The Cincinnati Reds instructional league roster came out yesterday. There was one thing that jumped off the pages at you when looking at it. Nick Senzel was listed as an outfielder. To this point in his college and professional career, Nick Senzel has never played a game in the outfield.
Bobby Nightengale of the Cincinnati Enquirer spoke with Dick Williams about the Reds plan for Nick Senzel in instructional league. Before you continue, I suggest that you read the article. There’s more than a few things in there worth noting. But the biggest takeaway is that the team is going to have him focus most of his time in left field.
Williams said the front office believes Senzel has enough athleticism to play center field, but Senzel will spend most of his time learning left field.
“I think we’ll focus on left field first,” Williams said. “In many ways, that’s the most difficult to play. We won’t be splitting time equally between the three. But since that is the most difficult, we’ll probably start him there, just so he gets more time at the one that’s the most difficult.”
Let’s address all of the pieces here. Left field is the most difficult position to play? That’s certainly something you don’t hear too often. I do think it’s worth noting that this isn’t suggesting it requires more skill to play. I think it’s more about how the ball travels – but that also applies to right field, too. It’s a weird quote overall. But, among positions on the field in terms of defensive value, left field is the second least valuable – trailing only first base. Basically, anyone who can play any other position on the field, except perhaps catcher, *should* be able to play left field.
So, if the idea is that Nick Senzel, who has no real outfield experience, is going to play some outfield, he probably should get some time in left. The ball does move differently off of the bat in the corners than it does in center field. There’s some value in getting him looks in left. And in right.
But, let’s go back to that first part. The front office believes that Nick Senzel has the athleticism to play center field. That’s great. In fact, that’s better than great. Center field, outside of catcher and shortstop, is the most valuable position on the field. There aren’t many center fielders that can hit well. The position is more about defense than offense. So if they believe he can actually play defense there, it’s huge. There’s not much reason to think that Nick Senzel can’t hit in the Major Leagues. The average Major League Baseball center fielder is hitting .252/.318/.405 in 2018. I believe that everyone thinks Senzel is going to be a significantly better hitter than that.
The Cincinnati Reds left fielder going into the spring should be Jesse Winker. The same Jesse Winker who has hit .299/.397/.460 in 471 career plate appearances in the Major Leagues and all of that was done while he was 23-24 years old. The Cincinnati Reds right fielder going into spring training should be Scott Schebler. He’s entering what should be his prime, and this season he’s hitting .274/.350/.474. Both guys have shown that they are above-average Major League hitters. In fact, in 2018, both were well above-average.
The Cincinnati Reds center fielder, by default, has been Billy Hamilton since the team moved on from Shin-Soo Choo after 2013. Billy Hamilton is currently hitting .241/.300/.333. He’s an elite defender. His base running is still very strong, but it’s a far cry from what it used to be. He’s stolen roughly half as many bases this year as he did in 2014–2017. His offense has not gotten better at any point in his career. There’s no reason at all to think it’s going to. In fact, this year because of his lack of steals, he’s gotten worse overall offensively because the steals helped make up for the entire lack of production with the bat.
For the time being, Billy Hamilton as the Reds starting center fielder makes sense, sort of. If the Reds don’t believe that anyone else on the 40-man roster can play center field that is currently ready to hit in the big leagues, then Hamilton really is the only option. Jose Siri can play a mean defensive center field – but he’s probably not ready to hit in the big leagues right now. That could change in the future, but right this second, he’s probably not there.
The other outfielders on the 40-man roster? It’s hard to believe the Reds think any of them can handle center every day. Phillip Ervin has come out this year and hit like he’s never hit before. He’s rarely played center. Gabriel Guerrero played a lot of center in Triple-A and Double-A this season. He has 20 HR power and hit .280 in the minors. He’s not playing in center for the Reds. Scott Schebler gets brought up often as someone who may play center. But he never actually plays there. Aristides Aquino isn’t a center fielder even in the minors. Mason Williams has some experience there, and he’s gotten a few games in there as a Major Leaguer, too. Given his lack of overall playing time, though, the organization can’t see him as a future potential starter.
That means that the Cincinnati Reds have eight players on their current 40-man roster who are listed as outfielders. Two of them it would seem can play center field well enough to be there every day. One of them is Jose Siri, who isn’t ready to play in the Major Leagues right now. And the other is Billy Hamilton, who has been among the worst hitting every day players in Major League Baseball since he reached the sports highest level.
As noted above, his base running certainly has added plenty of value to that – but this season it’s not been anywhere near the same as it has been in the past. It’s still quite good, though, because with Hamilton it’s not just the steals – it’s going 1st to 3rd or 1st to home when only a handful of other players in the game could also do that. Still, the overall offensive production from Hamilton is, and has been well below-average for the entirety of his career.
So that begs the question: If the Cincinnati Reds front office believes that Nick Senzel can play center field, why is that not the focus? Not only is center field an actual, real need for the Cincinnati Reds right now, they’ve got multiple corner outfield options both now and behind those “now” guys ready for the Majors today. Jose Siri and Taylor Trammell may eventually be the guys for center field. It wouldn’t surprise me if that were the case. And it also wouldn’t surprise me if Nick Senzel wound up back on the dirt – second base specifically.
However, it seems that the plan for the Reds is to play Nick Senzel in the outfield. And they have stated at least, that they think he could handle center. The fact that center is not the main focus just seems off to me. It’s literally the only spot on the field that the team has a glaring need among the non-pitching spots. The Reds are getting above-average output from every other spot on the diamond.
And as pointed out by Redleg Nation on their twitter feed, there’s only so much time to get Senzel ready as an outfielder for 2018. Between instructional league, and perhaps some Arizona Fall League if they choose to send him there, he’ll have roughly 2 months, and roughly 35 games to play outfield. Of course there’s time in the offseason beyond that to work on left, center, right. But it’s not the same as being out there, with other players hitting real baseballs in professional stadiums.
Nick Senzel is a guy who seems to put it all into what he does. Everything I’ve seen, everything I’ve heard over the years suggests that. The guy works, and he works hard. I have no doubt he’ll do everything he can to learn the positions asked of him. But from where the Cincinnati Reds are coming from, with their words, the logic is just tough to follow.
Center field is where guys don’t hit. If you have a center fielder who can hit, play that guy in center field. And play that guy there 155 times a year. Don’t worry about “what if he’s got to play left?” or “what if he’s got to play right?”. Worry about filling the biggest weakness on your team with the best prospect you’ve had in your organization in over a decade. The idea that Nick Senzel is believed to be capable of playing center field, and that’s not the primary focus of his development over the next two months in Arizona given the other pieces of this team and organization just comes off as a terrible utilization of assets.