Back in the spring of 2011, the Cincinnati Reds were fresh off their first division title since the landing of Mayflower at Plymouth Rock in 1620. Jay Bruce had socked a homer into both the stratosphere and our permanent memories, and while the disappointment of being flushed out of the playoffs in short order by the Philadelphia Phillies stung, optimism was at a generational high when the Reds descended upon Goodyear, Arizona the following spring.
When Cactus League play commenced that year, the certain right-handed bat emerged as an absolute dynamo for the Reds. In 20 games, he went 22 for 39 with a trio of homers, 12 ribbies, and an equal number of walks (2) as strikeouts, in the process going from a guy you’d heard of a time or two to the talk of the entire camp.
Perhaps we should have seen some of that coming. After all, he had blistered balls from High-A to AAA during the previous year, hitting a ridiculous .342/.395/.507 in 564 PA, going from relative unknown to a player who began to flirt with Top 10 status in a farm system that was flush with talents like Aroldis Chapman, Devin Mesoraco, Yasmani Grandal, Todd Frazier, Billy Hamilton, Zack Cozart, and Yonder Alonso.
I don’t mean to create a parable that compares Dave Sappelt to Christian Encarnacion-Strand, the breakout star of Reds camp in 2023, as a complete one-for-one. For the record, CES is currently tied for the lead in all spring training with 9 hits so far, his 9 ribbies standing alone above the rest of professional baseball as well. He’s hitting now, he hit the snot out of the ball in a trio of stops between two organizations last year, and is a career .317/.376/.588 hitter since becoming a professional. The guy can flat out hit, and he’s doing so now while a glaring opportunity stares him in the face with Joey Votto still sidelined, the kind of success in a seize the day moment that should rightfully earn bonus points from all of us for its mettle. It’s just me doing my best to emphasize that spring training stats, while fun, quite often fail to translate to big league play.
It still seems a longshot for the Reds to take CES north on the active roster for Opening Day, even if Votto remains out of action. With just 144 professional games at any level under his belt and none at the AAA level, it would be quite the ask to jump him all the way to the bigs, and that’s on top of the fact that he’s not yet on the 40-man roster. If he continues to hit this spring - which he probably will, since he’s hit everywhere he’s ever been - that will certainly make the decision tougher, but the Reds still seem to be somewhat in wait and see mode with a player who only joined their system 35 games ago.
If anything, the way they built their roster suggests they weren’t ready for CES to be ready, either. Carrying a trio of catchers already on big league contracts was, by design, a way to allow Tyler Stephenson to play more 1B/DH to keep his bat in the lineup, and that was done with an eye on Joey Votto also being around eventually, too. Wil Myers, the biggest acquisition of the winter, has played 363 games at 1B in his big league career as well, and the outfield mix is still sorting through ways to get each of TJ Friedl, Jake Fraley, Will Benson, and Stuart Fairchild opportunities to show what they’ve got until Nick Senzel returns.
It’s a logjam. It’s a good ‘problem’ to have, but it’s a logjam, one that includes several players already on-roster and burning through options that the Reds want to have a look at in big league action during this portion of the rebuild before even starting the clock on guys like CES.
Does that mean that the Reds might be willing to break camp without the hottest 26 players come Opening Day? It certainly might, especially given that there are several arms that currently aren’t on the 40-man roster at the moment who also might need to get added.
Anyway, here’s my best attempt at finding a path to getting Christian Encarnacion-Strand onto the Reds Opening Day roster given what we know now, what injuries/rehabs still exist, and where the heck they’d find PA for everyone in that scenario.
Pitchers: 13 guys selected in an entirely different theoretical exercise
Catcher: Tyler Stephenson, Curt Casali, Luke Maile
Infield: Christian Encarnacion-Strand, Jonathan India, Jose Barrero, Spencer Steer, Kevin Newman
Outfield: Wil Myers, TJ Friedl, Jake Fraley, Will Benson, Chad Pinder
Y’know, that doesn’t look too outlandish.