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Nick Senzel doesn’t have to be a great CF for the idea to still work

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It wouldn’t be the first time a team faked it with a player.

MLB: All Star Game-Futures Game Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been less than two calendar years since the Cincinnati Reds picked up resident 2B and All Star Scooter Gennett off waivers from the Milwaukee Brewers. Seems like it’s been a tad longer than that though, no? There’s this pervasive idea among many Reds fans that Scooter hit the ground running immediately in Cincinnati, his home town, took the lineup by storm, and hasn’t looked back. That’s largely due to how hot he was down the stretch in 2017, and how he burst out of the gate in 2018 and, for a long time, challenged for the NL batting title.

That’s the kind of endearing play that can make it really easy to forget that in his first nine games played as a Red, he played each of 3B, LF, 2B, and RF. Scooter Gennett - right fielder was a thing. By the end of May 12th, 2017, he had logged two full games played in LF within a five day span. He started seven consecutive games from June 2nd to June 10th that year, his positions in those games played as follows: RF, RF, RF, LF, 2B, 3B, LF.

You’ll likely remember that he crushed the St. Louis Cardinals with a four-dinger game during that marvelous 2017 breakout. That came on June 6th - not from ‘second baseman Scooter Gennett,’ but from ‘left fielder Scooter Gennett.’

Now, if Scooter had been Yonder Alonso level awful in his outfield forays, you’d probably remember it. It’s entirely possible that because he hit so damn well in the process, we’d overlook any defensive foibles he had out there anyway, which might well be the case here. It certainly was back in 2013 when Shin-Soo Choo was slotted into CF everyday for the first time in his career in order to vastly improve the Reds batting order that season, which he did in spades. In retrospect, it’s also easy to overlook that while Choo was far from a Gold Glove talent in his lone season in CF, he was far from the only player getting significant run out there while producing sub-optimal glovework at the position.

This all circles back to top Reds prospect Nick Senzel, who played CF in a Cactus League game earlier this week in his first game-level work there as a professional. He caught a pair of pop flies, threw well back to the infield, and even stole a base on offense to remind you that he’s got ample speed in his 23 year old legs. All signs point to the Reds being willing to play him out there to get his elite-level bat in their lineup, a prudent measure given his athletic ability and the logjam at positions where he has played during his minor league career.

This is a rather long way of trying to emphasize that even if Senzel isn’t very good in CF, things are going to be completely fine for the Reds. In fact, he can be pretty bad out there and it will still be a concept worth exploring for most of the season. Not to mention that despite the previous two examples, the Reds are far from innovators in exploring such an idea.

I’ve referenced what the Washington Nationals did with Trea Turner during the 2016 season several times in regards to Senzel’s trip to CF, and it’s a story with many parallels. Turner, of course, is the stalwart SS for the Nationals these days, fresh off a 4.1 bWAR season in which he led all National League players in PA and SB and logged the second most innings at SS of all players in baseball. Back in 2016, though, he was just a 23 year old former 1st round pick who was blocked at SS by incumbent Danny Espinosa and at 2B by All Star Daniel Murphy. That Washington OF, though, had some serious flaws, with 37 year old Jayson Werth a walking injury and Ben Revere barely able to hit balls out of the infield, and that led Washington to explore using Turner as their everyday CF down the stretch despite the fact that he’d never once played any OF position in a professional game to that point of his career.

From August 18th to the end of the season, he made 43 starts for the Nationals, 39 of which came as their CF. He hit .361/.393/.589 in that stretch, which propelled him to a second place finish in the NL Rookie of the Year Award that season despite the fact that he’d played just 73 games after being called up. And yes, it would be an absolute dream scenario if Nick Senzel can produce anywhere close to that kind of offense for the Reds once he gets his big league call, since that’s just about as elite as it gets.

The thing is, though, Trea Turner was a really bad defensive CF. He’s a plus defensive SS by most metrics, and a phenomenal athlete who’s looking to steal more often in 2019 than he did while swiping 43 bags in 2018, but he was a categorically bad CF. 44 MLB players logged at least 300 innings in CF during the 2016 season in which Turner played there for 387.1 innings, and by UZR/150, he was the 4th worst defender of all of them. Coincidentally, if you expand that list by using 130 innings in CF as the minimum, you get 68 players who make the cut, and Turner ranks as the 9th worst of that group - though not quite as poorly as one Scott Schebler, who seems to be the Cincinnati Reds player most likely to get CF clock should Senzel falter horrendously out there.

But did Turner’s poor CF defense really cause much of a problem? Those Nationals won 97 games, for the record. Turner is still just 25 years old, and it already seems like his days of roaming CF are a distant memory. He’s taken hold of the team’s SS spot and yielded the OF to the likes of Michael A. Taylor, Juan Soto, and Victor Robles, a promising trio that seem much better suited to patrolling the Washington OF long-term. That worked out brilliantly for those Nationals, as it got their top prospect’s bat into a lineup poised to compete for a playoff spot while neither disrupting the future of their OF or ruining his chances to play his best position down the road.

That sure seems like something damn close to best-case scenario, and it came despite some really bad defense in CF for a large portion of a year. Given the way these Reds are currently constructed, that’s a scenario that would still work brilliantly for them long-term with Senzel, too. Even if he hacks it for most of the 2019 season as a CF, there is still ample opportunity for him to be the Reds 2B of the future, what with Scooter in his final year of team control and inching towards age 30. Taylor Trammell appears poised to be a big leaguer by 2020 after all - as does the toolsy Jose Siri - and those two flanked by Jesse Winker and Schebler would make for quite the talented OF of the future even if the Reds chose not to add from outside the organization - or to keep Yasiel Puig around with a contract extension.

That is the future of the franchise’s OF even if Senzel fails miserably out there. If, god forbid, he actually takes to it quite well, that’s a scenario that could still play out, albeit one that allows for even greater flexibility with where Senzel gets to play long-term. Either way, though, it’s pretty clear that the idea of letting him play CF, and even play poorly out there at times, is one that doesn’t do a thing to dent his, or the team’s, future path.

Given the rumors swirling around service time manipulation among MLB front offices and how that’s likely to impact when the Reds finally deploy Senzel, my best guess is that we’ll begin to hear things like he’s taking to CF OK, but he needs more experience there in the coming weeks, regardless of what he shows on the field in Cactus League play. It’ll be prime double-talk, but will also be the team’s fall-back plan to try to keep him under control for the 2025 season. Debating the merits of keeping him down for two-three weeks to beat the system is a wonderful conversation we can delve into some other time, as the point I’m trying to make here is simply that even if that’s the bogus fall-back argument, it’s one without a ton of credible merit. Nick Senzel can be a bad CF for the Reds all year, and the Reds will still likely benefit from it happening both now and down the road.