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A lost season would also hurt the Reds’ farm system

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Cincinnati is one of the teams most vulnerable to the possibility of a lost MLB season. For its minor leagues, the damage might already be done.

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Depending upon whom you talk to, chances of the 2020 Major League Baseball season happening are either the best or worst they’ve been since the suspension of the season was first announced. Forward progress on things like revenue split negotiations and health protocols seem like positive signs, until you get to the part where players and owners are far, far apart on the issue of compensation and the list of necessary measures to ensure something resembling a safely-executed season is staggering. While everyone wants baseball to be able to safely take place this year, there is still a good chance that it just doesn’t happen.

Such a scenario would be devastating for the sport, and have a real human cost that would undoubtedly result in massive job losses both within baseball and in adjacent industries such as baseball media. Next to those issues, the impact of a lost season upon the teams’ on-field product is quite trivial, but it is still worth discussing as we observe how all of this plays out. In many places, that conversation has already begun. Dan Szymborski wrote this week at FanGraphs about teams most adversely affected by a potential lost season, and Baseball Prospectus is writing an entire series on the subject.

If you clicked those links, you’ll notice something they have in common — both prominently feature the Cincinnati Reds as one of the teams most impacted. There’s good reason for that. A lost season would render last year’s trade of top prospect Taylor Trammell for Trevor Bauer virtually meaningless. It would also cost the team the first, and likely most productive, season of the free agent contracts signed by Mike Moustakas and Shogo Akiyama. And it would cut a potentially vital year out of the back half of Joey Votto’s career as he builds his Hall of Fame case. No one on the Reds figures to be better in 2021 than they are in 2020, and a few key players (such as Luis Castillo) are going to get noticeably more expensive after this year. Losing the 2020 season would be a nightmare scenario for Cincinnati’s major league product. But it would also be incredibly harmful to its farm system.

And when I say “would,” I really mean “will.” Major League Baseball only has a chance to return this season because TV revenues (as well as the absurdly deep pockets of owners) give the sport some wiggle room to function without allowing ticket-, beer- and jersey-purchasing fans into the ballpark to spend money. Minor League Baseball doesn’t have those same alternate revenue streams, and there are also thousands and thousands more players to manage the safety of. While MiLB has not officially canceled its 2020 season, it seems incomprehensible that we will reach a point this year in which more than 250 minor league teams will be able to proceed with necessary safety precautions in place.

In addition to the truly incalculable damage a lost season could do to minor league teams themselves, it also means MLB franchises forfeiting a year of prospect development. Just like in the point above, the latter pales in importance to the former, but is still worthy of discussion. It’s a particularly unfortunate circumstance for the Reds, whose 2020 minor league season stood to be nearly as important to the organization as its MLB one.

That’s because Cincinnati’s farm system is at a bit of a crossroads. One would think that, after six consecutive losing seasons, that the team’s farm would be bursting with potential stars. But if that’s your expectation, you’re going to find yourself disappointed. In several farm system rankings, the Reds are squarely in the bottom third of baseball. There are a couple of reasons for that. One is the trades they’ve made in recent seasons, sending away universal top 100 prospects like Trammell, Jeter Downs and Josiah Gray in an attempt to accelerate their success at the MLB level. Another, though, is the fact that Reds prospects simply didn’t have a very good 2019 season.

There were a few players who boosted their stocks. Jose Garcia had a terrific year that has landed him on several Top 100 prospect lists, Stuart Fairchild re-inserting himself into the conversation of the team’s near-future outfield rotation, and Tyler Stephenson logged another healthy season of above-average offense from the catcher position. Garcia is on his way to Double-A, and Fairchild and Stephenson should be in Triple-A, which puts all three in close proximity to the majors, should no serious setbacks occur.

Outside of them, let’s consider the team’s top prospects, and everything we don’t know about them entering 2020. Using our own community prospect rankings as a guide:

  • Nick Lodolo has thrown just 18.1 professional innings.
  • Hunter Greene had Tommy John surgery last April, and has thrown in just 21 games since being drafted in 2017.
  • Jonathan India had a solid 2019, but his power regressed and his stock dropped as a result.
  • Tony Santillan’s command deteriorated again last year, leading to his worst performance since his 2016 debut.
  • Rece Hinds, last year’s second round pick, played just three games in 2019.
  • Tyler Callihan, last year’s third round pick, was below average in rookie ball.

It would be nice to know more about Hinds and Callihan, but they have a long development track ahead of them regardless of how 2020 goes. In the case of the first four names, however, the organization was certainly hoping to have answers regarding them very soon. Is Lodolo as advanced as he appeared in college? What does Greene look like post-surgery? Does India have enough pop to stick at a corner? Is Santillan a starter or a reliever?

These are the most important prospects in the Reds’ system because, as first and second-round picks, the team has the most resources invested in them. Knowing what to expect from them has a huge impact on what the team should expect its major league roster to look like in future seasons, and now they’ll be waiting an extra year to figure any of those things out. That isn’t unique to Cincinnati — every team will be affected by this in some capacity. Even in normal years, teams are frustrated with the timelines of certain prospects. With the Reds, however, these questions seem more urgent than usual, because of the poor track record the team has had when it comes to identifying and developing talent over the last decade.

According to Baseball America, no team had a less valuable draft crop than the Reds in the last decade. The picture is even bleaker when considering the fact that far and away the best player the Reds drafted in the 2010s, Yasmani Grandal, has contributed his entire career WAR to different teams. In fact, as far as players who actually played for the Reds in their MLB careers, the franchise’s most valuable draft pick since 2010 is Michael Lorenzen, the 38th overall pick in 2013 who has amassed a humble 5.7 bWAR in his career. That’s a pathetic total for your prize draftee of the decade, and Lorenzen is more than twice as good as the next-best player on the list.

Now, the book is nowhere close to finished being written on the draft classes of the 2010s. Of Cincinnati’s seven first round picks since 2015, just one has reached the majors, which is more indicative of the fact that four of those seven were high school draftees than anything having to do with their development. What’s more disappointing is that just two of those seven players are considered Top 50 prospects in baseball right now — Downs, who was part of an aforementioned trade out of the organization, and Lodolo, who has only been with the team less than a year. It’s also worth mentioning the fact that Nick Senzel, the team’s best prospect in a generation, didn’t get off to the fast start that so many of his peers did as a rookie.

There’s no doubt the Reds’ player development system has been in need of change, and to the organization’s credit, it has tried to accomplish that. Late in the 2018 season, the Reds named Shawn Pender and Eric Lee as new leaders in their player development. Last September, Bobby Nightengale reported that the team was incorporating much more modern technology into their development process, which is an enormously positive step. Perhaps most significantly, the team hired Driveline Baseball founder Kyle Boddy to lead their pitching program from top to bottom, a role Boddy said he was comfortable stepping into specifically because of the abrupt, sweeping changes the team was making to its organization.

The bottom line is that there is a troubling trend of highly-drafted players either stagnating or regressing once tossed into the Reds’ system. One year of lackluster numbers or a season affected by injury can be a bump in the road, or it can be the start of something more concerning. Cincinnati saw a lot of those last year, and didn’t get many breakouts to balance them with. It’s admirable that the team has invested so much in win-now moves, but you need to be able to reinforce those moves with a strong prospect pipeline, and we’re at a stage right now where we just don’t know a lot about what the Reds’ current minor leaguers are capable of one day contributing.

Structural changes like the ones the Reds have been planting the seeds of in their front office always take years to see the full fruits of, but for a team so desperately in need of a boost in its development process, seeing any kind of evidence of those changes this year was going to be a big deal. And while some minor leaguers could still get some playing time this year if an MLB season happens with the expanded rosters expected, the vast majority of this team’s most important prospects are likely looking at a full season without games. That loss of experience and data is going to hurt every team. But it’s an especially frustrating delay for a Reds team that was only recently starting to catch up to the times.