Nick Senzel is going to start the 2018 season in the minor leagues. Nick Senzel was always going to start the 2018 season in the minor leagues. The financial ramifications alone dictated such, as did the ability to plan deeper into the future of the team over the matter of just a few weeks. Pile on top of that the concept that he just might need a bit of additional seasoning despite his otherworldly talent, and there was never truly any question that the Cincinnati Reds would assign him to the minor leagues prior to Opening Day, which they did just yesterday.
When I say him needing some additional ‘seasoning’ might be part of the equation, that comes on the defensive side of the ball, and it’s not meant to suggest he’s not capable. He’s merely being asked to get more experienced with versatility around the diamond, so the news that he’ll be playing primarily 2B in Louisville to start the season certainly fits that narrative. MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon had that news yesterday upon speaking with Senzel.
Talked to Senzel. Says he’s going to Louisville and will be primarily at 2B. Story to come soon #reds— Mark Sheldon (@m_sheldon) March 19, 2018
The long-term ramifications of him playing 2B for Louisville are rather clear. With Eugenio Suarez now under a long-term contract and the incumbent 3B, getting Senzel into the lineup at as many positions as he’s capable of playing is his quickest path to being an everyday big leaguer. The short-term ramifications of him playing 2B for Louisville, though, are much less clear.
This time just last year, there were some convinced Dilson Herrera would be the next 2B of the Reds, even with Jose Peraza penciled in there, Zack Cozart still in the fold, and Scooter Gennett having just been claimed. Of course, shoulder issues have since put that concept on hold to the point where he even cleared waivers a week ago, meaning he’ll be a part of the same Louisville infield as Senzel to start the season. While he’ll likely get most of the early reps at DH, he’s still a player the Reds will want to see in the field somewhere, and since he did log 3 games as a 3B with Louisville last year, there’s a chance he’ll find himself rotating between those roles with Senzel around.
There’s another camp that’s been holding out hope that Alex Blandino would seize the ‘2B of the future’ role, especially after his .270/.390/.444 debut with Louisville last year. The former 1st round pick shrugged off his injury-plagued 2016 season to put himself firmly in the mix to be a big leaguer sooner than later, and his outstanding 2018 Cactus League play has only heightened those expectations. Most scouts are convinced he, too, is best suited to play 2B, but he’s garnered plenty of experience at each of 2B, 3B, and SS during his time in the minors. Should he not win one of the final bench spots with the Reds, that would put him, too, in that mix with Herrera and Senzel in the Louisville infield.
Perhaps Blandino’s top competition for a bench role on the Reds to start the season is Brandon Dixon. The former Los Angeles Dodgers draftee has always flashed big power, and it’s been on display with a more refined approach at the plate so far this spring, as he’s hit 4 dingers - many at key points in games. At 26, he might be far enough along in his development to make a perfect player to have on the bench (instead of playing everyday to hone skills elsewhere), and he, too, has loads of experience at both 3B and 2B, though he’s also played all across the OF and at 1B. A non-roster invitee, there’s a chance he could get shipped back to Louisville without much transactional hullabaloo, but if the Reds value him for his ability to be versatile and that’s his calling card for an eventual call-up, it’s hard to envision him either a) playing 1B everyday, or b) playing exclusively in the OF when he’s likely better suited as an IF. That would put him into the ever-crowded mix of 2B/3B options in Louisville.
We haven’t even touched on the other likely members of the Louisville infield mix, though they’re names you’ll recognize, too. Darnell Sweeney might well get looks at 7 different positions, including SS, as he’s shown a proclivity for every position available during his career. Blake Trahan, on the other hand, might well be the everyday SS, as the former 3rd round pick is known for his glovework and is fresh off spending his entire 136 game 2017 season with AA Pensacola. And given how little concrete SS depth there is in the system beyond Jose Peraza - he himself light on SS experience at the highest level and still with plenty of question marks - it sure would make sense to have an everyday glove in AAA ready on the off-chance of an injury.
It’s that latter point that still has me convinced Cliff Pennington will earn a roster spot on the Reds to open the season despite a ho-hum spring with both bat and glove. At 33 years old, he’s certainly not still an in-prime fielder, but he’s got a wealth of proven experience as a big league SS, and that’s something that doesn’t exist in the Cincinnati system anywhere at this juncture. Not to mention, if the Reds don’t choose to carry him on the big league roster, there’s a pretty damn good chance he’s not simply going to accept an invite to go back to playing AAA ball, which means losing him as a depth option altogether.
If I had to make a wager, I’d place it on Pennington and Dixon both landing spots on the Reds Opening Day roster, serving as bench bats alongside Devin Mesoraco, whichver of the four main OFs isn’t starting that day, and one of Ben Revere or Phil Ervin. Of course, both Dixon and Pennington would need roster spots - Revere, too, if he was going to make it - and the Reds currently have 38 players on the 40-man roster. That would mean rolling the dice on losing a current player on waivers, which is certainly an opportunity cost that must be factored into these decisions, too. In that scenario, you could see an everyday Louisville infield featuring Blandino at 3B, Trahan at SS, and Senzel at 2B, with Herrera getting DH work through the first few weeks of the season while his shoulder heals.
Ideally, it’s only the first few weeks of the season that’ll make this scenario one of a log-jam, anyway, since calling up Senzel after he’s spent enough time in the minors to not get a full year of service time in 2018 is the one hurdle the Reds need to clear. Though if Pennington and Dixon prove to be the right calls as bench bats to start the year, Senzel and Blandino continue hitting well enough to warrant call-ups, Herrera’s shoulder finally gets healthy, and 2B prospect Shed Long hits his way into a call-up from AA Pensacola, the logjam still won’t be going anywhere.
For the Reds, though, that’s a dang good problem to have.