Seeing Jesse Winker’s name back on Baseball America’s list of the Top 100 prospects in the game earlier this week got my synapses firing for a multitude of reasons. Obviously, that one of the better collective prognosticators in the game felt his game warranted a ranking among the game’s best prospects was reason enough to get excited, especially given how he performed in his initial call-up during the 2017 season with the Reds.
On the other hand, though, was the idea that the road to the big leagues sometimes is an absolute grind, an ass-kicker that so often is far from linear. In Winker’s case, it took the 2012 1st rounder quite the circuitous path to find his way to Cincinnati, one that saw his lower-minors performance recognized with Top 50 overall prospect rankings from each of Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus prior to 2015 and 2016 before falling off their Top 100 lists altogether, respectively, prior to 2017. Wrist injuries, a complete evaporation of his power, and sudden questions that his offense could no longer make up for his defensive deficiencies kicked Winker’s prospect star to the curb in the eyes of many, and perhaps it was only a middling overall Reds’ system that kept his future in a positive light by many of us around here.
Jesse Winker, mind you, just turned 24 years old in August, meaning he still has his entire career peak in front of him. Twenty-four.
Winker’s story isn’t unique by any means. In prior seasons in Cincinnati, the likes of Todd Frazier and Drew Stubbs emerged as solid (if not spectacular) regulars after a year or two of their prospect hype having calmed. To a lesser degree, hopes are around here that Alex Blandino might well be on that career arc, too. But somewhat hidden on the Cincinnati depth charts at the moment is another guy who might well be on that post-hype sleeper career arc, a player Baseball America once ranked as the #46 overall prospect in the game as recently as the spring of 2015.
That guy? Dilson Herrera...and he’s still just 23 years old.
The former top prospect in the New York Mets system remains a mystery despite 2018 already set to be the third season in which he’s been a part of the Reds’ organization. Acquired from the Mets in the deadline deal from 2016 that sent Jay Bruce to New York, Herrera has seemingly been both on the cusp of getting a full-time big league gig while also being completely invisible, a mysterious shoulder injury having sapped him of both regular playing time and perhaps some of the power in his potent bat. As a result, the Reds have a 23 year old with 149 career MLB PAs who also hasn’t sniffed the big leagues since 2015, a lower-minors superstar who’s managed just 344 PAs with AAA Louisville since his acquisition back in 2016.
In a vacuum, that’s not a bad player to have around. Far from it, at a glance. However, Herrera is currently up against a scenario that so often plagues the talented international players that sign pro contracts at 16 and 17 years of age - namely, despite being half a year younger than Winker, for instance, Herrera is already out of options. That means there’s no more stashing him in the minors, no more chances to let him play everyday at Louisville while putting his injury issues firmly behind him, with perhaps the chance of a short injury rehab stint the one last chance to get him regular playing time.
Scooter Gennett is poised to get regular reps at Herrera’s customary keystone position after his breakout season. Similarly, Blandino carries the pedigree of a former 1st round draftee who’s off a 2017 season at AAA that was both more productive and healthier than Herrera’s while playing similar positions. Nick Senzel, of course, is also going to get reps at 2B come spring training, as the Reds will do everything in their power to get their top prospect a chance to play at the big league level while Eugenio Suarez continues to play an impressive 3B. And heck, there’s even the chance that Jose Peraza will end up getting rotational reps at 2B if the optimal scenario to get Senzel playing time includes Suarez sliding back over to shortstop while Senzel plays the hot corner.
That’s a glutton’s diet of depth at 2B, and none of those scenarios even get to Herrera, who may or may not actually be fully healthy in time to elbow his way into the mix.
From a pure talent perspective, it’s hard not to be envious of the Reds, as having Herrera as a right-handed bench bat would be an incredible improvement over the talent level that they’ve featured on the pine in many recent years. And, if Herrera proves capable of filling in at 3B like he has 62 times in minor league games over the year, his versatility could get him a few more opportunities than it initially seems he could on paper. In reality, though, we’re talking about a former top prospect entering just his age 24 season who is staring at the concept of spending most of his days on the bench, avoiding the regular reps that all players that age need vitally to fuel their development, and that’s a problem for which the Reds don’t currently seem to have an answer.
In the long list of moves the Reds have made during their multi-year rebuild, the players they received in return have always had a chance to get enough of a look to show what they’ve got. Peraza and Scott Schebler sure have. The pitchers the Reds got from Kansas City in exchange for Johnny Cueto all still will get regular looks again this year. Adam Duvall, Suarez, and even Gennett - though not via trade - have found the opportunities to get regular reps with the Reds despite that idea being a non-issue with their former clubs before their moves.
In Herrera’s case, though, the combination of being young for being out of options and the persistent shoulder injuries looks like it might well have cost him his chance to show what he can do with the Reds on a day to day basis. Barring a domino-like series of moves, injuries, or trades, it’ll be increasingly hard for the Reds to ever facilitate that, at this point.