As the last two Januaries have come to a close, the eyes of the Cincinnati Reds world have gravitated heavily towards their prize, their future. As the 2nd overall pick in the 2016 MLB Draft, Nick Senzel has long been the beacon we Reds fans have turned to, the bright light that draws our gaze while the 90+ loss seasons drift to the periphery.
Rebuilds, you see, need that kind of thing. You can only knock something down and have people buy-in to the idea if you promise it will again return, and in the world of baseball, that requires, y’know, good baseball players. So while the losses mounted, the draft positions moved ever higher, and new, shiny pieces for the future began to emerge, so, too, did our expectations.
January of 2018 saw us giddy at the idea that letting All Star Zack Cozart simply walk in free agency was because the Reds were willing to try Senzel, a 3B by trade, at SS. It’ll be perfect! He’s going to be a star there! Who cares if he’s never played there before...he’s a Top 10 overall prospect, and that means it’ll work out fine!
January of 2019 saw us giddy at the idea that Senzel, who had never once played in the OF as a professional (and hardly at any level, really), would slot-in perfectly in the CF void left by Billy Hamilton. He’s plenty athletic! Who cares if he’s never done it before? He’ll be fine! He’s a Top 10 overall prospect, the best the Reds have had in years, and can be a 5 WAR player out there!
I’m guilty of it. I’m not sure I’ve come across anyone who suffered through the last six years of miserable Reds baseball who isn’t, honestly. When you wait that long for something to finally go your team’s way, obviously you want it to work out perfectly right meow.
For two consecutive winters - often while dealing with rehab from serious injuries - Nick Senzel has reached January with the tall task of being franchise savior and, perhaps, the even taller task of being one while also doing something he’s never really done before in his career. He’s been tasked with both being who he’s always been while also tasked with being something he’s never done before, and that’s a damn big series of asks, if you ask me.
When I read through today’s edition of C. Notes from The Athletic’s C. Trent Rosecrans, a pair of quotes from GM Nick Krall and manager David Bell, respectively, really stood out in that light.
When Trent was speaking with Krall about how the team will react to the freak injury and surgery current star 3B Eugenio Suarez is dealing with, Krall responded to the idea that Senzel, a 3B by trade originally, might pick up that slack:
“Again, we’re still working through stuff,” Krall said, “but I don’t see Nick Senzel going to play at third base at the beginning of the season.”
Later, when Trent was speaking with Bell about how he might manage the litany of good options for a batting order this year, Bell had this to say about Senzel:
At the top of the order, you have guys who can get on base with Shogo and (Jesse Winker). Nick is going to factor in there — Senzel — either at the top of the order, potentially, or more toward the middle or bottom. I kind of have them in groups right now.
Senzel, of course, is currently still rehabbing from a torn labrum and the subsequent surgery that ended his 2019 campaign prematurely. In fact, we’ve not really seen him return to normal baseball activities yet, so tasking him with anything before a) we see that and b) before spring training gets underway is a bit of a tall ask, anyway. That said, if you pool the two quotes about Nick together, it sure seems like the Reds are entering the 2020 season with a much different approach for their prized youngster.
They don’t want to jerk him around the diamond. They’re not asking him to scrap what he did last year and pick up something different. They’re not asking him to slot into the middle of the order and carry this team out of the doldrums this season. And while that could certainly be perceived as them having soured on him, or having lowered their expectations for him, that’s not at all how I took this series of statements.
In fact, I think the bulk of what the Reds did in this monumental spending offseason was build in precisely the kind of framework around Senzel to give him every opportunity to shine, both now and into the future.
They brought in Shogo Akiyama, a capable OF who can cover CF. If Nick’s shoulder isn’t completely right from day one of camp, that gives them the ability to let him get back to 100% without rushing him. They brought in Mike Moustakas, who can ably fill in for Geno at 3B and also will serve as the team’s primary 2B, meaning Senzel isn’t going to have to carry a bag of gloves to the dugout each and every game. They signed Nick Castellanos to add even more thump to what appears to be a much more potent offense, meaning Senzel isn’t going to have to hit 30 bombs from the 3rd spot in the order to make sure this club finally scores some runs.
The position changes, the weight of being a #2 overall pick and consensus Top 10 prospect, the injuries, the vertigo, and even the mid-year swing change all have seemed to reduce our ability to really know exactly what Senzel can become. The fact remains, though, that he’s the most talented position player prospect to emerge solely through the Reds system since at least Jay Bruce. And this offseason, it feels as if the Reds have finally both let him be and built up the roster around him in a way where he won’t have to show up to Goodyear as the lone focal point.
Hit him 6th or 7th for a few weeks. Give him days off through April if he’s feeling sore. Do so knowing that he doesn’t have to hit a 5-run dinger in the Bottom of the 1st on March 26th to make the chance he becomes a superstar a reality. Know that while still just a 24 year old, he’s still just some 7 months older today than Joey Votto was when he debuted, and that his breakout might come in 2021, 2023, or 2024, and doesn’t have to happen in 2020 for the Cincinnati Reds to finally find some success.
He’ll be good this year, when healthy, and will play a big part in what the Reds accomplish, to be sure. It’s just that the Reds have put all parties involved in an enviable position for the first time in years, one in which the position player currently on their roster with the most upside doesn’t have to be their best player this year to make the 2020 Reds a success, and that’s a refreshing thing to see in these parts. They might get lucky, we might get lucky, and Senzel might hit the ground running towards a superstar career from the first pitch he sees this year, but if he does so, he’ll get the chance to make that happen without nearly as much pressure on his shoulders as he had a year ago. Hopefully, that’s exactly what he needs to make it happen.