This time last year, Alex Blandino was off the radar for most everyone who follows the future of the Cincinnati Reds. After posting just a .516 OPS in his chance to shine in the Arizona Fall League at the end of the 2015 season, the former 1st round draftee slumped to just a .232/.333/.337 line with AA Pensacola in 2016, performances that effectively rusted his prospect shine.
Whether it was the lingering thigh issue he picked up representing Nicaragua in the World Baseball Classic or it was switching from Grape to Fruit Punch Gatorade, Blandino more than righted his ship during the 2017 season, however. After riding a .390 OBP in his 63 game stint with AAA Louisville after turning a corner in a second stint in Pensacola, Blandino earned a spot on the Reds 40-man roster, and he now looks poised to contribute in at least a utility role in the big leagues as early as this year.
Entering 2017, Blandino was a classic case of a prospect who really, really needed a good season to keep his professional career on-track, and pretty well only had one season left to have it. Entering 2018, the Reds have a handful of players in very similar situations, guys who have been highly touted at times in their paths through the minor leagues but are running out of chances to prove they still belong as apples of the front office’s eyes.
Here are closer looks at five of them.
Chris Okey - C (24 years old)
One. 1. Uno. When your season-long batting average starts with 1, your season is kaput.
To say Okey’s 2017 season never really got going is the understatement of all understatements. His April OPS of .481 was backed up by a .489 mark in May, and he never hit better than .230 in any month of the season. Expanding beyond simply batting average, his slugging marks were even more brutal - he never once slugged higher than .295 over a calendar month, his overall .249 slugging percentage effectively what you’d get if you drag-bunted in every PA of the year.
.185/.265/.249 as a product of college baseball as a 22 year old in the Florida State League would be bad enough to get the boot from many systems altogether in many cases, but in Okey’s case, perhaps there’s more to the story. The 2016 2nd round pick obviously carries a solid prospect pedigree and a reputation as a good battery mate and overall defensive catcher, so there’s more to him than just the offense. And when it comes to his putrid offensive season, news that he was playing through a broken hamate bone in his wrist without telling anyone might help you more easily wring your hands of his 2017 production.
What would also help you wring your hands of that 2017, though, would be a solid bounce-back season from Okey in 2018.
Nick Travieso - RHP (24 years old)
Nick Travieso probably needed a good 2017 season, given that his 2016 season saw his walk rate spike (4.1 BB/9), his strikeout rate dip (7.0 K/9), and his WHIP (1.38) climb to a career worst while with AA Pensacola.
Of course, the clearest way to not have a good 2017 season is to never throw a competitive pitch in the 2017 season, and that’s exactly what Travieso and his balky right shoulder did. With a summer surgery further complicating things, the 2012 1st round draftee found himself outrighted off the team’s 40-man roster altogether, which was one part a procedural move (since nobody’d pick him up) and another part a clear sign he’s got a ways to go before being right again.
His 9 month recovery time puts him on track to begin throwing again in early March, at which point in time he’ll have to work his way back through the crowded mix of potential starters in the system. And, we’ll get to see if his shoulder injury has further sapped his ability to be a potential starter at all.
Aristides Aquino - OF (23 years old)
Aquino launched 23 dingers with A+ Daytona in 2016 in a league where damn near nobody launches 23 dingers. That mark ranked 2nd in the Florida State League, as did his .519 slugging percentage, and only three hitters in the league topped the 26 doubles he also smacked. That mix of tantalizing power paired with a league-leading number of outfield assists saw Aquino rocket up prospect lists and gave the Reds a true, elite power threat of a prospect for the first time in several years.
Then his 2017 season fell completely apart, as he hit just .216/.282/.397 with AA Pensacola, sporting a Juan Francisco-esque 28.8% strikeout rate. Not good, Bob.
Aquino occupies a 40-man roster spot at the moment, too, and with a number of non-roster players very much in the mix to make an impact on the Reds early in the season in various roles, the toolsy OF might well need both a strong camp in Goodyear just to hold on to it. It’ll be interesting to see whether the Reds send him back to AA Pensacola (and their cavernous stadium) to begin the year (if he’s still got that roster spot), or if he’ll head to AAA Louisville.
Wyatt Strahan - RHP (24 years old)
Losing a year to Tommy John surgery is brutal enough for pitchers when it happens at the big league level, where at least they’re making a big league salary and have established their names as big league players. When it happens in the minors, though, it only further serves to banish pitchers into obscurity while bevies of other pitching prospects leapfrog you on future depth charts.
I get the impression that’s largely what has happened to Strahan, the 3rd round draftee from back in 2014. The USC product had a fine first full season for Dayton, posting a 2.79 ERA in 164.1 IP in 2015, but after just 23.2 IP with A+ Daytona in 2016 he needed the ol’ replacement UCL in his pitching arm and was sidelined for over 13 months.
He made it back to fire 72.2 decent innings for Daytona in 2017, and while he cut his walk rate to a stellar 1.7 per 9 IP and posted a career-best WHIP of 1.17, he did so as a 24 year old still stuck in A+. 25 in April, Strahan is running out of time to continue his climb through the minors as a starter, and now seems to be approaching the point where he might get faster-tracked as a reliever given his age and college pedigree.
Alfredo Rodriguez - SS (23 years old)
The Reds paid $6 million to Rodriguez to sign him back in January of 2016. Then, they paid $6 million more to MLB as a penalty for going over their international bonus pool allotment to sign Rodriguez, effectively making him a $12 million man.
When he was signed for that ungodly amount, Baseball America’s Ben Badler had this to say about him:
His talent is commensurate with players who have gone in the third to the sixth round of the draft in recent years.
Rodriguez just wrapped his first full year in the Cincinnati system, and did so by hitting .253/.294/.294 in 516 PA with A+ Daytona, and while I’ve beaten into your heads about the Florida State League being extremely pitcher-friendly, that’s still downright bad. Rodriguez does bring what most scouts refer to as plus defense at a premium position, but that’s the kind of wet noodle that creates notaprospects regardless of their other tools.
Given the financial outlay and the fact that he’ll turn 24 in June and still hasn’t reached AA, there are a pile of eyes on Rodriguez at the moment, and a 2018 season that shows any potential for return-on-investment for the Reds sure would be welcomed by all parties involved.