Despite it having been almost a full month since the first Cincinnati Reds reported to camp in Goodyear, AZ, an ill-timed blink would have you miss out on the entirety of action seen by Freddy Galvis so far. Shoulder soreness limited the presumptive Opening Day shortstop early on, while a quad strain has since rendered him sidelined for a second stint while the regular season looms just 16 days away.
Shortstop was long viewed as one of the few potential weak spots on the 2020 Reds roster, though Galvis was hardly the lone player at fault for that. Now that I say that, that’s wrong - shortstop was viewed as one of the few potential weak spots on the 2020 Reds roster because, in many ways, Galvis was viewed as the lone player available. While the pie-in-the-sky upgrade to Francisco Lindor was the bandied about rumor all winter, what stood out as much as the lack of elite-level talent the Reds had there on the roster was the lack of depth there, too.
Even last year, the position was largely viewed as ‘in need of upgrade,’ and that was when each of Galvis and Jose Iglesias were on the roster together for the final few months of the season. Add-in that the winter saw Iglesias depart via free agency, witnessed the club’s attempt at signing free agent Didi Gregorius fall by the wayside, and included no other outside additions capable of playing shortstop defensively, and the case can be made that there’s no more vulnerable spot on the Reds depth chart than at the most key defensive position on the diamond.
Galvis’ absence so far this spring has allowed playing time for the future of the position, which is a good thing for the long run. The way that Jose Garcia has impressed in his early time has the 21 year old penciled in as the club’s next option there, but the odds are against a prospect with no experience above A+ ball making the jump to impact big leaguer this year. As a result, the already intriguing ‘who will make the roster as the club’s backup shortstop option’ position battle has become one of the very few roster battles worth scrutinizing in camp, and so far the two most likely candidates for the spot have come out swinging.
Before we get to what we’ve seen from the likes of Alex Blandino and Kyle Farmer, it’s worth looking at the roster as a whole for a second to see why their competition is so important. While the Reds have a blistering arsenal of outfield options, the way the rest of their bench might set up is a bit more nuanced. Assuming Phillip Ervin and Jesse Winker are the two outfield bats on the bench in this scenario - obviously, Winker will likely be in more of a ‘4-man OF rotation’ than just a bench bat, but roll with me here - the other likely bench bats will be whichever of Curt Casali or Tucker Barnhart isn’t catching and one of Josh VanMeter (if healthy) or Derek Dietrich (if healthy and added to the roster). That’s an interesting blend of lefties and righties with a good bit of punch to it, to be sure, and forms the core of what looks like a decent bench, but the problem is that none of those players has the versatility to play shortstop at the big league level.
In other words, even if Galvis gets healthy in a hurry and is a full-go come Opening Day, the bench still needs a competent backup shortstop option, and despite the limited experience of Dietrich and VanMeter there in past lives, they aren’t legitimate considerations there. Among 40-man roster players, that leaves just Blandino and Farmer as the real choices there, each bringing a bit different bag to the table.
In Farmer, you get the ultimate in versatility, as not only has he shown he can somewhat gracefully cover short, he also comes with the ability to play catcher, perhaps one of the oddest bits of versatility in the game today. What that means, obviously, is that not only does he provide some pop from the right-hand side of the plate, his mere presence on the roster opens up the ability for either Casali or Barnhart to be used in pinch-hitting roles without David Bell burning his lone backup catching option in the process, and Bell certainly leveraged that ability often during his 2019 campaign. And while the former University of Georgia standout owns just a career 74 OPS+ in his 294 big league PA, his .787 career OPS across his minor league career suggests there’s of at least some improvement over that mark if given a longer leash of playing time, if need be.
Blandino brings no catching ability to the table, though he does have a brilliant knuckleball if need be. Jokes aside, the former 1st rounder does have something in common with Farmer - while both haven’t logged extensive time at shortstop either in the bigs or in the minors, both played the position plenty during brilliant college campaigns. But while he and Farmer have both looked decent enough fielding shortstop in their spring action this year, Blandino does bring something specific to the table that Farmer lacks a bit: plus potential plate discipline. Blandino owns a .349 OBP in his small 197 PA big league sample, but has a career .365 OBP in his minors career that includes a stellar .386 mark in his AAA action.
So far this spring, it sure seems as if both recognize the opportunity in front of them, as both have been knocking the cover off the ball. Farmer, to date, is 7 for 18 with a homer and a triple (1.088 OPS), while Blandino has homered, tripled, socked 3 doubles, en route to a 1.330 OPS to date. Spring stats, of course, largely mean almost zilch, but producing when the pressure is on to make the roster is something that will absolutely stand out in the evaluation process.
It’s easy to reach this point and simply say that both are deserving of roster spots, and that’s got some validity to it. Both have big league experience, and both have done enough so far to warrant consideration, but as I mentioned before, the makeup of the rest of the bench might make that less likely. Both Blandino and Farmer hit right-handed, after all, and if they’re the two regular infield bench bats alongside likely 5th OF Ervin and usual backup catcher Casali, that’s an almost entirely right-handed bench - one that would be full right-handed on days when both Winker and Shogo Akiyama join Nick Castellanos in the starting OF. Being a lefty then gives the inside track to the other infield bench spot to one of VanMeter or Dietrich, both lefty bats, meaning it’s likely that one of Farmer/Blandino - both of whom have options - gets squeezed back to AAA Louisville to start the year.
That would certainly be a bummer for whichever one loses out, but it’s at least a positive from the Reds perspective that they might have more cover at shortstop than they once thought. Neither Farmer nor Blandino brings the kind of glovey reputation as Galvis, of course, but both appear capable enough to cover there if need be defensively.
(And who knows, Marcels projection of .246/.336/.401 for Blandino in 2020 is almost enough to make you wonder whether giving him a shot there for a decent stretch isn’t that bad of an idea after all...)