The back of any Alex Blandino baseball card will forever show an ugly 2016. A .234 batting average, 8 dingers, and 40 ribbies in 112 games played for the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, a saggy trio at the AA level from the former 1st round draft pick. He struggled both at home and on the road, against both lefties and righties, and by the time the 2017 Cincinnati Reds top prospect lists started to be released, the guy who had been a consensus Top 10 organizational guy in 2016’s name was absolutely nowhere to be seen.
FanGraphs (5th last year), Baseball America (6th), Minor League Ball (8th), and Baseball Prospectus (9th) had both seen enough of Blandino’s rough 2016 and plenty of the new influx of talent into the system to drop him precipitously, and on the surface it’s pretty easy to see why. A now 24 year old coming off an overall .234/.334/.342 line in his first full year at AA who has yet to fully nail down a defensive position doesn’t exactly scream ‘top prospect’ anymore, despite the fine pedigree and previous scouting results.
Admittedly, I’ve got my fingers crossed (which makes typing this quite hellish), but I’ll go on record as saying we’ve dumped our collective Blandino hopes prematurely. In fact, I’m still rather bullish on the kid, all told.
If you send your brains on a quick trip back to March of last your, you’ll remember that Blandino was representing Nicaragua in World Baseball Classic qualifiers after 20 quick PAs in Cactus League run with the Reds. After both starting at shortstop for Nicaragua’s squad and picking up the game-winning hit for them against Germany, he suffered a thigh injury that not only kept him out of the rest of the WBC qualifiers, but also for the first few weeks of the Blue Wahoos’ season. Once he returned, as CBSSports.com noted, he struggled mightily.
Terribly, even. In his first 16 games of action after returning, he hit just .148/.200/.213 with way more zero hit games (9) than multi-hit ones (just 1). Perhaps the injury - which in some places was listed as a pulled muscle in the back of his thigh - was lingering as a detriment. Perhaps the disruption to his usual Spring Training regimen from the WBC games threw off his preparation, and paired with a nagging leg injury his performance fell off a cliff. Whatever the case, his season got off on the wrong foot completely, and a 10 game stretch beginning in late-May that saw him go just 2 for 35 with 5 walks and 17 strikeouts spelled the end of any real chance of his year-long numbers maintaining any respectability.
From that point forward, however, many of the semblances of the guy the Reds were willing to take 29th overall in the 2014 MLB Draft re-emerged, and it's that rebound that has me not yet willing to give up on him completely. In the 69 nice games after that awful slump through the end of the season, he hit a much more respectable .260, his .359 OBP in that span harkening back the OBP skills that had him on top prospect lists in the first place. Offensive numbers, mind you, that pair nicely with John Sickels' defensive review of him prior to the 2016 season, when he claimed Blandino's "defense is under-rated and I personally think he has a chance to stay at shortstop due to his reliability although most project 2B long-term."
As you shrink the sample smaller and smaller as the season wore on, the better and better Blandino's offensive numbers become, too. Over his final 38 games (169 PA), he hit a very top-prospecty .313/.414/.403, his 23 walks in that span equating to a near Vottonian 99 per 162 games played. And while I'm firmly of the belief that being "clutch" isn't a truly tangible skill, his hot-streak coincided with the Blue Wahoos sprinting to an improbable 2nd half South Division title - one that included a 5-game sweep of the Birmingham Barons to finish the season.
Included in that 5-game sweep: Blandino going 7 for 19 with a double, 2 steals, and 6 walks (against just a lone strikeout). Sustainable over the course of a career? Of course not, but there's at least a decent chance it coincided with something potentially more important: that he was finally healthy and fixed by the end of the year, something he almost certainly was not at the beginning.
With Nick Senzel, Jose Peraza, and Dilson Herrera in the fold, it's easy to forget about Blandino even if his overall 2016 numbers hadn't been so collectively poor. He's not the clear-cut future star infielder we'd pinned hopes on anymore, at least not like he was when drafted in 2014. He's got competition, he's been passed on prospect lists in the eyes of many, and there's no longer a clear path for him to stake his claim as a future cog at the big league level. Still, I get the impression people have completely moved on from him already, despite the fact that there was much more to the story of his 2016 season than just the final numbers. In fact, seeing how the Louisville Bats send out their everyday infield and lineup will be one of the more intriguing things to watch on the farm this year, particularly due to the pending presence of Alex there.
A top of the order featuring Blandino, Herrera, and Jesse Winker? If Blandino's second half rebound is any indication, that should be prime entertainment for Bats fans - and for the Cincinnati front office.