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Bernie Pleskoff's Minor League Report: When Will Todd Get The Nod?

Bernie Pleskoff

Bernie Pleskoff is a former professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners.

Last week in this space I did a profile of Yonder Alonso, a top first base prospect in the Cincinnati Reds organization. I indicated at the time that another major Reds prospect, Todd Frazier was being given considerable playing time at third base and left field with the Reds' Triple-A affiliate at Louisville.

Frazier has much more versatility as a defender than Alonso, including the ability to play third, short, second, first and left and right fields in the outfield. For now, however, the Reds appear to be settling on Frazier as a possible outfielder of the future. But thatís because they have another major prospect, Juan Francisco, playing third at Louisville. Still, Frazier has played 35 games in left field, 32 games at third base, 13 games at first base and one game as the designated hitter this season. Confusion regarding finding positions for Reds minor league players is a major problem, but thatís just how loaded the farm system is at this time. Names like Alonso, Frazier and Francisco seem to be interchangeable parts in a system that keeps drafting and signing quality players. Not to mention the loaded roster of top quality outfielders at both the big league and minor league levels.

Todd Frazier grew up in New Jersey as member of a baseball playing family. He went to Toms River South High School and was a good enough high school baseball player to be drafted by the Colorado Rockies in the 37th round in 2004. Ultimately, it was at Rutgers University that Frazier really earned his baseball stripes. The numbers he put up with the metal bat in his hands impressed scouts from lots of big league teams. Consider that in 2007, Frazier hit .377/.502/.757 while mainly playing shortstop. He was the Big East Conference MVP in 2007 and his honors included being named an All American. His college success earned him a first-round selection by the Reds in 2007 as the 34th player chosen in the first-year player draft. Frazier signed for an $825,000 bonus.

Frazier, 24, is a 6-foot-3, 220-pound right-handed hitting infielder/outfielder. His ultimate position on defense remains a question for Cincinnati, but his versatility is an asset to his career.
Being able to play anywhere on the field opens up options other players donít always possess. One question regarding Frazier is his ability to play any position at a high quality at the major league level. Does he have the range and skill to be a big league shortstop? Can he turn the double play as a second baseman? Can he cover enough ground to play third base on an everyday basis? Is he better than the quality outfielders in the system? Itís one thing to be a good athlete. Itís another to play with the worldís best players. There are other questions as well, but if he is to make it to the big leagues, it will be his bat that must carry the day.

Frazier has hit at every level in his professional career-until the first part of this season. His minor league hitting stats are consistently promising, including showing home-run power and a very respectable batting average. In his rookie year at Billings in the Rookie Pioneer League, he hit .319. He moved to Low-A Dayton in the same 2008 season and hit .318. Frazier followed that first season with a very good sophomore year split between Dayton (.321) and High-A Sarasota, where he finished the season by hitting .281 with 12 homers and 56 RBI. That year he had a combined 19 home runs, showing promising power.

Last season, he split time between Double-A Carolina in the Southern League where he hit .290 with 14 homers and 68 RBI and Triple-A Louisville in the International League where he hit .302 with two home runs and another nine RBI.

Things began to change at the outset of this season. Until recently, Frazier couldnít buy a hit. His average is now up to .236, but only because he has begun to hit in the past three weeks. He has 12 homers but only 37 RBI through 80 games (288 at-bats). He has struck out a whopping 71 times while walking only on 20 occasions. Those are almost alarming figures for a player with Frazierís past history as a hitter. Consider that right-handed pitchers are getting him out with regularity as he is hitting only .222 against righties. However, Frazier is hitting .353 over 10 games in July. Thatís more like it.

So what seems to be the problem with Frazier at the plate?

One can begin with his non-traditional hitting style. He has always gotten the job done by hitting with a straight left arm extension that includes little bend or give in his approach. He really isnít getting the use of his forearms and wrists when there is little to no flexibility in his range of motion. He is improving slightly in that area, but the arm extension is accompanied by a very slight weight shift from his back end to his front. He ends up on his toes while actually swinging from his front leg instead of having a balanced shift of his weight. That part of his swing is similar to Mariners prospect Dustin Ackley. The net result is a long, stiff swing with little balance and lots of stiff-arm extension. That swing has always worked for Frazier and coaches probably are best to leave him alone. He has been known as a hitter with the ability to put the ball in play to all parts of the field, and he has always had good contact and flashed gap and home-run power while being selective at the plate prior to this season. Now it seems the strikeouts are mounting, and the pitching he is seeing will keep getting better and better.

Frazierís position on defense will continue be a source of conversation in the Reds' organization. The problem with his defensive work is really simple; he lacks the range and first-step quickness to be an everyday shortstop. His height really shouldnít be an issue for playing shortstop. Other tall players have played the position (Troy Tulowitzki for one), but getting to balls in the hole or behind second base will be a major challenge for him. His lack of first-step quickness separates him from other candidates. For example, within the Reds' organization alone, both Zack Cozart (prospect also at Louisville) and Paul Janish (on the major league roster) both have better range and quicker feet than Frazier.

How about second base? Same issues. He has to go both to his right and left with quick crossover first steps that get to the ball. While he has more time to get the runner at first, he may not have the range to play second base effectively day in and day out. The corners in the outfield? They are a distinct possibility provided the center fielder has enough speed to compensate for Frazierís lack of speed and quickness. He certainly has enough arm strength and accuracy to play either corner.

Third base? Thatís where the Reds have played Frazier 32 times this season. They hope he can adapt to having less ground to cover than at short or second. They hope his feet are quick enough and his reflexes fast enough to respond to sharply hit balls. Iím not so sure. For me, the best fit for Frazier is in left field where they are playing him now. But the Reds are loaded with outfielders. Actually, the Reds are loaded everywhere on the field at the big league and minor league levels.

Scott Rolen is having an outstanding year at third base for the Reds. His contract runs through 2012 after an extension and restructuring. That means third base is not an immediate full-time option for Frazier unless Rolen is seriously injured or he falters badly. And the shadow of fellow prospect and Triple-A teammate Juan Francisco looms, so itís going to be tough for Frazier to crack the lineup at third base.

The 40-man roster of the Reds includes outfielders Jay Bruce, Chris Dickerson (currently injured) Jonny Gomes, Chris Heisey, Laynce Nix and Drew Stubbs. Each has value. However, Nix and Gomes may be expendable Ė the former more-so than the latter. So, there may be a future place for Frazier in the outfield Ė maybe. Based on playing time so far, that could be the longer-range plan for Frazier, especially since Dickersonís future is still in question as well.

Todd Frazier is an athlete. He is big and strong with the ability to play baseball. Based on his high school and college performance he was worthy of his high draft position. He will likely be successful at the major league level. The degree of his success will be determined by how quickly he can adapt to good quality pitching. And like Alonso and Francisco, he plays with the major league club only if a defensive position can be found that provides comfort for the Reds. Or, not unlike Alonso and/or Francisco, perhaps Frazier is destined to be part of a major trade for a back-end starting pitcher or bullpen help.

As Iíve said many times on the pages of RotoWire, the Cincinnati Reds organization is loaded with talent. Loaded. Frazier is just another in a list of excellent prospects waiting patiently for a chance to play. Somewhere. There are so many trade chips available to the Reds one would think they are poised to make a major splash before the July trade deadline. Even Dickerson, Gomes and Nix can be considered on the available list along with the prospects mentioned above. So make no mistake, the Reds will be dealing from strength.

The Reds' organization is one for every fantasy player to target. Major players are being developed with loud bats and bright futures Ė Frazier is just one of them. Thatís why I am spending this space profiling several top quality Reds prospects. In my final look at the Cincinnati system prior to the trade deadline, Iíll preview Juan Francisco in next weekís column. He might be the best of the lot.