Last week I wrote on whether the Indians should sign Mark Reynolds or Kevin Youkilis to play first base if given the choice. I came to the conclusion that Youkilis was the way to go because he’s a better, more well-rounded player than Mark is. Well, that’s all moot, like so many sports opinion pieces, because now Reynolds is a member of the Indians, surely ensconced at first base next April. While it’s not the dream we as fans had been dreaming (like, say, a crafty hoodwinking of the Cincinnati Reds for Joey Votto in a caper that involves hypnotism, international bank thieves and George Clooney), it’ll do for now.
Though I spent a good part of my analysis pointing out Reynolds’ deficiencies compared to Youkilis, the fact is he’s the best first baseman the Indians have had since Victor Martinez took days off catching, and probably since Jim Thome was there full time. In two years of playing in the intense, pressure-cooking baseball hellscape that makes up the American League East, Reynolds posted a 112 OPS+ and hit 60 home runs. He struck out 355 times but did walk 148 times, pretty much playing the kind of ball we expect out of him. He’s also under 30 and signed for a nice, affordable sum of $6 million—well within even a small-market team’s budget.
The thing is, that time on the coast meant he had to bat against the Rays, Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays pitching staffs anywhere from 17 to 19 times a year. For a free-swinger like Reynolds it’s a division that can cause real tough stretches at the plate. He had those stretches, but he also enjoyed streaks where pitchers absolutely dreaded facing him. That’s just the kind of player he is.
Now that he’s in the AL Central, he gets to hit against AL Central pitching, and the staffs of this division should at least get an assist for the Triple Crown Miguel Cabrera won this year. Now Reynolds is no Cabrera, but he’ll still get to face the Cole De Vrieses and Bruce Chens and Jose Quintanas of the world way more than the David Prices and CC Sabathias and Clay Buchholzes. This isn’t going to add 150 points to his OPS or get him to hit over .260, but it means he’ll see more pitches he can unload on. At least, that’s the hope. He also murders what Baseball-Reference considers “finesse pitchers” (guys in the bottom third of K/BB ratio in the league), packing a .910 OPS against them—and considering the amount of those hurlers we see in the AL Central every year, Reynolds could be in for a good time.
Signing Reynolds also says something about the path the Indians are trying to take this winter. At first glance it’s the kind of move that fills you with indifference—another retread signing. Earlier in the year I advocated blowing it all up, bombing the next couple seasons and go the Washington Nationals route to contention. Since then my compatriot Steve Kinsella, who has the privilege of living where he can see the Rays’ activities first hand, has persuasively argued that the ideas of rebuilding and windows of contention are outdated, as reflected by Tampa Bay’s recent success. Sure, the Rays struck gold with a superstar third baseman and a host of brilliant pitchers, but they compete despite a rotating cast through smart signings, great drafting and the understanding that they are limited, and take advantage of what they can do despite their budget limitations.
Reynolds isn’t going to single-handedly turn the Indians around and he won’t be a cornerstone on any contender, but he brings a quality power bat and a veteran presence to a very youthful and light-hitting roster. Baseball is a game of routines, and it takes a while for a new player to understand what it take to win consistently. Reynolds has been on winning teams and he’s made a very good career for himself already. If the Indians can keep the train moving and also sign Nick Swisher and maybe Edwin Jackson, perhaps that can push them over .500, and get the young guys like Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall used to winning at the major league level.
It’s not that the young guys can’t be winners—they’ve won at every level as it is—but the atmosphere of a clubhouse and an organization can have a huge effect on a player’s attitude. They have to see that everyone else wants to win as much as they do, otherwise what’s the point of doing anything more than the usual? You need to start somewhere, and with Terry Francona and now Reynolds on board, another piece will hopefully give everyone the idea that this is a team with a winning goal.
So even if Reynolds whiffs 200 times this year, he’s still going to excite us and make it fun to watch Indians baseball. He’s got flaws, but who doesn’t? I love watching Adam Dunn, and he’s the same kind of player. I’d much rather see Reynolds go 1-for-4 with three K’s and a bomb onto Larry Doby Way than watch Casey Kotchman hit three slow rollers to short and a bloop single.
When it’s all said and done, will we look back in 10 years at the Mark Reynolds signing and say that’s the beginning of a new Indians era—one of consistent contention and maybe a World Series title? If that all happens, probably not, it will just get lost in the shuffle of Jason Kipnis winning an MVP and Lonnie Chisenhall being a batting champion. But it’s moves like this that start the ball rolling. Our journey of a thousand miles begins today.