frazier being groomed to assume Scott Rolenís third base position at some point in the future. Frazier is versatile enough to play third, second or the outfield, making him a very valuable player in the Reds' organization. Having Votto at first and Frazier on the way at third reduces the options for Alonso. After the experiment with Alonso in left, the club has decided to return Yonder to his natural position, first base.
Trading Alonso is a possibility. Media sources have indicated that the Reds are actively shopping him to clubs in the American League. They reason that the market for Alonso increases in the AL because of the presence of the designated hitter. Certainly a trade to a National League club wouldnít be out of the question.
Trading Alonso may be more difficult than it sounds. Having a 23 or 24 year-old designated hitter isnít the most ideal situation for any club. One of the rumors making the rounds has the Reds trading Alonso and other prospects to the Seattle Mariners for Cliff Lee. Even though they just picked up the aging and ailing Russell Branyan (herniated back disks) the Mariners can use Alonso long-term. Of course, Lee would be rented for the rest of this year before he becomes an expensive free agent. And of course, other teams are in the hunt for Lee, escalating the trading price.
We are experiencing a time when clubs in both leagues have outstanding prospects emerging at first base. Some of the players have the ability to play either first or third, such as Brett Wallace of the Toronto Blue Jays. As noted above, I donít think Alonso has the agility or range to play third. Other upcoming players lIke Davis, Smoak, Hosmer and Floridaís Gaby Sanchez, Clevelandís Matt LaPorta, Oaklandís Chris Carter, the Yankees' Juan Miranda, and Atlantaís Freddie Freeman make the trading of Alonso a little more difficult. Thatís a formidable group emerging at the same time.
While I donít think Alonso will be a major star in the big leagues, I do believe heíll be able to hit for a better average than heís shown so far and heíll hit some important home runs as he continues his development. I like many of the prospects listed above better than I like Alonso. Iíll be featuring some of those players in upcoming profiles. For now however, Alonso has to continue to improve at the minor league level and wait for a career break. It may or may not come with the Reds. His contract dictates a pending move by the Reds. They have money invested in a first-round draft pick. They believed in him enough to have given him a major league contract. As a result, his clock is running. The remainder of 2010 and 2011 will be critical seasons for Alonsoís development. By late 2011, that issue has to be resolved.