There is no situation in which an organization is well-equipped to weather the effects of an entire minor league season getting canceled, as was the unfortunate case in 2020. But of the teams most heavily inconvenienced by the loss of that season — and the experience, data, and answers it would have provided — I believe the Cincinnati Reds would rank quite highly. Nearly every important prospect in the system seemed to be entering a crucial season in his development. There were players looking to erase the suspicions or validate the hype caused by their previous seasons. There were also players set to make their long-awaited return to baseball, whether they were doing so after injury or after a team-imposed shutdown in their respective draft year. The Reds, after all, are a team whose best path to contention involves drafting and developing their core players, then acquiring the supporting cast through free agency and trades; not the other way around. With a farm system on the downswing, it was imperative that the franchise not have a bad season within its minor league ranks. In the end, it got something worse — no season at all.
And yet, a year without organized baseball at the minor league level does not mean a year in which nothing has changed. Some of the players featured prominently in last year’s prospect rankings had brief major league cameos in 2020. Some were mostly shunned from the big leagues but got plenty of work done on alternate sites, while others worked out independently under the remote instruction of Cincinnati’s player development staff. Baseball — or at least, baseball-related activities — still happened last year, even if no one was around to keep score. That means changes have occurred, both in the data we had on these players a year ago and the league-wide consensus on what the future holds for them. We just can’t know, in many cases, what those changes are.
Why do this, then? Why ask you all to vote on prospects you’ve learned next to nothing about in the past year, while what little you have learned was gathered during the weirdest conditions those players have ever competed within? For one, it’s fun. Quick, rank your favorite cocktails. Now do all of the plants in your house, followed by every cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” that you know. Should the rest of us care about how you ordered those things? Probably not. But it made you think about things that (hopefully) made you happy, and regardless of how silly the concept is of arbitrarily ranking those things, the order you settled upon still probably means something to you in some weird way.
The other reason is that, just as these prospects have changed, you and I have changed. You may have learned more about baseball in the past year, or maybe you’ve developed an infatuation for a specific player that you didn’t have before. Whether you’re wiser or bolder or have simply gained psychic powers over the course of your quarantine, the way you’ll order these players probably isn’t the way you would have a year ago. And you won’t think it matters all that much to you until you see the majority of readers favored Graham Ashcraft over Riley O’Brien for the No. 19 spot, and you suddenly get the urge to start hooting and hollering in the comment section.
We’re not that far ahead yet, and won’t be for a few weeks, bless us all. Today, it’s the No. 1 spot on the table, making it the most fun day of the whole process. Unlike some years, choosing the right guy for this is no easy call. Here are the most likely candidates:
Jose Garcia, SS, 22
Where he spent 2020: Alternate site, then 68 PAs in MLB.
What excites you: Sure hands and a cannon for an arm that should make him a very good defensive shortstop, combined with loud power for his position.
What scares you: Pitch recognition skills need to improve significantly before his next extended run at the majors.
Garcia got his first shot at MLB pitching in 2020, just three years after signing with the Reds as a 17-year-old out of Cuba, and was proportionately exposed. He struck out 26 times and walked just once while collecting just 13 hits — all singles — in 68 plate appearances. That makes a good deal of sense when considering the fact that he’d never previously played above Advanced-A ball, and would have never dreamed of cracking the MLB roster in an organization with any kind of shortstop depth.
Hopefully, this year will allow him the opportunity to go back to refining his skills in the minors, where he should be able to better show off his considerable talent. His defensive tools are lauded across the board, from his hands to his instincts to his big arm. Those skills raise his floor before we even get to his bat, which may turn out to be an asset itself. He’s likely to battle strikeout issues throughout his career, but his substantial pop should still help him provide value with the stick. If that happens, he could be one of the better shortstops in the league for years to come.
Tyler Stephenson, C, 24
Where he spent 2020: Alternate site, aside from 20 PAs in MLB.
What excites you: Above-average bat for a catcher, has made progress behind the plate.
What scares you: Still sort of lumbering behind the plate, with lingering contact issues.
A first round pick by the Reds back in 2015, Stephenson made up for the time it took between his first pro contract and his major league debut by hitting a home run in his first career at-bat. As promising as Stephenson’s first sample of MLB experience was, it was still small enough that we are largely going off of the reports we had after 2019. Those reports assigned him massive raw power grades, but came with the caveat that he has yet to show much of it in real games, while grades on his arm range from average to way, way above.
Because of his size (6-foot-4, 225 pounds), Stephenson has faced on uphill battle in terms of proving his mettle as both a receiver and pitch blocker. Those areas of his game were mostly unflattering when he first broke into pro ball, but have supposedly improved a good deal and now aren’t expected to hamper his potential as a starting catcher. Even better news: his injury-proneness, once considered a red flag early in his career, hasn’t shown up as much of late. Stephenson is in line to share catching duties with Tucker Barnhart on the big league squad in 2021.
Nick Lodolo, LHP, 22
Where he spent 2020: Alternate site
What excites you: Smooth, clean delivery and good command of three different pitches allow for high probability he sticks as a starter.
What scares you: Stuff is a bit boring for a former No. 6 overall pick.
Lodolo was selected sixth overall out of TCU in the 2019 draft, and threw 18.1 innings in pro games before getting shut down for the year. To his credit, it’s difficult to imagine how he could have impressed more in that short time — he struck out 30 batters and walked none(!) while allowing just five runs. The Reds toyed with him in spring training and in their summer camp, even allowing him to start a scrimmage against Detroit, but never called him to the big leagues during the regular season.
Prospect reports of Lodolo won’t try to persuade you into thinking he’s an ace, but they can be inspiring nonetheless. Scouts love both his frame and his mechanics, which they believe will help fast-track him to a rotation job he’s likely to keep for a long time. The southpaw’s stuff is a bit vanilla, but far from poor — his fastball velocity stays in the 90s, and his curveball and changeup have drawn plenty of positive reviews. Lodolo isn’t necessarily the kind of star one hopes to find near the top of the draft, but if you’re into value generated via quality innings delivered in bulk, this is very much your guy.
Hunter Greene, RHP, 21
Where he spent 2020: Alternate site.
What excites you: Fastball velocity that peaks well above 100 mph, anecdotal reports of breaking ball development, exceptional makeup.
What scares you: Has only thrown 72.1 innings in 3.5 years since being drafted.
Since Lee Jenkins’ glossy profile of Hunter Greene ran in Sports Illustrated in April 2017, his bright star has kept getting dimmer. He was a two-way prospect whose abilities as a shortstop and pitcher were both said to be worth first round picks, but Cincinnati quickly squashed his position player side after selecting him with the second overall pick. Then he was given the chance to throw in full-season A-ball in Dayton, only to give up 19 runs over his first 17 innings, spanning seven starts. Shortly after he began to deliver much better results, he was shut down with an elbow injury. That injury in 2018 turned into Tommy John surgery at the start of 2019, leading to Greene going the last two full seasons without throwing a pitch during a live game.
If there’s anyone who could withstand that many setbacks and still be a highly-regarded prospect, though, it’s Greene. He reportedly has a much different delivery post-injury, and Reds Director of Pitching Kyle Boddy has said Greene’s slider has advanced far beyond the average grades it received when he was still a prep. Evaluation of Greene’s outstanding makeup hasn’t changed much since that SI profile either. There’s a heightened risk of him needing to throw out of the bullpen, but Greene still carries frontline starter potential.
Jonathan India, 3B, 24
Where he spent 2020: Alternate site.
What excites you: Solid minor league track record with the bat that includes .259/.365/.402 line in pitcher-friendly leagues in 2019.
What scares you: Has yet to replicate draft year power in the pros, and lacks a convincing long-term defensive home.
Man, it would have been great to see India get a full minor league season in 2020. He’s been a well-above-average stick ever since getting drafted fifth overall in 2018, succeeding across three levels and following that up with another strong year across Advanced-A and Double-A in 2019. He’s responded to aggressive assignments well, but one glaring weakness still sticks out: He’s homered just 17 times in 165 career games. Considering how much of a factor his raw power was in his draft stock two years ago, that number is a disappointing one, and the jury is very much out on whether it will ever look much better than that.
Defensively, India seems to be mostly regarded as a solid enough defensive infielder, though he isn’t a shortstop and isn’t likely to be plus with the glove. He’s athletic enough to gain positional versatility, but the further he moves down the defensive spectrum, the more pressure there will be for his bat to excel. There are a lot of good traits here, but India isn’t exactly young as far as prospects go, and it’s time for us to see him put everything together.
Austin Hendrick, OF, 19
Where he spent 2020: High school, then instructional league.
What excites you: Outlandish raw power from the left side, good outfield arm.
What scares you: Swing-and-miss troubles hang a flashing red “boom or bust” sign on him.
The Reds used the 12th overall pick in 2020 on Hendrick, a 19-year-old high school prospect who has explosive raw power from the left side and possesses an arm suitable for right field. The Jay Bruce comparisons write themselves. Hendrick’s weaknesses are no small thing — big whiff risk, uncertain pitch recognition skills, fringey foot speed that will likely limit him to a corner spot defensively — and could certainly prevent him from carving out much of a big league career. The ceiling his power gives him, however, is quite high. He’ll be a fun follow wherever his first pro ABs start happening.
Who is the Reds’ No. 1 prospect?
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