The Cincinnati Reds player development staff has been the butt of jokes over the years. Some of it warranted, some of it not. Where the jokes have mostly come from is the lack of development of starting pitching. Unfortunately, that’s still a bit of an issue. I’ll go to my grave willing to fight that despite Luis Castillo arriving in the organization with a few starts in Double-A that the Reds absolutely developed him. They took a guy with some potential and turned him into an All-Star and borderline Cy Young contender. It didn’t all happen in the minors, but some of it sure as heck did.
But enough about that little rant, let’s talk about today. Let’s look at the Cincinnati Reds from just last night. Aristides Aquino is literally doing things in the Major Leagues that no one else has ever done. Phillip Ervin homered. Josh VanMeter had another multi-hit game. Now rewind to a year ago. Were any of those three players remotely in your mind as players that would be helping the Reds in the future?
Let’s work backwards here. Phillip Ervin spent about half of the year in the Major Leagues last season. He played in 78 games and had a .728 OPS. Overall his bat was slightly below the league average as he posted a 94 OPS+. It was last season that he really took a step forward in the minor leagues, though.
After years of being solid, but unspectacular where he couldn’t hit for any average, but drew enough walks to have a solid on-base percentage and just enough pop to make pitchers respect him, he started showing a different version of himself. He had 202 plate appearance in Triple-A Louisville in 2018 with an .864 OPS. And that was before the switch to the MLB baseball. That has continued into this season. While it’s likely that he’s playing over his head a little bit right now in the Majors – he is being platooned and that’s letting him play to his strengths and avoid some of the weaknesses. Right now he’s got a .355/.415/.589 line with 14 extra-base hits in 118 plate appearances.
Josh VanMeter joined the Reds as a player to be named later in December after the Reds made a Rule 5 Draft selection for the Padres in 2016. In 2017 he was solid, but unspectacular in Pensacola where he hit .255/.326/.352 (worth noting that their home stadium kills power to right field, so lefties usually struggle to show power there). Last season started out better in Pensacola and earned him a promotion to Triple-A Louisville. That’s when the changes really started to take place.
This season has seen Josh VanMeter embarrass pitchers in the International League to the tune of a .348/.429/.669 line. That earned him a call up or three along the way, and it seems he’s up for good at this point. Through 53 games in Cincinnati he’s hitting .283/.377/.472. Since he’s been getting more regular playing time in his most recent call up – over the last five weeks – he’s hitting .323/.397/.600 in 73 plate appearances for the Reds.
And then there’s Aristides Aquino. The outfielder is just killing the baseball. He’s doing what you’d expect him to do if you sent him to play on the Miami-Hamilton baseball team. Except he’s doing it in the Major Leagues. He’s played in 11 games this season for the Reds since his call up. And he’s hitting .429/.474/1.143. He’s hit eight home runs, which if we include his one game last year, is a Major League record for most home runs through the first 12 games of a players career. Aquino, unsurprisingly, won the National League Player of the Week Award for his efforts.
While it’s crazy to think that specific part of his play is going to last, he’s taken things to another level this season. Last offseason the Reds removed Aristides Aquino from the 40-man roster, which allowed him to become a free agent. They re-signed him immediately to a minor league deal with an invite to spring training. He was coming off of back-to-back years in Double-A where he had struggled. The 2018 season was better than the 2017 campaign, but even in the 2018 season he posted a .240/.306/.448 line for the Blue Wahoos.
The Reds worked with him in spring training to change his mechanics. And to say that it had a positive impact would be an understatement. In 78 games for the Triple-A Louisville Bats this season he hit .299/.356/.636 with 28 home runs. And then he has come out and just torched Major League pitching through the first two weeks of his call up this season. He’s sitting at 36 home runs this year between his two stops and he’s played in all of 89 games.
These three guys have all been difference makers this season. And all three of them have been in the organization for several years (or longer). None of them have recently been considered “top prospects” – though there was a time a handful of years ago that both Phillip Ervin and Aristides Aquino were Top 10 prospects in the Reds organization. Still, there was along time between when that was and where we are today. What these guys have developed into should be credit to the player development staff. It should be a credit to the players themselves, too. They’ve been able to not only take the advice shared with them along the way, but try to and actually implement the changes. And then go out and rake.
Now let’s work on that pitching development…..