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It isn’t shortstop where the Cincinnati Reds need the biggest improvement

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Better play there will help, but there’s another spot that needs a giant step forward.

Cincinnati Reds v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

When it’s blatantly obvious that Francisco Lindor is getting traded during an offseason, it’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole of what your club would look like with him in the fold. When Didi Gregorius, Andrelton Simmons, and Marcus Semien were all free agents at the same position - and when Freddy Galvis, your incumbent, reached free agency as well - dreaming on massive upgrades to a stagnant offense with an outside quick fix was, admittedly, a gravitational pull on our focus all winter long.

The Cincinnati Reds did none of that, of course. The purse strings were pulled tight, the praise machine for Kyle Farmer warranting a shot for the role kicked into high gear, and the hope that the morbid 2020 offense would get a fuel-injection waned.

The 2021 Reds offense was going to bank on the guys in-house simply ‘being better’ than they were last year. Whether it be Kyle Farmer, Kyle Holder, Kyle Jose Garcia, Kyle Alex Blandino, or Kyle Dee Strange-Kyle-Gordon, it was going to be ‘hope’ being trusted to improve upon Galvis at shortstop instead of a proven, known quantity.

But, what if it was never shortstop where the Reds really needed to improve? What if there was a glaring hole with the 2020 Reds bats that needed far, far more TLC?

The amalgamation of Reds shortstops in 2020 hit a combined .240/.300/.367, good for a morbid 79 sOPS+ relative to their shortstop peers across the league. Not good, by any stretch of the imagination, and easily a weak spot on an already weak lineup. Still, when you lineup .240/.300/.367 alongside - gulp - .163/.248/.268, the group of shortstops look like world-beaters, relatively speaking.

That .163/.248/.268 line is exactly what the 2020 Cincinnati Reds got from centerfield. 216 PA of pure, unadulterated anguish, a 42 sOPS+ against what the rest of Major League Baseball got from their players at the position. Freddy Galvis, the .220/.308/.404 line he posted in 2020, and the lone career game he’s started as a CF since 2012 would’ve been a megalithic improvement on its own at the position.

It wasn’t as if there weren’t equally high-profile solutions on the market this winter to help improve at CF, too. Whereas Lindor and Gregorius dominated the would-be rumor mill at short, George Springer and Jackie Bradley, Jr. were each free agents, while potential CF options in Andrew Benintendi and Franchy Cordero were even moved in a deal for each other.

Unlike at short, though, the Reds have a resident present at the position. Two of them, really. Despite the putrid production the duo (and their peers) posted while parked in the middle of the outfield in 2020, there is perhaps no position on the diamond where the Reds offseason strategy of ‘simply hope things get better’ than in centerfield.

Shogo Akiyama will again feature heavily in the mix, especially now that the lack of a DH in the National League will shovel Jesse Winker into left more often than not. Shogo struggled mightily at the plate early in 2020 regardless of which outfield spot he was manning, owning just a .495 OPS at the end of play on August 28th (the 27th game in which he played last year). How he finished offensively is what we’ll all need to hope on, though, as from August 29th through the end of the brief regular season he raked at a .315/.451/.370 clip, showing the reputed mastery of the strikezone and ability to flip balls into the shallows of the outfield that came with him from Japan.

That the bulk of that production came while he started in left is duly noted, but isn’t a cataclysmic difference that would preclude expecting him to be a better offensive player than he was in center for most of his time.

Staring at .186/.247/.357 and trying to explain away its futility isn’t easy, either. That’s the unsullied batting line of Nick Senzel last year, the math behind it as objective as it gets. The former #2 overall pick and consensus Top 10 prospect cannot hide from it, as it’ll be printed on the back of his baseball cards ad infinitum as what came with him at the plate during the 2020 MLB season.

I’m going to try to, though, as there was enough about how the pandemic-shortened season sucked Senzel in to suggest there is still ample to be excited about as we barrel into 2021.

Frozen in time is the odd scene in the outfield following the Reds solid 8-1 thumping of the Pittsburgh Pirates on August 14th, one that saw almost every Red in uniform getting together to celebrate for a bit. That group included everyone except Senzel and 3B coach J.R. House, the latter doing everything in his power to escort the former away from the mass in a scene surreal enough to define the 2020 season as a whole. An undisclosed reason amid a pandemic led to an absence of a full calendar month, and once Senzel did finally return to action (with no AAA rehab stint available), he collected just 2 hits in his final 29 PA as a shell of his complete self.

29 PA means a ton when 78 total PA constitute his entire ‘season,’ after all. It’s enough to tank all statistical categories entirely, enough to make you forget that he woke up on the morning of that fateful August 14th day the owner of a .262/.333/.524 line. The brief but excellent start to his 2020 actually had him on a per-162 game pace for a 25 homer, 25 steal season, all with continually improving defense in center that began to reveal all the hype we’d seen around him in his time as a top prospect.

It’s undeniable that the Reds had a major chance, several major chances to bring in a shortstop from outside the organization who could have projected to be a big boon to their hopes in 2021. That they did not still stings, but it’s still at least somewhat feasible that they can replicate their 2020 work with what Kyles they do have in place. Where the 2021 Reds can hinge many of their hopes, though, is that their overall centerfield body of work in the coming 162 game season will be massively better than what little they got last time around.

They’ll need better breaks, better health, and a bit more luck that the hits fall from certain players when there’s a number 8 penciled in next to their name on the lineup card instead of some other number, too.