The bulk of the Cincinnati reds offseason was spent picking up veteran pieces, players that looked the part of a major upgrade over rosters that have suffered through five consecutive losing seasons. The thing is, though, that the bulk of them - Alex Wood, Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Zach Duke, and Tanner Roark - join the Reds in their final season of team control before becoming free agents, joining roster-holdovers Scooter Gennett and David Hernandez as players who could well lead an exodus at the end of 2019.
Friday’s decision to reassign top prospect Nick Senzel to the minors then followed, and it’s the latest move in an offseason strategy that has seemingly been built deliberately to provide the most possible options for the front office going forward while simultaneously answering very, very few concrete long-term questions. Senzel, of course, was run out exclusively as a CF during spring training, largely because he’s blocked at his natural positions of 3B and 2B by Eugenio Suarez and Gennett, respectively. And thanks to some pertinent question-asking by The Athletic’s C. Trent Rosecrans, we know from Dick Williams that the intention is for Senzel to continue to play CF while back in AAA - however long that stint might actually be.
I also asked this... Nick Senzel will play CF at Louisville. https://t.co/rJcx62XONX— C. Trent Rosecrans (@ctrent) March 22, 2019
It’s obvious that Senzel is a very, very large part of the Reds future despite the demotion, and we watched that all but be confirmed by the team’s unwillingness to include him in any trade talks this past winter. But the continuing conundrum of where to play him is still the largest unanswered question in that nebulous future strategy we mentioned before, and the more I think about it, the more that might be the linchpin of how the current Reds have been constructed.
Obviously, when a team has a player with free agency looming, their leverage for trading said player diminishes by the day. With a fixed trade deadline, opposing teams know the trading team has to take whatever they can get for him by a certain time or be forced to hold on to them and watch them walk at season’s end for nothing (save for a potential Qualifying Offer). That’s been something the Reds have dealt with repeatedly over the years, helping to drive down what otherwise would’ve been more lucrative returns for the likes of Jay Bruce and Johnny Cueto and wiping away the trade values of Zack Cozart and Matt Harvey completely.
In those significant scenarios, though, other teams knew exactly what the rebuilding Reds end-game was. With the way the current Reds are constructed - and with Senzel apparently still set to work on adding significantly to his long-term defensive versatility - which way the Reds choose to go come July still looks like it will be a complete mystery whether they’re winning hand over fist or again in last place.
For instance, is Nick Senzel really the CF of the future? If he isn’t, is he really an OF for the future? If the Reds tend to think that’s the case, that makes a trade of either Kemp or Puig a would-be priority, with keeping Scooter around beyond 2019 a much larger priority.
What if Scott Schebler, though, takes the CF job by storm? His ability to hold down that job paired with his years of future control would mean Senzel, natural infielder that he is, could move back to 2B long-term, rendering Scooter as an even bigger trade chip (assuming the injury he picked up just seconds ago isn’t something more serious). Heck, that might even prompt the team to consider signing Yasiel Puig long-term, unless they opt to use that opening in a corner spot for their other top prospect in Taylor Trammell.
In reality, it appears the Reds have shown half of their hand - the one that lets every team know exactly how many trade decisions they have to make - but haven’t shown which way at all they’re leaning. Then, factor in that if they choose to let all of their potential free agents go this year, they’ll watch some $63 million come off their payroll, and the rest of the league can very easily see that unlike the rebuild years of 2014-2015, these Reds can feasibly afford to extend whichever of those moveable parts they so desire.
It isn’t the most typical way to build something, but that might well be something that’s working in the Reds favor in this scenario. Their house might end up being stone, maybe brick, maybe an A-frame, or maybe Greek revival - at this juncture, it’s really hard to tell. But all the suppliers out there know the Reds have the means to acquire and afford a nice new pad whichever way they choose to go, and that makes extorting them a bit difficult even though there’s a deadline involved.
It’s one part crazy, one part incredibly innovative, and Nick Senzel is going to play a major, major part in it. Which part, though, we’ll just have to wait to find out.