There have been two main position player questions for the Cincinnati Reds to address this winter. The first became evident when they non-tendered CF Billy Hamilton, whose subsequent deal with the Kansas City Royals left a void up the middle on defense, one that wasn’t exactly solved by the corner outfield additions of Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig. The second, of course, was what the heck the Reds were going to do to get top prospect Nick Senzel on the field, since he was blocked at his two most experienced positions - at 3B by All Star Eugenio Suarez, and at 2B by All Star Scooter Gennett.
It didn’t take a rocket surgeon to roll the answers for both those questions into one frosty snowball. Why not just let Senzel, a plus athlete, play CF?
Despite his (/checks notes) zero professional experience at any outfield position, it appears that’s something the Reds brass is willing to consider, as The Enquirer’s John Fay relayed from Dick Williams earlier today.
Talked to Dick Williams about center field. Sounds like it’s Senzel’s job to lose: “. . . he will be given every opportunity to focus on center field, play center field, learn center field, improve in center field to see where he stacks up against our other options.” #reds— John Fay (@johnfayman) February 1, 2019
Now, there’s some clarification that’s needed here. While Senzel’s games played log shows zero innings anywhere outside the infield, the idea of him playing in the OF has been kicked around for months. And had he not had his 2018 season ended prematurely due to a busted finger (and surgery), there’s a great chance he’d have picked up some experience in AAA out there. Not to mention, he began getting some work in CF in instructional league play in late fall before he needed a cleanup procedure on his elbow, so while this is certainly revelatory news, it’s something that we probably would’ve seen concretely relayed a few months back if Senzel had stayed healthy.
The Reds haven’t addressed CF from outside the organization despite lukewarm interest in free agent A.J. Pollock earlier this year, and with the likes of Adam Jones, Denard Span, and others still free agents, they certainly could have done so. Williams’ comments today, though, signal that they’re probably willing to get to Goodyear and give Senzel every chance to show he’s too awful out there before making any sort of outside addition, especially with somewhat serviceable cover for CF already in-house in Schebler and Puig - not to mention the presence of Jose Siri on the 40-man roster, whose defense is already big league ready even if his bat isn’t quite there yet.
In many ways, the idea of letting Senzel play CF in 2019 fits the model for how they’ve constructed the rest of the roster this winter: make improvements around the diamond for this season without disrupting the plan for the future. Puig, Kemp, Alex Wood, and Tanner Roark were brought in as support, of course, but since none are under team control beyond the 2019 season, those moves won’t thwart the long-term development of the likes of Tyler Mahle, Tony Santillan, Jesse Winker, or the other young players at similar positions; in the same vein, Senzel playing CF in 2019 doesn’t necessarily preclude him from transitioning back to 2B if Scooter Gennett departs the roster after 2019, and using him out there for a lone season still would allow for Siri - or Taylor Trammell - to assume the role come 2020.
You can actually view this decision as similar to what the Washington Nationals did during the 2016 season with Trea Turner. A natural shortstop, Turner was easily going to be their answer in that position for the long-term, but in order to get their best bats on the field, they used the then 23 year old Turner in CF for much of his first full season, only later transitioning him back to his natural position when more veteran players hit free agency.
Of course, Williams’ comments also leave it open that if he doesn’t show enough ability out there, there are other options the club could take. That said, this appears to be the clearest path to getting Senzel’s bat in the lineup on a regular basis - and therefore getting the most potent possible Reds lineup on the field on a regular basis - and it’s encouraging as hell to see the front office so willing to give it a whirl.
P.S. It’s already February, folks, and pitchers and catchers report in just a week and a half. WE’RE ALMOST THERE!