Written By: Connelly Doan
Follow him on Twitter: @ConnellyDoan
Follow Prospects Worldwide on Twitter: @ProspectsWorldW
With the announcement Monday that MLB owners voted unanimously to proceed with the 2020 season, we are now one step closer to playing baseball this season! As the season quickly approaches, managers will have some interesting decisions to make regarding their lineups and rosters. While the exact specifications and rules have yet to be solidified, past proposals have included expanding active rosters from 26 players to 30, making a 20-man “taxi squad” available, and implementing a universal DH.
These proposed rule changes will make roster management easier for some teams but will complicate things for others. One team that falls into the latter category is the Cincinnati Reds, particularly related to their outfield makeup. The team made some big outfield additions this offseason by signing Nick Castellanos and Shogo Akiyama from Japan, but they also have young talent in the form of Nick Senzel and Aristides Aquino, capable players who platooned in 2019 in Jesse Winker and Phillip Ervin, and a host of other options.
Ultimately, the Reds will need to figure out which three players fill their outfield each game (however many are actually played). In this article I will take a look at all of the Reds’ OF options and assess what each can bring to the table for a team that is looking to be a contender in 2020.
Nick Castellanos, RF:
This player is the easiest one to see in an everyday role. One of the Reds’ biggest moves this offseason was signing free agent Nick Castellanos to a 4-year, $64 million contract. For that kind of contract, you can expect Castellanos to be in the lineup every day and for good reason. He will become the Reds’ most consistent outfield bat (exclusively right field); he has a career slash line of .277/.326/.471and has hit at least 23 home runs with 73 RBI in each of the last three seasons.
Castellanos is coming off of a strong season with the Tigers and Cubs (.289/.337/.525 slash line, 27 HR, 73 RBI). In particular, he mashed the baseball after joining the Cubs in August, posting a .321/.356/.646 slash line with 16 HR and 36 RBI in half as many games as he played with the Tigers. Great American Ball Park is considerably more hitter-friendly than Wrigley Field (2019 park factor of 1.038, 11th ranked vs 0.931, 22nnd ranked), so there is no reason to think that Castellanos will not continue to produce at the plate.
The one point of concern is his fielding. It is no secret that Castellanos is one of baseball’s worst outfield defenders. His -9 defensive runs saved above average (DRS) was seventh-lowest among qualified OF in 2019 and his outs above average were in the bottom four percent of baseball. However, he did improve considerably from 2018 (-17 DRS in 2018 vs -9 DRS in 2019) so there is hope that he can continue to better his defense. Further, he could benefit from a universal DH rule. Either way, Castellanos’ bat will find its way into the Reds’ lineup every day as it is too good (and expensive) not to.
Shogo Akiyama, CF:
The Reds’ other off-season OF signing, while not as loud as Castellanos, will benefit them more in terms of bettering their defense. Shogo Akiyama was signed to a 3-year, $21 million contract after spending the past nine seasons in Japan as a star for the Seibu Lions. As a five-time NPB All-Star and two-time Pacific League Golden Glove winner, he profiles as a true centerfielder with some pop and speed who can set the table for a lineup.
Akiyama compiled a stellar .301/.376/.454 career slash line with the Lions and had a nice 2019 season with a .303/.392/.471 slash line, 20 HR, 62 RBI, and 12 stolen bases. While some hitters have issues transferring their skills to MLB, Akiyama’s overall batting profile appears valuable even if it were to take a bit of a hit. Reds manager David Bell certainly thinks so, as he has stated this offseason that Akiyama is expected to hit leadoff when he’s in the lineup. Given his age (32) and his relatively low career steal conversion rate (~63%), I do not expect his speed to transfer as well in that regard. However, his raw speed will transfer covering the outfield.
Overall, Akiyama has the offensive and defensive skills to be an everyday contributor for the Reds.
Nick Senzel, CF:
This player was taken second overall in the 2016 draft as a third baseman but spent nearly all his time playing center field for the Reds in 2019. Once regarded (and still regarded by many) as a top prospect, 24-year-old Nick Senzel had to fight for playing time in 2019. While his .256/.315/.427 slash line with 12 HR, 42 RBI, and 14 stolen bases over 414 plate appearances (mostly batting leadoff) could be seen as an overall success for his first big-league experience, his future with the Reds is murky.
Senzel suffered ankle and eye injuries during the season and has spent most of this offseason recovering from surgery on his right shoulder after tearing his labrum. While he did get some playing time this Spring Training, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Reds took extra precautions with him. The signing of Shogo Akiyama could be viewed as insurance for Senzel’s health, but the size of Akiyama’s contract, coupled with comments from David Bell about Akiyama hitting leadoff seems to suggest that Senzel may have to fight for playing time in center field.
To make matters murkier, there have been trade talks throughout the offseason surrounding Senzel. The Reds could likely get a nice return for him, who, apart from his pedigree, can play third base, second base, and potentially shortstop in addition to center field. The reasons that make Senzel so attractive to other teams hold true for the Reds as well, but with only so many possibilities something has to give.
I think Senzel has the tools to become a solid everyday outfielder with a bit more time, but the Reds may not be as willing to wait, given that they are building to compete now. If they could trade him away and get a solid piece at say shortstop while unclogging the outfield, I think they would seize that opportunity.
Jesse Winker, LF:
I was very excited about Jesse Winker when he got called up in 2017. He reminded me of Joey Votto in that he had a great approach to hitting, allowing for him to hit for average, get on base a ton, not strike out much, and potentially hit for some power. I still feel this way about Winker, but things have not come to fruition for him yet. After a disappointing 2019 season where he posted a .269/.357/.473 slash line with 16 HR and 38 RBI in 384 plate appearances, what role will the 26-year-old have with the Reds this season?
A main contributor to Winker’s inability to cement himself as an everyday player has been his inability to stay healthy. He suffered a left hip flexor strain in 2017, a right shoulder subluxation in 2018, and a cervical strain in 2019, all causing him to miss significant playing time. The good news here is that Winker appeared to be healthy during Spring Training round one, and the delay to the season should help him further rest up.
Another contributor has been management’s reluctance to let him hit against lefties. While Winker’s batting split was pretty stark in 2019 (.285 batting average against righties vs .163 against lefties), he only had 43 at-bats against lefties. Given his strong batting approach, I think Winker could be an everyday player against lefties if given more opportunities.
From a defensive perspective, Winker isn’t the best outfielder (-4 DRS, bottom three percent in baseball in outs above average), but he does have experience in all three outfield spots and did improve from 2018 (-13 DRS in 2018 vs -4 DRS in 2019). All in all, Winker has excellent hitting tools which more than offset his lackluster defense. However, with so many other options for the Reds, Winker will need to both stay healthy and perform well if he hopes to carve out an everyday role.
Aristides Aquino, RF:
This player had a scorching debut to the 2019 season. For those of you who don’t remember, 26-year-old Aristides Aquino aka The Punisher got called up in August to start in right field and posted a ridiculous .320/.391/.767 slash line with 14 HR and 33 RBI throughout the month. September was a different story to the tune of a frigid .196/.236/.382 slash line with five HR, 14 RBI, and a 30.9% strikeout rate.
Overall, Aquino compiled a .259/.316/.576 slash line with 19 HR, 47 RBI, seven stolen bases, and a 26.7% strikeout rate over 225 plate appearances with serviceable defense (3 DRS, 4 OAA). His power seems legitimate (28.3% HR/FB rate) based on how he performed in the minors and his batted-ball profile with the Reds (18.2-degree launch angle, 39% hard-hit rate), but he will need to stop swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone (38.8% chase rate) to help cut down on strikeouts.
Aquino’s obvious impediment is the signing of Nick Castellanos, who is exclusively a right fielder. However, with the potential for a universal DH, it is certainly conceivable that Aquino could get into the lineup and maybe even play in the field, as he is a better defender than Castellanos. Not that this feeling is accurate, but the overall vibe towards Aquino in terms of making an impact on the Reds, unlike Senzel, is positive.
Phillip Ervin, LF:
When Winker wasn’t manning the outfield, this player usually was. 27-year-old Phillip Ervin split time between Triple-A Louisville and the Reds in 2019, compiling a .271/.331/.466 slash line with seven HR and 23 RBI in 260 big-league plate appearances.
Ervin has a couple things going for him in terms of working his way into playing time. The first is that, unlike Castellanos and Winker, he is a solid fielder; Ervin had a 6 DRS and a 4 OOA in 2019 across all three outfield spots. The second is he owned left-handed pitching; he had a ridiculous .349/.411/.628 slash line in 86 at-bats.
The downside here is that Ervin struggled against right-handed pitching (.227/.285/.373 slash line), which he saw the majority of the time. His offensive upside is nowhere close to Winker’s, and his 6.9% walk rate and 24.2% strikeout rate in 2019 were merely pedestrian. Given the other players the Reds have, it is difficult to say how much playing time Ervin could realistically get. That being said, his lefty-hitting specialties and solid defending make him a useful player to have off the bench at least, and the fact that he is out of options may compel the Reds to keep him.
Josh VanMeter, OF:
This next category contains players who may not necessarily start in the outfield but could take away playing time from other full-time outfielders depending on the day or matchup. Josh VanMeter has never been considered a hotshot prospect, but his scorching start at Triple-A Louisville last season (.348/.429/.669 slash line, 14 HR, 43 RBI, eight stolen bases, 17.5% strikeout rate), coupled with his defensive versatility earned him some time at the big-league level.
His offensive production with the Reds wasn’t all that inspiring (.237/.327/.408 slash line, 23 RBI, 21.5% strikeout rate in 260 plate appearances). However, he did do some things well, flashing some pop with eight HR, a good eye with an 11.2% walk rate, and some speed with nine steals. The most impressive aspect of his time was that he played in five different positions. He spent most of his time in left field, but also played first base, second base, third base, and right field. This kind of versatility is a huge asset to a team’s bench, especially in a shortened season. I would say that the jury is out on VanMeter until he shows more of what he can (or can’t) do in the Majors, but the tough part is that he will need to be given the opportunity to do that.
Michael Lorenzen, OF:
This one is mostly just for fun, but Michael Lorenzen did play 89 innings in the outfield in 2019 (mostly in center field but he did see time in all three positions). Lorenzen is primarily a relief pitcher, a decent one at that. But what makes him exciting is his power at the plate for a pitcher, his speed, and his ability to play a decent outfield; Lorenzen has a career .235/.279/.432 slash line with seven HR and five steals in 145 plate appearances.
While I don’t actually expect Lorenzen to factor into the Reds’ outfield decisions, the fact that he is so versatile makes him an asset. I will leave you with this as a parting note on Lorenzen.
Travis Jankowski, CF:
The Padres traded Travis Jankowski and his one-year, $1.05 million contract to the Reds after he missed most of the 2019 season recovering from a fractured left wrist. The 29-year-old is known for his speed and defensive ability (career 16 DRS), making him a useful bench option.
However, there are a couple of things that I foresee will prevent Jankowski from gaining meaningful playing time. The first is his inability to stay healthy. Jankowski has alternated seasons of being healthy and injured over the past four seasons, dealing with a long-term bone bruise on his right foot in 2017 and the fractured wrist last season. He also suffered a hamstring injury this Spring Training, so the delayed start to the season has been a benefit.
The second thing holding him back is that Jankowski simply isn’t a good hitter. He has a career .241/.317/.318 slash line, hitting neither for average nor power. He is a threat once he gets on base with his speed, but that doesn’t really happen enough to justify ample playing time. I see Jankowski as a nice pinch runner or occasional defensive substitute at most for the Reds.
Mark Payton, OF:
28-year-old Mark Payton has yet to see any big-league playing time in his career, but the Reds selected him in the 2019 Rule 5 Draft and for good reason. 2019 was a fantastic season for Payton with Triple-A Las Vegas (Athletics); he had a .334/.400/.653 slash line with 30 HR and 97 RBI over 447 plate appearances while playing all three outfield positions, mostly the corners.
His success can be attributed to an increase in launch angle. Payton had a 45.6% groundball rate and 11.8% HR/FB rate in 2018, but a 34.7% GB rate and 23.1% HR/FB rate in 2019. The Reds already have a power-hitting corner outfielder in Aquino, but if Payton gets a chance to play and excels, he could work his way into occasional playing time.
Scott Schebler, CF:
Simply put, things don’t look good for Scott Schebler in terms of his role with the Reds in 2020. The 29-year-old spent most of his playing time at Triple-A Louisville in 2019, posting an unimpressive .216/.274/.325 slash line with a 5.7% walk rate and a 24.1% strikeout rate. He only got 95 plate appearances with the Reds and did not do much with them (.123/.253/.222 slash line, two HR, seven RBI, 28.4% strikeout rate). He’s a decent defender, but his offensive production won’t offset that. Finally, he is currently on the 40-man roster but is out of options. Should the Reds wish to keep him, they would need to keep him on the 30-man active roster, which seems unlikely given the other options discussed above. Overall, I do not foresee Schebler factoring into the Reds’ plans in the future.