The Reds took the July 31 trade deadline as an opportunity to make a bold statement: The rebuild is over. They bought hard in getting Trevor Bauer from the Indians and it cost them their top prospect, outfielder Taylor Trammell. They still have the slimmest of hopes for making something happen in 2019, but they are obviously looking ahead to 2020 and working to get a few banners hung. And after a half-decade of cellar-dwelling, this is very good news.
The rotation has been among baseball’s best this season, which is all the more impressive considering the long procession of cabbage farmers they’ve had on the mound the last five years. Bauer will take turns with Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray, and Anthony DeSclafani, all of whom are good-to-great. They also have Alex Wood for the next few months, which will be fun. Last but not least, Tyler Mahle will likely come off the IL before too long.
The most important moves though were sending out Yasiel Puig (to the Indians in the Bauer deal) and Scooter Gennett (to the Giants for a song). They both will be free agents this winter, but more importantly, the Reds had promising young players sitting behind them in need of some major-league PAs. Clearing out Puig and Scooter opens up playing time for the likes of Josh VanMeter, Phil Ervin, Jesse Winker, Jose Peraza, Derek Dietrich, and Aristides Aquino. But all that just raises more questions than answers.
Every one of these guys is an interesting player in his own right, and I want to run down their individual cases here. The problem, obviously, is that the Reds have three positions to fill with these six guys.
Of this group, I think Jesse Winker is the one most deserving of everyday PAs. He has the most established track record of the group and the highest ceiling, as well. Winker has hit since day one and, despite unfortunate slumps here and there, he has kept it up. He has 818 major-league plate appearances to date and has posted a rock-solid .285/.377/.467. And it seems like he is finally 100% healthy after undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery last season, as he has hit .336/.427/.570 in the last six weeks. He has played all three outfield positions this season, but his adventures in center have been more out of desperation than anything else. Whether it is in left or right, he needs to be in the lineup every single day. To be quite honest, I’m pretty upset that even has to be said. Winker’s quality should be self-evident at this point.
Given that, we now have five deserving players to play in LF and 2B. Of the five, I want to start with VanMeter because he is the one I have the biggest crush on right now and I’m so hoping he’ll be the first to sign my yearbook.
JVM has been a faceless organization filler for much of his professional career. He was selected in the fifth round of the 2013 draft by the Padres. He never showed a standout tool in any respect, aside from an above-average walk rate and useful defensive versatility. He climbed to the AA level in 2016, after which he was traded to the Reds as a PTBNL in a deal for a Rule V pick. He spent the 2017 season repeating AA in Pensacola where he slashed .255/.326/.352, though he did show impressive utility splitting his time about evenly among 2B, 3B, and LF. He started 2018 again at AA, but he hit a good bit better: he had a .420 OBP in 30 games before the Reds promoted him to Louisville. He played 98 games for the Bats the rest of the season and slugged .464.
Coming into the season, every bit of human history suggested that VanMeter could perhaps be a serviceable utility guy at the big league level, but then the Reds got Kyle Farmer in the Dodgers trade and Derek Dietrich on a minor-league deal. That tells you pretty much everything you need to know about how MLB teams value players of JVM’s ilk.
But something … happened. VanMeter started the 2019 season in Louisville like Sherman in Atlanta. He burned the entire place to the ground, OPSing 1.097 in 211 PAs thus far. He has bounced up and down between the Reds and Bats a few times, but he is no worse for it: he has slashed a Vottonian .312/.418/.532 in 91 MLB PAs. General Manager Nick Krall, in talking to WLW’s Lance McCallister about the Reds’ trade deadline moves, highlighted JVM as a guy who needs to be starting every day at the big-league level for the rest of the summer. He has played mostly in LF for the Reds, but he will likely get time at 2B, as well.
Next up is Philly Ervin, who I looked at a bit ago. I won’t repeat myself too much, but while I don’t think Ervin is a breakout candidate who has earned everyday PAs (at least, not to the degree VanMeter has), it would be foolish to discount his pedigree and obvious skills, particularly against LHP. He has played mostly in LF, but he can cover RF and even CF in a pinch.
Jose Peraza is one of the most frustrating players to follow I have seen in a Reds uniform over the last decade or so. This is his fifth season in the majors, but he is actually nearly a full year young than Jesse Winker. He has been given starting privileges not once but twice already in his young career, only to have his title usurped by journeymen finding hot bats at the right times. He has done himself no favors, of course. He is a dreadfully slow starter: his second half OPS (.754) is 104 points higher than his first half (.650). For a middle infielder, that’s the difference between being a solid starter and a glove-only bench jockey. He is worst at the very beginning of the season, posting a putrid .592 OPS in March/April.
True to form, he is hitting a perfectly acceptable .268/.324/.407 since April 25. Of course, by April 25 he had lost his job to Jose Iglesias and Derek Dietrich.
I think the next two months are more important to Peraza than any other player on the Reds roster. They have given him every chance in the world to establish himself, but everything has lined up against him at all the wrong times. He is arbitration-eligible again this winter and he absolutely has to show the Reds he is worth it or they will simply non-tender him. Clearly, they have plenty of options in that case.
Of course, Peraza has something that no one else on this list has: glove enough to play shortstop. Jose Iglesias has been fine there this season, but he’ll be a free agent in the winter. So maybe Peraza can do enough to convince the Reds (for a third time) to make him a full-time starter in 2020.
Derek Dietrich has had one of the weirdest seasons I’ve seen in a long time. After six years with the Marlins posting an OPS+ of 109, he was non-tendered and picked up by the Reds on a minor-league deal. He only made the team when Scooter Gennett went down with a groin strain at the very end of spring training. He hit a pinch-hit home run on Opening Day to beat the Pirates. From then to June 7, he slashed .255/.360/.664 with 17 home runs. Over the next two months (up to today), he slashed .133/.321/.277 with just two home runs. At this point, he needs to really turn things around to avoid yet another non-tender. He fakes it enough at 2B as to not embarrass himself, and he can also cover LF and 3B in a pinch. At the very least, he’s a legitimate left-handed bat off the bench. But given the roster glut outlined here and his prolonged cold stretch, he might not last. Especially if VanMeter can prove to do everything Dietrich does, only better.
Aristides Aquino is a real wild card here. He turned some heads as a 19-year-old in 2013 down in rookie ball, slashing a legit .292/.342/.577 like a big boy. He has shown flashes here and there since then, but his volatile approach at the plate generates lots of strikeouts and majestic dingers. The Reds added him to the 40-man roster after an impressive season in A ball in 2016, but down years in 2017 and ’18 ended with him getting the DFA. He went unclaimed.
But this season, perhaps due in some part to the big juicy baseballs they now use in AAA, he looks like a gargantuan home run monster. In 323 PAs with the Bats, he has hit 28 (!!!) home runs with an OPS a hair shy of 1.000. He has a similar profile to the dearly departed Yasiel Puig, so it was only fitting that he was called up after the trade.
As sexy a ballplayer as Aquino is, I’m most skeptical of him. The path to major-league greatness is paved with the bones of strapping, athletic sluggers who can’t take a walk and strike out too much. His breakout this season tracks very closely to that of VanMeter (JVM has slashed .348/.429/.669 vs Aquino’s .299/356/.636) in terms of power, but VanMeter has been most impressive in plate discipline (37/24 K/BB vs Aquino’s 81/23). I think VanMeter’s skills augur a much greater chance at Major-League success.
So let’s review: I think Jesse Winker should start every day. Josh VanMeter should do the same at second base. Jose Peraza can duke it out with Jose Iglesias at shortstop. Phil Ervin and Aristides Aquino are a couple of right-handed talents and the outfield ain’t big enough for the both of ‘em. Derek Dietrich wins the school spirit award, and I’d sure hate to lose his presence given the loss of both Scooter and Puig, but he is probably best used a pinch-hitting slugger.
Anyone have David Bell’s cell number? He should probably read this.