For most of his professional career, the conversation surrounding Cincinnati Reds top prospect Nick Senzel has dealt as much with what position he’ll play on the major league team as it has with how good he’ll be when he gets there. It was evident before he was even drafted that he profiled as the kind of player who could move quickly through the minors, but by the midway point of his first full season of professional baseball, it seemed clear that he wouldn’t be moving Eugenio Suarez off the third base position, where Senzel played for much of his collegiate career. After it was assumed he could shift over to second base, Scooter Gennett’s emergence happened, leaving Senzel with the option of either learning shortstop or moving to the outfield. He suffered a season-ending injury before he had the chance to do either in 2018, and now he’s entered big league camp as the favorite to land the center field spot, with the Reds hoping their prize youngster has stumbled into defensive versatility.
Lots of people have taken the time to discuss Senzel’s move to center — from the inception of the idea, to the actual implementation of the experiment, to what it means for the Reds even if it fails. There is absolutely no doubt that his ability to defend that position will be one of the major storylines in Cincinnati throughout the year, and that this season will be a crucial one for Senzel’s development. What has gotten lost in the shuffle, and understandably so, is that this might be an even more important year for the development of 2018 first round pick Jonathan India.
India, it seems, gets forgotten a lot these days. He isn’t among the team’s incredibly strong top trio of prospects in Senzel, outfielder Taylor Trammell and right-handed pitcher Hunter Greene. He is also still a couple of years away from the majors, and didn’t produce the flashiest professional debut after he was drafted with the fifth overall pick in 2018. But he is still a very well-regarded prospect, slotting in among or near the top 50 in all of baseball according to most outlets, and a strong season from him in his first full year of pro baseball would be extremely important to the long-term outlook of the organization. Like Senzel, India was drafted as a third baseman who the front office saw as having the potential to move over to a middle infield or corner outfield spot if the need arose. That kind of flexibility could be tested soon, because as he enters his 2019 season, it still isn’t clear which position the Reds ought to develop him at.
During his 44-game pro debut across three levels of the minors, India started 33 games at third base, eight at shortstop, and three at DH. He was generally regarded as above average in terms of both his glovework and his arm, doing nothing to dash hopes that versatility in the future would be a solid option.
Still, it would probably be more beneficial than not to at least attempt to allow him to get comfortable with one position, and that’s where the Reds find themselves in a conundrum.
First, there is the fact that Suarez is locked into the third base position through 2024. If Senzel couldn’t force him off that spot, India won’t either. Gennett’s contract expiring at the end of this season would, in theory, make second base a more winnable spot, but even that position could prove incredibly tricky to lock down. There is the obvious fact that Gennett is openly campaigning for an extension to stay in Cincinnati. If he produces a second-straight four-win season in 2019, and the free agency market continues to drive down the cost of players of his caliber, the Reds could have a difficult time walking away from the opportunity to keep him aboard.
Even if Gennett leaves, more questions at second base abound. If Senzel fails to take to center field the way the team is hoping he will, then the keystone will be the obvious landing spot for him to anchor Cincinnati over the next half-decade. And even if he does handle center field well, a move back to second base may still be imminent when Taylor Trammell earns a promotion, something that could likely happen in 2020 and possibly even late 2019. If newly-acquired outfielder Yasiel Puig walks away at the end of the season and the Reds are comfortable operating with an outfield of Senzel in center with Trammell and Jesse Winker in the corners, that would leave second base available for the long-term. But that still relies on the team not wanting to bring back Puig — one of the most marketable players in the game with several prime years remaining in his career — and also relies on the immensely talented Jose Siri not seizing the centerfield spot at any point.
This is all very hypothetical, obviously, and the answers to all of these questions will likely work themselves out in time. If Siri never hits, Puig either flops or prices himself out of Cincinnati, Gennett walks and Senzel sticks in center, then India has a wide-open path to the second base position. But we won’t know whether second base is a real option until at least this time next year, and as previously stated, his typical position of third base is almost certainly out of the question. The corner outfield spots are likely claimed, one way or another, for the foreseeable future, and I’m not sure the Reds want to experiment with a career infielder in center field in every spring training.
The least complicated path India might have to an everyday starting job in the majors, then, just might be shortstop. That is, after all, where the Reds briefly attempted to develop Senzel during the 2018 spring training, and a position that India has already manned as a professional. It seems that he has the tools to get the hang of it, and if he becomes even average defensively, he would become a clear upgrade over current big league starter Jose Peraza — a young, perfectly capable player in his own right, but not someone who could have India’s Trevor Story-like ceiling at the position.
Is it a pertinent thing to worry about right now, with India having yet to play above A-ball? In my mind, yes. It seems unwise for the Reds to continue marching India out at third base when it’s clear he won’t fit there in the big leagues, and it seems equally unwise to try and bounce him around the field and add extra pressure to what will already be a vital year for his development. If they see him as shortstop or second baseman, that decision likely needs to be made soon, and stuck to until India either proves he can cut it defensively at one of those positions, or proves he can’t.
These are, as they say, very good problems to have. That the big-league roster is so jam-packed with talent that we’re having trouble projecting where last season’s first round pick might be able to play in two to three years is indicative of the roster appearing to come together in a way it hasn’t in years. And who knows? Maybe India won’t hit enough to maintain his prospect stock this season, and the pressure to get his bat into the lineup as soon as possible could diminish. For now, though, there is all kinds of reason to hope he will produce. That’s what Senzel did, and fortunately for him, a position opened up for him. We’ll see if India is as lucky.