Most good baseball teams don’t have many position battles in spring training. That’s because, of course, they’re chock full of players both good enough and established enough to anchor rosters, leaving most of the battling for the fringes of the Opening Day roster.
For the Cincinnati Reds, that’s precisely how things look on-paper as the 2020 season dawns. The front office spent big to land the likes of Nick Castellanos, Mike Moustakas, and Shogo Akiyama to augment what already looked like a fairly stout roster, and that paired with the roster expanding to 26 should give David Bell ample options to mix and match as he so chooses during the grind of the season.
Instead of focusing today on the likes of Joey Votto, Eugenio Suarez, and the will-be everyday players (when healthy), we’re going to examine how the Reds might round out the last few spots of their 13 allotted position players. That means factoring in late-inning defensive swaps, pinch-hitters, platoon possibilities, and the like, making pinning down exactly who the Reds will choose to carry a bit of a moving target.
These aren’t going to be predictions, at least not yet. Rather, let’s just lay out the questions/criteria that the fringe guys on the roster must answer, and look at the options through that lens.
(And for the sake of sanity, we’re not going to roll Eugenio Suarez’s shoulder issue into this, since all signs point to him being available either by Opening Day or very shortly after.)
We’ll start with the easiest one, since there will absolutely be one on the active roster every single day (assuming they don’t all get injured at once again like last year).
One of Tucker Barnhart or Curt Casali will be on the pine to begin every game, and with Barnhart finally, mercifully abandoning batting right-handed, it could end up a platoon (with Casali still getting enough PA against RHP to make it something of a 55% to 45% split).
The question here, as it will be for several other spots, is whether the Reds choose to carry Kyle Farmer, too. Farmer obviously showed he’s a capable catcher last year, and having that third catcher on the roster means Casali/Barnhart could then be used as pinch-hitters instead of simply being reserved for emergency duties. Farmer obviously brings positional versatility to the table, too - we’ll get to that in a sec - but for the purpose of this category his biggest asset would be allowing every player on the bench to be available for pinch-hit duties instead of ‘all but one.’
With Jose Iglesias on to Baltimore and Jose Peraza DFA’d and on to Boston, the pickings among Reds shortstop options beyond Freddy Galvis have certainly been thinned. Most every team in baseball still carries someone capable of manning that position in a pinch even with the advent of mass shifting, and figuring out who that will be for the Reds is a bit of a head-scratcher.
Farmer, for the record, has played a grand total of 1 inning at SS as a Red, though he did log 58 innings at the position at AAA in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization for them prior to coming to Cincinnati via trade last winter. He’d be more passable there than good if need be, though with 99 MLB games played as a 1B/2B/3B there’s at least some evidence that he’s capable with a non-catcher’s mitt. He’s also got an option left.
Alex Blandino is the one other on-roster player who looks like he’d have an inside shot for this role, since we’re going to assume the Reds stance that Eugenio Suarez’s days as a SS are over. Blandino obviously got ample SS experience in college at Stanford, has 11 games (60.2 innings) played there at the big league level for the Reds, and has generally looked decent there in limited action. Like Farmer, though, the bulk of Blandino’s work has come at 2B/3B both in the minors and with the Reds, so he’s hardly a sure thing. Like Farmer, Blandino has options remaining, so an AAA stash is possible.
Off the roster sits Blake Trahan, who the Reds picked up on a minor-league contract earlier in the week. Not that either Farmer or Blandino profile as offensive juggernauts, but Trahan’s bat simply pales in comparison to either of those two, but that has never been his calling card. Trahan, to put it mildly, has the reputation of an elite defender at short despite his woeful offensive numbers, and if that’s where the Reds want to put priority, he certainly has what it takes. His non-roster inverse is Christian Colon, who has played plenty of innings all over the infield in his lengthy career between the minors and majors, though is certainly known much more for his professional approach at the plate than for his glove.
The Outfield Mix
On the one hand, I could write 5,000 words on the outfield alone.
On the other, that’s probably best suited for a different article with a different tone, since rather than the Reds carrying ‘bench’ OFs in 2020, it truly looks as if they’ve built a mix/match group that will consistently rotate.
The most prominent foursome is obviously Castellanos, Shogo, Nick Senzel, and Jesse Winker, with the latter trio all having received time in CF in their careers at various levels. Two lefties, two righties, and a real chance to see them each get tons of PA in optimized scenarios.
Of course, that group doesn’t include the two players who put up the single most jaw-dropping runs in 2019 - Aristides Aquino (August) and Derek Dietrich (May), both of whom can cover corner OF spots. It also omits Josh VanMeter (more on him in a sec), Phil Ervin’s ability to maul LHP, Travis Jankowski being likely the best defensive CF choice, that Scott Schebler still exists (!), or even Rule 5 draftee Mark Payton.
Safe to say, the Reds have a pile of decisions to make here, with a few complicating factors. Payton, obviously, must be offered back to Oakland of he doesn’t make the roster, while each of Jankowski, Schebler, and Ervin are out of options and must clear waivers to be stashed in AAA if they don’t make the Opening Day cut. And we haven’t even gotten to Michael Lorenzen...so, good luck figuring this one out, Reds.
If the Reds wanted to, they could simply carry Farmer and Blandino both, as each has plenty of ability to back up all around the infield. The thing is, both of them bat right-handed, and if Ervin and/or Aquino land that last OF spot, that’s a bench (with Casali) that becomes entirely right-handed. So while ‘who makes the OF’ and ‘who makes the IF’ are independent decisions in theory, they certainly impact one another when you take away the defensive component and focus on what they’d bring to the table as a pinch-hitter.
That brings us to VanMeter, whose lefty swing raked at AAA last year and played plenty well for most of his time at the big league level as a rookie. Considering his overall positional versatility and existing roster spot, I’d like to think he and one of Blandino/Farmer have the inside track for the ‘infield bench bats,’ but VanMeter’s remaining options might well work against him here.
And then there’s Dietrich, who was picked up on a minor-league deal earlier this week just like last year. His May was legendary for how impressively dominant it was, but he quickly fell completely apart once the calendar turned to June, though it was eventually revealed that a shoulder issue had been hampering him. If he’s healthy again, he’s got a lengthy track record of being a solid offensive big leaguer, and if that’s what gets displayed in spring camp in Goodyear, it’s hard to see him not making the club. His lefty swing and defensive versatility effectively makes him a more proven version of VanMeter, and optioning VanMeter while adding Dietrich to the roster (at someone else’s expense) is one way of keeping both in the system, whereas simply carrying VanMeter would mean Dietrich opting back into free agency, most likely.