Nick Senzel has not needed sunglasses much this spring. Flip the clock back just one calendar year, though, and the story was infinitely different.
As the Cincinnati Reds descended upon Goodyear, AZ in February of 2019, Senzel entered as a consensus Top 10 overall prospect, the brightest of the bright future for a franchise that had been stuck in the doldrums for a half-decade of brutal losing. His shine was sparkling, the spotlight was on him, and despite the Reds intentional manipulation of his service time and a subsequent ankle injury, we all still scrutinized Senzel’s every move right up until a shoulder injury ended his season prematurely the first week of September.
That spotlight isn’t quite so bright at the moment, though, and maybe that’s precisely how it needs to be for a bit.
While Senzel’s rookie season sputtered to a finish thanks to a brief swing change and the labrum tear, the Reds slumped into the winter, too. That slump was flushed quickly, though, as the Reds proceeded to make addition after addition throughout the course of the offseason, bringing in the likes of Nick Castellanos, Mike Moustakas, and Shogo Akiyama to not only bolster the team’s offense, but also, in part, to take some of the pressure and spotlight off the young Senzel. It was no admission that their expectations for him had dimmed, or anything, but they knew that they’d exhausted their fans to the brink during the rebuild and needed enough to make the 2020 season viable whether he broke out this year, or further down the road.
That’s been on display so far in Goodyear this spring, as Senzel has been gradually inched back into the mix post-surgery. Today, Thursday, he’ll take the first step towards reclaiming that everyday CF role he seized last year, as he’ll finally get back into Cactus League action. He’ll merely DH, for now, but as his throwing program continues to ramp up, it seems obvious that he’s merely days away from again getting reps in CF, a position where he is clearly the most gifted capable athlete on the team.
When that happens, of course, the Reds will begin to truly have to sort out their outfield logjam. It’s an envious problem for manager David Bell and the front office to have, of course, but a problem to solve nonetheless. Senzel as an almost everyday CF would bump Shogo from the position he primarily played in his Japan days, though as he nears 32 years old that might be a prudent move, anyway. Shogo to a corner spot, though, would likely cut into the playing time of fellow lefty Jesse Winker, as both are sweet-swinging lefties who won’t combine for a platoon themselves. Castellanos was most certainly signed for his offense more than his defense, but since his offense is good enough to be in the lineup every single day, RF will be his almost by default.
That puts the squeeze on the rest of the OF candidates, unfortunately. Phillip Ervin has a unique ability to maul LHP, and that complement paired with him being out of options likely pencils him into the 5th OF role, though I’m sure he personally is pining for the chance to show he’s more than just that. And if that’s the case, the struggling Aristides Aquino - who looks more like his September self than the August breakout star in Goodyear so far - will likely get optioned to AAA Louisville to begin the season and play everyday. The trickle down effect will also likely put both Scott Schebler and Mark Payton on the fringes of the franchise, as Schebler is out of options while Payton is in camp as a Rule 5 draftee. Add in that Derek Dietrich, who has also seen time in the OF, is off the roster at the moment, and how the Reds manage to keep any of their fringe candidates remains to be seen.
Again, that’s a problem, but a good one to have. Depth, as we saw during just this past season, is never a bad thing, and these things do always tend to have ways of sorting themselves out sooner than later.
To state the obvious, it’s a wonderful thing to have Senzel back already and poised to be 100% on Opening Day since of all the options available, he comes with the most potential upside. While his offensive performance during last season didn’t quite live up to the lofty expectations dictated by his dominance of the minor leagues, there are still many of us who believe he’s got the potential to hit for both average and power with a plus command of the strike zone, the three most dynamic traits of any player in the batter’s box. But unlike the few other Reds on the roster who can provide those traits, Senzel’s combination of sprint speed and jump in the OF (h/t Statcast) gives him the kind of potential prowess in CF and on the basepaths that makes him a combined talent like no other in Reds camp at the moment, a potential five-tool player if things all shake out in the best possible way.
Today, the Reds DH begins that shake-out process for the 2020 season, giving him exactly 3 full weeks of prep for what has obviously morphed into a vital season for the Reds. And while I’m hoping he’s the dynamo I expect him to eventually be by day one, fortunately the Reds have put enough other talent in place around him to not need to force that issue. When he’s fully ready, though, look the hell out.