Say you’re a towering presence on the mound, standing nearly 6’4” tall with the broad shoulders, to boot. You can run your fastball up near triple digits, and at 23 years of age, you’ve long become a veteran of such velocity. It’s what made you such a high draft pick in the first place. You hit a bit of a bump in the road your last on the mound in a professional game, but that’s only supposed to be a blip on the radar for you long term.
That last time on the mound in a game was almost 15 months ago.
Maybe you’re a hitter, a batsman who tore up the best college conference in the land en route to being a Top 5 draft pick and an instant millionaire. You’ve flashed the power that made your reputation at times, while admittedly being stuck in some awful environments to truly let that shine. Your glove has been good enough to move you all over the infield, and despite battling through some nagging injuries, you just posted an on-base percentage better than Nick Madrigal and Jo Adell, who have already made their big league debuts.
‘Just’ is a bit of a stretch here, however, as you haven’t played a professional game since August 30, 2019.
On the grand scale in the grand scheme, losing an entire year of minor league baseball is way, way down the list of things we’ve been robbed of during the pandemic of 2020, one that appears destined to leak into the future for awhile, too. Baseball itself should be an afterthought given the pain and loss felt worldwide by so many this year. But if you’re still able, at this juncture, to have a deep sigh and try to escape those horrors with a bit of sport, there’s perhaps no more pertinent problem for the baseball world than having an entire fleet of players and prospects play zero real games for a year.
That’s simply the case, however.
Tony Santillan, former Top 100 overall prospect that he is, hasn’t had a chance to show any scouts, any fans just how much different he is from the pitcher who struggled a bit during his 2019 campaign. We know the Reds somewhat know, as they’ve seen him work out at their Prasco practice facility during the irregular 2020 season MLB managed to put on, and the hope is that he’s rediscovered the form and health that made him such a prized arm.
Jonathan India has a similar story, as a nagging wrist problem somewhat sapped him during a 2019 season that saw him split time between A+ Daytona and AA Chattanooga, two pitching paradises. That .414 OBP once he reached AA looked more like the top prospect he should be even if the power stroke hadn’t emerged, but unlike Aristides Aquino or Josh VanMeter last year, we never got to see India healthy at the AAA level with the streamlined MLB balls this year, so its impossible to truly know just what he’s become.
Admittedly, this article is as much a me-problem as it is a them-problem. Those two, along with guys like Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo, & Co. know how they feel. They know what weight they’ve gained or lost, in what shape they feel, which pitches they picked up from one another, and what the radar guns read. I do not, of course, nor do so many other folks that would’ve otherwise been privy to that kind of information had they been on the diamond in Mobile, in Birmingham, in Indianapolis this year.
And that’s the ultimate question here, I guess. Would India, or Santillan, made the jump to AAA this year and taken off? Is there enough to see in practice games during quarantine against the same dozen players every day to truly know that? Are those guys that during a normal year could’ve even cracked a September roster?
Those are questions we simply cannot answer, obviously, as it’s a hypothetical jungle with no trail. We saw both ends of the what if spectrum during the 2020 big league season with the likes of Jose Garcia and Tyler Stephenson, two peers of India and Santillan who had left wildly different impressions in their initial cups of coffee. While both - all four, really - still hold ample promise to be future contributors, Garcia struggled mightily when given decent playing time while Stephenson shined while barely cracking the lineup.
As the Reds head into this winter of decision-making, they’ll be doing so without Dick Williams, as their former head of baseball operations stepped down last week. They’ll also be doing so with significantly reduced coffers, as they weren’t able to recoup revenue from 81 home games with fans rabid about the huge new signings they made last winter bringing cash back in. And with Trevor Bauer, Anthony DeSclafani, and Freddy Galvis all hitting free agency aside an offense that woefully underperformed, there are still a ton of questions for the Reds to answer.
It would be lovely to have any sort of idea if the key prospects made great strides this year, but we don’t. We don’t know if there’s another Tejay Antone out there, either, a guy who grinded his way into an opportunity, made some tweaks, and turned into a completely different animal. We don’t know if TJ Friedl and his healthy ankle looked like the second coming of Brett Gardner, or if the trade of Stuart Fairchild to Arizona robbed the system of a budding new AJ Pollock.
We don’t know!
In fairness, we never truly know when it comes to prospect progression to the point of cracking the big leagues. Sometimes guys flop, sometimes they take off, and other times it takes a bit of time before we truly know what they can become. This time, though, there’s another large variable in play that’s not normally there.
Perhaps having Kyle Boddy and the Driveline guys around helped put the finishing touches on the new Antone, the new Tyler Mahle, and we’re just now seeing them begin to be unlocked. Perhaps that’s what’s been happening with Santillan, with Greene and Lodolo, and we simply haven’t seen it unleashed just yet. But when this offseason officially kicks off and the Trevor Bauer sweepstakes begin, it sure would be nice to know if the Reds have an ace in the hole when talks begin.
Did the Reds play their hand in bringing the Driveline folks in, tipping their hand that they’d do anything to try to keep Bauer around long term? Or did they do the exact opposite, opting to avoid needing to shell out $30+ million a year to keep their ace because they were going to simply do their best to replicate him?
We shall see, of course. It’s simply fascinating just how different player development has become in this calendar year, and I hope the Reds managed to pip their peers to the best possible process during these godawful times.