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Maybe, just maybe, it’s finally Nick Senzel’s time

Can it all finally click for the former top prospect?

San Francisco Giants v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

It is always easier, and perhaps more fun, to hope for the easy and straightforward in baseball. First round draft pick becomes top prospect, top prospect breezes through the minors at warp speed, top prospect becomes top rookie, rookie becomes face of the franchise - that kind of stuff. That path features the fewest bumps and bruises, no speedbumps, and the kind of individual success that often portends team success (which is why we root the way we root, after all).

Nick Senzel got the first few segments of that progression under his belt in easy fashion. The former 2nd overall pick from the 2016 MLB Draft landed instantly as the top prospect in the Cincinnati Reds system and universally among the Top 20 in the entire sport, and blistering displays with Dayton, Daytona, and Chattanooga as he climbed the ladder did nothing but cement that opinion.

The 2018 season brought the first hiccup, however. A torn finger ligament in his throwing hand shut down what had otherwise been an excellent first foray into AAA competition, his .310/.378/.509 performance in 44 games all that we’d get to see of him that year. Still, it was good enough - and he was good enough - that the hope for his emergence with the big league Reds in 2019 was something we could dream on for the rest of that offseason, even if having Eugenio Suarez embedded at 3B was a roadblock.

That led to the eventual move to CF, a spot where he’d never before played. He showed up to Goodyear ready to take on that new challenge, however, and did pretty much everything the Reds could have asked of him while there - everything except magically waive two weeks of service time, that is. In a move that clearly ticked off Senzel and his agent, the Reds opted to reassign Senzel to the minors on the eve of Opening Day, a classic service time manipulation trick that teams had employed for years, and whether or not you believe in karma, the bad juju began to flex its muscles immediately and often.

Senzel sprained an ankle sliding into a base just a handful of days later, further setting back his big league debut. And while he did eventually debut in May of 2019, it’s been a steady stream of frustration for he and the Reds ever since. There was the bout of vertigo and migraines, the odd mid-season swing change, and then the torn labrum. During the pandemic-induced short season in 2020, there was the odd scene where he was physically removed from post-game celebrations and immediately vanished from the roster for a month with an ‘undisclosed’ injury, only to return as a shell of himself for the season’s final few weeks. Last year, it was a knee inflammation that limited him to just 36 games at the big league level, the handling of which became the second time he and the Reds were clearly not on the same page.

He’s now entering his age-27 season, playing a different position entirely from what he played when first a professional, and owns a meager .396 slugging percentage (78 OPS+) in his career at the big league level. If - and at this point, it’s a very big if - he is to finally have some serious success in the majors, it’s very much not going to have been on the easy, straightforward path.

That if comes with the caveat that he still has, at times, shown the kind of potential that made him such a top prospect in the first place. When not injured, he’s adeptly taken to CF in an admirable fashion, his plus speed now being complemented by better reads that only come with the experience of playing out there everyday. Back in his ‘healthiest’ season of 2019, he was on a 20/20 pace through his first 70 games before being encouraged to change his swing mid-season, and has fortunately returned to the swing that got him here in the first place. And while 27 is no longer young in baseball years, he’s still very much in-prime at a time when the overall expectation level around this club is a bit less stressful than it was the last two seasons.

If anything, he might well benefit from the excellent next-crop of future Reds that have emerged to take some of the spotlight off of him altogether. Jonathan India sped right past him in easy, straightforward fashion last year, while Tyler Stephenson hustled up just behind him on that path. Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo, and Jose Barrero now carry the weight of the next superstar up labels, meaning Senzel might just get the chance to hit 6th or 7th most every day for a month before we all look up and notice he’s hit .280/.350/.470 and played some fine, fine CF defense.

It wouldn’t be the first time we saw something of a renaissance like that from a former 1st round pick out of an SEC powerhouse. There’s a similar story of one who lumbered to a meager .666 OPS (85 OPS+) in just 89 games at the big league level through his age-26 season, a player drafted by an NL Central club at one position only to be moved off it to a completely new one (and never once play the old one again after age 26). It took that guy a while to figure out some things, to fight through some nagging injuries before finally having it all click. Click it did beginning at age 27, as he posted a combined 136 OPS+ in his 27-28 year old seasons before taking home the AL MVP in his age-29 campaign, all after dumping his catching gear and settling in as an everyday 3B.

I’m not saying it’s going to be the same for Senzel as it was for Josh Donaldson a decade ago, but I am saying there’s still hope there. Maybe that’s just in my head, but maybe, just maybe, it’s finally Nick Senzel’s time.