Nick Senzel rolled into calendar year 2019 having never once been a professional center fielder. By the end of February, that’s exactly what he was, and what he was going to be - not just as a pro, but as a big leaguer. After an inevitable, shady service-time induced demotion, he wrecked his ankle sliding into a base in one of the final minor league spring training games held in Arizona, a scenario that was equal parts frustrating and debilitating to both Senzel and the Cincinnati Reds season-opening karma.
It was a rough start to the year for the 23 year old rookie, the prized prospect of the Reds system. And after back to back early September games in which he was limited to nothing more than being a defensive replacement, a balky shoulder cut short his rookie campaign for good. When it did, the back of his baseball card showed he’d hit .256/.315/.427 in 2019, numbers that are neither bad nor the kind you file away to memory to talk about with your kids some day.
Between that ankle-roll and shoulder issue - a labrum tear that would eventually require surgery - there was a whole hell of a lot more to Senzel than just .256/.315/.427, however. Given that his name has come up as a potential trade chip in the last week in connection with the Reds purported chase of superstar Francisco Lindor, it’s worth taking stock in Senzel’s 2019 season in a bit more context, I think.
There was the dizzy spell, which confounded most of us and prompted overreaction that the spell of vertigo he’d dealt with in the minors had returned. He dealt with migraines, which prompted the same concerns. He even somehow managed to foul a pitch off his own damn eyeball at one point, forcing him out of the game and requiring stitches.
Still, by the end of July, he was hitting a tidy .285/.346/.475 through his first 70 games as a big leaguer, just a month into his 24th year on this planet. His per 162 game stats were the kind of stat-stuffers you’d hope for from every player hitting atop the order, too - 42 doubles, 10 triples, 19 homers, and 21 steals.
Then, as I’m fairly certain it does every year, the calendar turned to August, and things went a bit off-track. For one, we began to see a whole lot less of this:
...and a whole lot more of this:
A swing change for any player is the kind of thing that simply does not materialize perfectly overnight. To go through one that pronounced in not just the middle of a season, but in the middle of one’s rookie season, is a borderline head-scratcher. Factor in that the Nick Senzel that had risen to be a consensus Top 10 overall prospect in the game prior to 2019 was also doing effectively the same kind of rapid-fire transition defensively to CF from 3B, and the kid had an epic plate of new baseball pie on his plate. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to wonder just how much he, or anyone else, would’ve been able to stomach at that point, something that seemed to ring true in his comments to MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon in late August.
“It’s extremely hard. I think, more or less, harder mentally than it is physically,” Senzel said. “But physically, it’s hard because I’ve hit a certain way my whole life.
With his new swing in-hand, Senzel hit a brutal .184/.238/.296 for the month of August, with 29 K in 108 PA. It’s obviously impossible to determine if the new swing was wholly behind those struggles, but it’s also pretty impossible to ignore. And while he began to move back to his older stance by the end of the month, he wrapped August with this slam into the CF wall in St. Louis, and one week later was shut down for the 2019 season.
There’s a lot to unpack here, so I’ll try to summarize what’s running through my head about this all in a somewhat concise manner.
“The numbers are what they are” is objectively true, but I’m not sure the best of who Senzel can be in 2020 and beyond is truly reflected by his end-of-2019 rate stats. Less tinkering, more consistency, and familiarity with his defensive responsibilities should, in theory, be the premise of his next year as a Red, and it’s easy to think that would allow him to continue to produce at a better overall rate.
Secondly, the two hitting coaches with whom he worked in 2019 are no longer around. Turner Ward was let go by the Reds at season’s end, and Donnie Ecker bolted for the San Francisco Giants shortly thereafter. While there were several Reds and prospects that were notably helped by those two with swing overhauls that helped unleash newfound talent - Aristides Aquino, for a time, being chief among them - Senzel certainly didn’t appear to be one of those despite his open mind to the concept mid-season. In fact, the team offense as a whole didn’t really take off last year despite several in-season attempts to rectify things, and perhaps who the Reds have brought in this time around have been specifically briefed on that history. Focusing back on the principles of hitting that got him this far might end up being the better approach for Senzel after all.
Finally, the obvious - he’s still only played CF for one season, and the more time he spends out there, the better he’ll be. He showed elite athleticism - StatCast ranked his sprint speed in the 96th percentile of big leaguers and even rated his OF jump as above-average - and his reads will absolutely continue to improve with repetition. This, perhaps above all, is one area where his room for improvement is the best combination of high-ceiling and promising.
Roll that all together, and the next six years of Nick Senzel look, on paper at least, a hell of a lot more promising than 2019, largely because what we saw from him in 2019 was a classic case of the individual parts being worth more than the product as a whole. I still feel like I saw enough in those spurts last year to think that there’s a whole product of a player there that can morph into a star-caliber player for the Reds, perhaps as early as the 2020 season.
The thing is, though, that trading him right now probably wouldn’t return that kind of value. Moving him now might well be at the nadir of his value for precisely those points alone, but the fact that he’s also recovering from labrum surgery on his throwing shoulder will further dent his value, too. Yes, the Reds are optimistic that he can return fully for the start of the season, and they even appear to be operating on a such a premise. Still, any team out there will have to build that risk into their valuation of him at the moment, and that will only serve to help dent his value.
In other words, moving Nick Senzel this winter would be selling very, very low on a player who still showed enough promise in 2019 to warrant patience. And as I continue to think about it, I still think that means moving him for two years of even Francisco Lindor - the brilliant, superstar that he is - becomes an increasingly tough pill to swallow. Factor in that the Reds don’t have a CF anywhere in their system who looks anywhere close to as capable as a two-way player there as Senzel, and it would cause a ripple effect at another position, one that doesn’t even have free agents available to help remedy said issue.
Yeah, I think the Reds need to hold on to Senzel this winter. Yeah, I get that might rule them out of being able to acquire Lindor. Yeah, I’m just about as geeked about the idea of ‘Francisco Lindor - Cincinnati Reds shortstop’ as anyone on the planet. I just think I’m still as optimistic about Nick Senzel’s future as a star in this league now as I was a year ago, and am so in spite of .256/.315/.427.