When Spring Training begins in February, all eyes will be on top prospect Nick Senzel. It’s clear that the Reds believe he can contribute to the Major League team next season, but there are other questions:
Can he play in the outfield? Is he a candidate to start in center field? Can he pick up where he left off last season? Does he need more time in Triple-A?
Senzel, the No. 2 pick in the 2016 MLB Draft, represents the next wave of Reds prospects who could reach the Majors throughout the next couple of seasons. He’s the No. 6-ranked prospect by MLB.com, one of four Reds prospects in the Top 51.
He felt he was close to earning the call to the Majors last season, but the Reds wanted him to receive regular at-bats at Triple-A Louisville. Finding him a place to play each day will be a priority next year – even if that means he’s a full-time utility player.
“You’ve got to have a spot where he’s getting everyday at-bats,” Reds general manager Nick Krall said on WLW’s “Hot Stove League” earlier this month. “If it’s in a utility role getting everyday at-bats, like Martin Prado, that’s great. If it’s at a certain position, that’s great as well. You just need to have a place where he can go and continue to develop and get better.”
Versatility is becoming more important than ever in today’s game. It’s a reason platoons are more popular and why some of the top teams don’t worry about having too many solid players at one position.
Free agent Marwin Gonzalez played more than 175 innings at four separate positions last season with the Houston Astros. With the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati native Josh Harrison filled a similar role in his best seasons.
The Chicago Cubs, who like to shuffle some players between the infield and outfield, had only two hitters receive more than 500 at-bats last season: infielder Javier Báez and first baseman Anthony Rizzo. The Reds had five, even with a four-man outfield rotation for about half the year.
Senzel played 44 games at Louisville last season and spent 28 at second base, 14 at third and one at shortstop. The Reds don’t view him as a long-term option at shortstop after using him at the position during Spring Training last year, but he could fill in sparingly. When he reported to the instructional league in September, he worked with Eric Davis to learn left field and center field.
The Reds have an opening in center field but it’s a lot to ask a rookie to adapt to the Major Leagues and learn a new position on the fly.
“He’s not guaranteed a spot when he comes to Spring Training, but if you’ve got a guy who can get 500 at-bats at a bunch of different positions, giving guys days off and taking advantage of your platoon matchups, I think you’re going to be in great shape,” Krall said.
Nick Senzel, the Reds’ top-rated prospect, talks about playing in the outfield for the first time during the instructional league
Bobby Nightengale, Cincinnati Enquirer
Filling a utility role doesn’t mean Senzel can’t become a reliable outfielder. He needs seasoning, but he’s shown promise. Davis raved about Senzel’s instincts. Senzel can track the ball well, especially for a player transitioning between the infield and outfield. He’s shown an ability to read and recognize angles to the ball.
But the key is making sure his bat is in the lineup. He had a .378 on-base percentage with six homers and 25 RBI at Louisville. He admitted he hyperextended his elbow prior to the season, which eventually led to surgery to remove bone spurs, and he dealt with vertigo symptoms.
What could Senzel do with another healthy season? He hopes to find out.
“I don’t feel any pressure really,” Senzel previously told the Enquirer. “I just think the first time you feel like you’re putting pressure on yourself, it’s just going to make you perform a little bit worse. I mean I love this game and I love to play. My dream is to become a Major League player for a long time.
“I feel like I’ve done what I’ve needed to do. I’ve put myself in a good position and I just know that I can look back in the mirror and say I’ve done everything I can.”