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Alex Blandino deserves a damn roster spot, Reds

What’s a guy gotta do to play some baseball around here?

Cincinnati Reds v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

The last three years of professional baseball have seen Alex Blandino pick up a grand total of 502 offical PA. Total.

Spread across both AAA Louisville (in two stints) and the Cincinnati Reds (in two stints), that’s it. If a baseball year features six months of season, that’s roughly 18 would-be months of ball, and divvied up accordingly that comes down to 27 PA a month, or less than one single step in the batter’s box per baseball day in that time.

Of course, even that kind of sparse regularity would have probably been preferable to the path Blandino has actually trod in that time. A blown-out knee in 2018 set him back for a significant period of rehab, while we’re all well aware that the 2020 baseball season saw the cancellation of all minor league games entirely. That somehow unfortunately relegated Blandino, now 28, exclusively to alternate-site play each day, and he never got the call-up to the Reds last year to add to that minuscule 502 PA total.

The only way to make those statements seem at all important is to reiterate what he’d done before them, and what it looks like he could still do beyond them. A former 1st round pick from 2014 out of Stanford University, Blandino signed for nearly $1.8 million as a relatively high-floor kind of prospect who’d had a rock solid career for a powerhouse baseball school. The thought was at the time that he’d be the kind of player you could set and forget (in a good way, developmentally), someone who largely had all the skills they were already going to absorb and move relatively quickly up the minor league ladder.

A future star? Most doubted that from the start, but a player who can viably play multiple, if not all infield positions competently and get on base a lick is a valuable as heck depth piece for all clubs across the game, and the general consensus was that Blandino would likely be able to throw those punches when called upon. And after a bit of a muddied start to his pro career, that’s precisely what he began to display, culminating in a 2017 season in which he .265/.382/.453 in 473 PA between AA Pensacola and AAA Louisville.

All that we have tangibly seen from him since those final 2019 PA is a pair of Cactus League seasons in which he has been heavily employed by the Reds, and in that span, he’s absolutely raked. Spring stats come with an obvious caveat, of course, as they’re simultaneously practice and a proving ground for players, and it’s often hard to discern just how important each pitch and swing is in spring training and equate it directly to the big leagues. Still, we know that Blandino has obviously been in Reds camp in both 2020 and 2021 looking to impress and earn a spot, and if that was his goal, his stats there have reflected such warranted ability. He owned a 1.231 OPS (11 for 26, 5 XBH) during his spring time last year, and so far in 2021 owns a 1.041 OPS (11 for 30, 5 XBH).

Perhaps just as importantly, he’s again shown the ability to competently cover all infield spots this spring - including shortstop, where he was featuring prominently in the battle for the job before the Reds finally moved Eugenio Suarez back to the position. If ever there were the definition of what managers look for in bench bats at the big league level, it’s both a) positional versatility, especially in National League games with no DH and double-switches galore, and b) the ability to show somewhat competent offensive ability despite often going a long, long time in between consistent trips to the plate.

Blandino doesn’t have a clear path to regular playing time nor the rock-solid promise of a breakout star, but that’s doesn’t mean there isn’t a clear role at the big league level with these Reds that he profiles perfectly for. There is, and it’s as a utility piece on this 26-man roster, one that would be deserved by any player at his age and the back of his baseball card paired with what he’s shown on the field this spring. The only confusing part, really, is that it’s incredibly rare for a former 1st round pick to make it this late into his career with that kind of profile and never really feel like a concrete lock to get some run at the big league level, especially while said 1st round pick is still employed by the same team that drafted him that highly.

Of course, he’s stuck in that odd, odd business-of-baseball scenario that pinches so many players at his age - he’s got one option remaining. Baseball options are so often the cruelest of things, as having one often renders you held back when otherwise deserving while being out of them often earns one both a quicker promotion and a quicker ticket out of town altogether. Blandino is one of the unique bench-bat options the Reds have around in that regard, because he’s competing for a final roster spot with a group of players that can’t simply be stashed in the minors and kept around for even more depth down the road. As a result, that could see him again stashed even further in reserve in order to maximize the most possible depth.

With minor league baseball having been pushed back until at least May, that would again mean another month of no official PA for Blandino, as an option to AAA for April while the Reds ply their trade would again put him on the back burner to simmer.

The Reds might well find a 40-man spot for Dee Strange-Gordon and promote him ahead of Blandino. They might keep Rule 5 draftee Kyle Holder simply to keep him in the system. At this point of the 26-man roster, we’re admittedly splitting some thin hairs about the whats and whys of who to keep, after all. Still, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a player asked to simply plateau by design like Blandino has by the Reds, especially not one with that prospect pedigree, and for no other reason than that I hope the Reds give him the chance to play some damn baseball again come Opening Day.