When Derek Dietrich smoked a homer off prized lefty signing Yusei Kikuchi earlier this week in Cactus League action against the Seattle Mariners, it was a reminder that the Cincinnati Reds made a pretty savvy play to sign the versatile veteran. The 29 year old has averaged nearly 430 PA a season over the last four years, clobbered 46 homers in that time, and posted an impressive 114 OPS+ in that span.
For reference, Sean Casey posted a 114 OPS+ across his entire 8 year career with the Reds. A similar story can be said for Jose Iglesias, the former Detroit Tigers All Star whose defensive ability is roughly as plus as Dietrich’s offense. And as evidence of just how busted MLB free agency is at this juncture, the Reds managed to sign both Dietrich and Iglesias to minor-league deals, though it’s becoming increasingly apparent that both should be obvious additions to the roster when the regular season rolls around, which means the currently full 40-man roster is going to need some culling.
That’s before we even broach the subject of adding Nick Senzel to the roster for Opening Day, which would mean three spots on the 40-man would need to be cleared. So, let’s dive into some potential ways that might play out.
One spot could well be opened for the very reasons why Iglesias and Dietrich deserve roster spots themselves - because the Reds need cover at backup SS and could use some defensive versatility. Those two traits pretty well describe why Alex Blandino held his roster spot for most of last season, but since the knee injury and subsequent surgery that cost him the last half of 2018 won’t have him ready for Opening Day (per MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon), the Reds could choose to place him on the 60-day IL to begin the season. Considering the injury occurred in late July last year, that would push his earliest return to around the first of June, which is a timeline that more accurately fits the recovery time from ACL injuries seen more commonly in other sports.
That’s one roster spot that appears to be the most obvious, since it won’t involve the Reds potentially losing a currently rostered player to another team. Finding two more, though, won’t be as easy.
Perhaps next up on the pecking order are both Matt Wisler and Robert Stephenson, as both are out of options and currently on the fringe of making the active roster come opening day. Both are former top prospects who, at times, flash the kind of stuff that made them deserve those rankings in the first place, but multiple failures at the big league level have left them in roster limbo. Stephenson, too, has been dealing with a shoulder issue this spring that has kept him from making his Cactus League debut, which almost makes you wonder if it would be easier for him to clear through waivers since other teams might have issues about how healthy he is at the time. It’s a scenario similar to this time last year when the Reds managed to sneak Dilson Herrera through waivers and keep him around the organization while also opening a roster spot.
Connor Joe also represents a potential opening, as the Rule 5 draftee has to stick on the active roster or be offered back to the Los Angeles Dodgers, his previous team. Joe provides a similar kind of positional versatility as Dietrich, albeit with significantly less experience there - less than other potential utility-man Kyle Farmer, too, who also has options remaining - and it’s an increasingly long shot that Joe will break camp still with the Reds.
Beyond those scenarios, there aren’t any more obvious candidates for roster ‘finagling,’ but the Reds could just choose to cut bait with players who, despite still having options, just don’t fit the long-term plans of the team. Adding Iglesias would make Blake Trahan a tad redundant, for instance, as the latter is a glove and glove-only SS option akin to when the club had Zach Vincej around. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there have been some light rumblings that the Reds might try to find a taker for veteran OF Matt Kemp prior to the season given that he projects to have a tough path to regular playing time and can still sock some dingers, and trading him for any low-level prospect that doesn’t yet need a 40-man spot could clear multiple logjams. On the pitching side, there’s recent waiver-claim Matt Bowman, who has also been dealing with an injury this spring, or even reliever Jesus Reyes, who has now held a 40-man spot for multiple seasons despite rather pedestrian numbers in the upper-minors.
The biggest question facing the Reds at the moment, obviously, is whether or not they choose to add Senzel to the active roster prior to Opening Day. He doesn’t yet need a 40-man spot should they choose to send him to AAA for a few weeks to effectively add a 7th year of team control, which would leave the Reds only in need of a pair of 40-man openings. Rolling the dice and adding him to the 25-man roster, though, would mean there’d need to be another 40-man casualty, and that will be a bit trickier.
Of course, there will certainly be the inevitable surprise down the road. Someone important will get injured, because that always happens to every team. There could be a late-spring trade, or the Reds could well bring in a player from another organization that they’re high on as a buy-low target that falls victim to a roster purge akin to the scenarios detailed above - heck, think there aren’t at least a half-dozen teams out there that would scoop-up Wisler or Stephenson in a second based on their previous hype as prospects? Regardless, the Reds will have some roster juggling to do in the near future in order to squeeze the best players they currently have in camp into the best-case scenario dugout come Opening Day.