Setting up the rules for a baseball season seems somewhat important for teams’ ability to build a proper roster, no? Knowing how many players you’ll be able to carry, which positions they’ll be able to play, and how often you’ll be tasked with using them sure seems like a trio of important inputs for Major League Baseball’s 30 franchises, yet as the calendar turned to February - the same month where pitchers and catchers report to spring training facilities - those rules were still very much up in the air.
Finally, though, it appears the Commisioner’s office and the MLB Players Union have come to terms on how the 2021 season will operate, with obvious concerns about COVID-19 and its variants the primary driver of the decisions. As noted as a portion of their overall health and safety protocols for the upcoming season, there will still be 7-inning doubleheaders, runners starting on 2B in extra innings, and some of the same modifications we saw to the game during the abbreviated 2020 season in place.
What you won’t find in that press release, however, is the return of the Designated Hitter to the National League for play during 2021. And while we can debate endlessly the pros and cons of having or not having the DH as part of play for half of baseball’s franchises, there’s one thing in particular that sticks out regarding that rule change/return:
These Cincinnati Reds, despite being an NL stalwart, were pretty much built to have the DH in play.
Former head of baseball operations Dick Williams intimated as much during the 2020 season, noting that many of the long-term moves he made while in charge were due to the inevitability that the DH would be all-encompassing down the road. While the pitching staff has seen ample overhaul since Williams stepped down (and while there is still no proven shortstop on the roster), a quick glance at who is still around on the roster in the post-Williams world shows that yes, this roster could very well use a DH spot to truly get the most bang out of its bucks.
In the infield, there’s the aging Joey Votto, whose defense slipped significantly at 1B last season, and he’s likely to be paired next to Mike Moustakas at 2B, a guy who is a 3B by trade. Having the DH would, in theory, allow the Reds to use one of those two in the position from time to time and let a more glove-centric player up the defense in their stead.
It’s the outfield, though, where things get incredibly murky.
Nick Castellanos is the incumbent in RF, his second half slump and the austere free agent market leading him against exercising the opt-out in his contract after 2020. While his defense leaves a lot to be desired, the offensive upside he brings to the table will make him an everyday guy in that corner. Jesse Winker, the team’s primary DH during 2020, was hands down the team’s best offensive player during last season, and while his ‘position’ in the lineup has now disappeared for most games, it’s hard to envision any scenario other than him starting in LF as often as possible, or at least every single time there’s a RHP on the mound.
The conundrum then comes in CF. Shogo Akiyama, who played a pile of LF while Winker was serving as DH, has long been a CF by trade, and the way he performed offensively during the second half of 2020 gave rise to expectations that he could well be a natural leadoff hitter more often than not along with being an impressive fielder. If so, it sure seems like a regular path to starter-caliber playing time for Nick Senzel took a serious blow with the news that there will be no DH in the NL this season.
If your immediate, knee-jerk reaction was ‘but he’s versatile,’ trust me - we’re absolutely on the same page here. Drafted as a 3B with 2B experience, it was only late into his career that Senzel was moved to the OF, where he has gradually improved when able to stay healthy and on the field. The question is, however, whether the Reds will suddenly reverse course on insisting that he is now a CF only and move him around the diamond to both a) get him more regular at-bats and b) perhaps unlock a layer of value in their former #2 overall draftee that we’ve not yet seen.
Perhaps the extreme of that knee-jerk reaction was to say ‘hey, he could probably play shortstop, too.’ If so, we’re again not too far off in our thinking. It’s an idea the Reds explored ever-so-briefly years back before scrapping the idea entirely, which would certainly make you think it’s something he’s not capable of pulling off. That it just so happens to be the biggest, most glaring hole on the roster makes it tempting to wish the two worlds would collide here, but I’d be shocked if that actually ended up becoming a thing.
Still, with the old NL rules now back in place - meaning double-switches late in games again, too - the idea that Senzel could play across the OF, at 2B, and at 3B even if SS is out of the question does make for an incredibly intriguing possibility. It’s akin to the Ben Zobrist dreams of a previous era, ones that have been played out in similar fashion with the likes of Chris Taylor in Los Angeles, Jeff McNeil in New York, or even Scott Kingery in Philadelphia.
While the question-title of this here piece initially was scripted for the answer to be “Nick Senzel,” perhaps I was originally looking at things in an incorrect light. Now that I think about it, there’s a chance - if the Reds decide to actually get the slightest bit creative - that the lack of a DH in the National League in 2021 actually unsqueezes Senzel, and lets his natural athleticism and versatility become an asset rather than an anchor.