This is one of those things where I’m going to get you all sugared up about something cool and exciting and then immediately kill the buzz by focusing on the arcane labor relations and corporate non-speak that are adjunct to it. This is Red Reporter: The Phantom Menace.
Nick Senzel has been nursing a sore ankle for the last month or so, but he is now officially ready to get into some real actual baseball games. This is absolutely cool and exciting. In case you have spent the last few years alphabetizing your adult incontinence products, Senzel is the top prospect in the entire Reds system and no. 5 overall according to MLB.com. He is the most well-rounded and polished prospect the Reds have had since, I dunno, Barry Larkin? Maybe the nerdlingers around here can check on that for me. Either way, I think he is going to be the next Alex Bregman and I’m so totally all up ons.
The Reds and all of their smart-brained decision-making mucky-mucks are way up ons, too. They have done just about everything they can to get him on the field in a Reds uniform. He is an infielder by pedigree, spending most of his college career at third base. But with Eugenio Suarez anchoring the hot corner for the next hundred years, the Reds saw it prudent to get him comfortable at second base, too. Then Scooter Gennett started bangin’ like a breakfast buffet and earned himself dibs at the keystone. No big deal though, as Senzel just picked up an outfield glove and jogged out to center field.
Embracing positional versatility and flexibility hasn’t really been the Reds’ bag in recent years, so this kind of progressive approach to prospect development is a welcome surprise. I think the Reds deserve quite a bit of jamz for this.
But they haven’t really done everything to get him on the field in a Reds uniform. Here is a relevant passage from general manager Nick Krall when he was asked on Sunday about the Senzel situation:
“When you look at it, with spring training and then even up to now, I’m not sure how many full games he actually has in center field,” Krall said. “It’s just keep getting your reps and keep improving. We saw an improvement from the beginning of spring training to the end of spring training and it wasn’t quite ready to be here.”
“Let’s just keep doing it, keep playing and keep getting balls in the outfield. The more reps he’ll get, the better he’s going to get.”
This isn’t prima facie pernicious, but there is a big ol’ glop of sliminess layered in there just beneath the surface. If this had anything to do with Senzel getting better in center field, the Reds would need to explain why exactly they are comfortable starting Jesse Winker (the slowest outfielder in baseball according to StatCast sprint speed) out there a few times a week. Nick Senzel is starting his season in Louisville instead of Cincinnati for one reason and one reason alone: service time manipulation. If Senzel spends enough of this season in AAA, the Reds will be able to control his contract for additional year. If he started in Cincinnati on Opening Day this year, he would (likely) become a free agent after the 2024 season. But as it is, he won’t be a free agent until after 2025. And that will likely save the Reds millions of dollars, as well.
To be perfectly clear though, I’m not saying the Reds are doing something wholly amoral here. It kinda screws Senzel individually and in the aggregate it means the team is not fielding the best possible iteration, but given the current collective bargaining agreement and state of labor relations in general in baseball, this actually makes sense. The system itself incentivizes teams to jerk around top prospects like this. There are some exceptions (Fernando Tatis Jr is a notable example this year), but the rule in MLB is for teams to keep guys like Senzel down just long enough to milk out that extra year of control. It sucks, but given the system, it is the rational decision. And of course, Krall can’t just come out and say this. He has to cover his ass with all this weak shit about reps in the outfield. If he was just honest about it, the union would file a grievance and the jig would be, as they say, up. Krall is not a fool so he knows how pathetic this sounds. But again, it’s the system, man. Nobody wins here.
It is the rational decision only to a point, though. As of this publication, the Reds outfielders as a unit are hitting just .178/.225/.344. But wait! Senzel also plays 2B, where Scooter Gennett will be out a few more months and Jose Peraza is hitting even worse than the outfielders (.154/.167/.215). I’m fairly confident (pretty confident) these fellas will starting hitting better than this. But if there ever was a team in need of a versatile young hot shot who hits everything, its these Reds.
So I guess it will be a few more weeks before we see Senzel in Cincinnati. That isn’t really his fault, nor is it really the Reds’ fault. But for now, we’ll watch as he does good baseball down in Louisville. We will all forget about this by the time Senzel wins his first of many World Series MVPs, anyway.