When the 2020 MLB season finally gets underway on July 23rd, it will have been almost two full years since we last saw Cincinnati Reds prospect Hunter Greene throw a real, live, professional baseball pitch. The picture above is from July 18th, 2018, a day that saw him showcased for Team USA in the MLB All Star Futures Game, and just eight days later he fired a pair of scoreless, hitless innings for the Class A Dayton Dragons.
That’s it. That’s the last we saw of him in an actual uniform, as elbow issues shut down his season prematurely. He attempted to merely rehab the problem before finally requiring reconstructive surgery the following April, and we’ve not seen anything from him on an official mound since.
Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has begun to participate in that pause, too. While Greene was absolutely not expected to be ready to go at the start of the 2020 season, he was originally due back at some point in late May or early June, parts of the calendar we have already passed. And as noted by Doug Gray over at Redleg Nation last week, Greene has actively - at least, as actively as he could - been working his way back to full strength, including a bullpen session that saw him once again unfurling his ridiculous 102 mph fastball.
When healthy, it’s undeniable that Greene is one of the more elite pitching prospects in all of baseball, let alone just on the Reds farm. The fastball and elite athletic ability is what propelled him to the #2 overall pick in the 2017 draft in the first place, and the last we saw of him actually had numbers that began to reflect that he’s far more than just a speedball hurler - over his final 51.1 IP with Dayton in 2018, he pitched to a 2.63 ERA with in impressive 63/13 K/BB, allowing opponents to hit just .195/.265/.346 against him.
In an imperfect, yet more ‘usual’ year, he’d be getting his feet wet with A+ Daytona right now, with a chance to press his way up to AA Chattanooga by summer’s end. Of course, neither Daytona nor Chattanooga is hosting any sort of minor league baseball this year, and that’s where the conundrum begins with Greene.
The Reds, under MLB’s new season directive, will start play with a 30-man active roster, one that will shrink over time to a 26-man active roster for the final weeks of regular season play. There’s still the overall 40-man roster, too, but given the need for teams to have extra players on whom to call in case of injury/sickness, there will be a 60-man ‘player pool’ that they can assemble, too. The plan is for the Reds to use the Prasko facilities in nearby Mason, Ohio, as the home for said player pool, with some 30 non-active players keeping in form so that some will be able to serve on a taxi squad.
We’ll find out how that player pool shakes out come Sunday, and I’m certainly interested in the strategy used. Obviously, teams could choose to stack it with big league veterans akin to those brought into Reds camp on minor-league deals back in spring training, as they provide the most immediate depth options. Guys like Derek Dietrich, Matt Davidson, and Nate Jones, players who are just on the fringe of the active roster, alongside slightly younger players with big league experience (and options) who might’ve otherwise formed the core at AAA Louisville (Aristides Aquino, Alex Blandino, etc.). Keeping 30 of that ilk would provide the most relevant depth for any 2020 run, of course, and there’s certainly an argument for building that much in.
That said, the nature of MLB farm systems is that the future is baked into the present in ways not seen in the NFL, or NBA. That there is no minor league ball being played this year means keeping the development up for prospects that look to have promising futures is just as paramount as roster maintenance at the big league level in 2020, and that’s where Greene comes in.
Yes, you can point to his lack of professional pitching for two entire years, his age (still just 20), and how far away he was slated to be from the bigs this year as evidence that he doesn’t need one of those limited spots. To me, though, those are the precise reasons why I want to see him in Mason.
A third consecutive summer without participating in formal, organized baseball at the highest of levels would be the worst possible thing for the development of such a promising arm, and it’s refinement - not talent - that is the only difference than he and the big leaguers at this juncture. Refinement is precisely what he’d be primed to get in Mason, too, especially given the addition of Kyle Boddy and the Driveline team over the winter to help direct the entire system’s pitching.
Much of this argument fits for Nick Lodolo, too, the Reds 1st rounder from last summer. Greene has obviously faced a much more difficult, frustrating development to date, but the two represent the most tantalizing pitching prospects in the system, and therefore should absolutely be working with the best, most accessible pitching coaches the Reds can provide this year. The best competition they can face, too, and that’s what they’ll have in Mason.
It doesn’t matter that neither is on the 40-man roster yet, or that the odds of either being added in 2020 and starting their service-time clocks is almost 100% not going to happen. There will still be ample depth in Mason aside from them, and facing Greene and Lodolo routinely in practice might even help the hitters in camp stay in the freshest of shape for any potential call-up. Doing everything possible to make sure the best young pitchers in the system are as ready to contribute to the big leagues as soon as possible is the entire point, after all, and there’s no better way to make that a reality in 2020 than getting them into that 60-man player pool.