The Reds are Betting Big on Youth
Updated: Apr 11, 2022
Photo Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hunter_Greene_(51253493007).jpg)
After trading away veterans Jesse Winker, Eugenio Suarez, Sonny Gray and Amir Garrett, placing Wade Miley on waivers and watching the inter-division rival Chicago Cubs snatch him up, as well as letting Nick Castellanos walk in free agency, it’s safe to say the 2022 vintage of the Cincinnati Reds is going to be a lot different than the 2021. Are they better in the short-term? Probably not. However, the Reds have brought in a significant influx of young talent, especially at pitcher. While the team’s prospects for 2022 may have taken a hit, the Reds could be well-positioned to contend into the future.
Most Reds fans were understandably upset when news broke that the team had traded homegrown All-Stars in Winker and Suarez. The Reds just barely missed out on the playoffs in 2021. In fact, had the MLB agreed to the now-updated playoff format for 2022 last year, the Reds would have been in the tournament.
Instead of loading up for a playoff run, the Reds’ front office decided to gut the roster. Out went two of their best offensive players, in came a bunch of prospects. Now, for all of the positives that Winker and Suarez brought to the team, they weren’t without their flaws.
Suarez, in particular, had a really rough past two seasons. Last year, Suarez was unable to bring his batting average above the dreaded “Mendoza Line,” finishing at .198. In 2020, his batting average just barely cleared Mendoza, reaching .202. Even the year before, in which Suarez batted .271 and clobbered 49 home runs, he still led the National League with 189 strikeouts.
That’s not cutting it. All that power potential is meaningless if he can’t put the bat on the ball consistently. Reds fans have seen these kinds of players come and go (Adam Dunn, anyone?). Suarez was due to earn about $11 million in 2022, and it’s really no surprise that the Reds wanted to move on from the 30-year-old third baseman.
Winker, however, was somewhat of a shock. He was coming off his best season as a professional, in which he batted .305, slugged .556, and was named an All-Star for the first time. A former 1st-round selection of the Reds back in 2012, Winker seemed like a foundational piece for competitive Reds’ teams in the future. Instead, Winker will be suiting up for the Mariners in 2022, attempting to help their squad reach the postseason for the first time since 2001, the longest playoff drought in the MLB.
Like Suarez, though, Winker was not without faults. For starters, Winker has struggled for his entire career to hit left-handed pitching. While he crushes right-handers (.346/.428/.642 splits), he is the complete opposite when it comes to lefties (.177/.288/.284). Winker is a nice player, a great player, even, but conditions have to be "right" for him to succeed - pun intended.
In return for their package of Suarez and Winker, the Reds were able to secure three prospects from the Mariners, pitchers Justin Dunn and Brandon Williamson, and outfielder Jake Fraley. Williamson is the prize here. The 6’6’’ left-hander was one of the Mariners’ top pitching prospects, combining a 90-94 mph fastball with late movement with a 12-6 curveball and solid control. He projects to be a solid, if not better, starting pitcher in the MLB.
Where Williamson can be viewed as a somewhat safe prospect, Dunn, the other pitcher the Reds acquired, brings significant volatility. The 26-year old right-hander was a former 1st-round pick by the Mets back in 2016 and participated in the 2019 All-Star Futures game, striking out a batter. That was three years ago, though. Fast forward to today, and Dunn has yet to make his mark at the MLB level.
Despite possessing some filthy stuff, Dunn has been unable to stick as a starter, and his future may be as a high-leverage reliever. Even now, he is recovering from a shoulder injury and nothing should scare MLB fans more than a hard-throwing, young pitcher with shoulder issues.
Fraley, the final piece of the Winker-Suarez deal, is a 26-year-old outfielder who will compete for a starting spot in a suddenly wide-open outfield. He has some pop in his bat, knocking nine home runs in just 214 at-bats in 2021. He’s no Jesse Winker, but he can help soften the blow.
For the Reds, the most important pieces of this youth-movement are their two, homegrown starting pitchers Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo. Both are performing well thus far in spring training, and with Luis Castillo dealing with an injury, both may have the opportunity to make the Opening Day rotation in 2022.
Greene is the higher-regarded of the two, bringing a wicked fastball that routinely reaches 100 mph. The 22-year-old’s rise to the majors was delayed by Tommy John surgery back in 2019, but now he’s ready to show what he can do at the big league level. In a spring relief appearance one week ago, Green tossed a scoreless inning, facing four batters, striking out two, and hit 100 mph on the radar gun seven times.
Lodolo doesn’t bring the same kind of gas that Greene does, but he’s an excellent prospect in his own right, ranking as the #2 left-handed pitching prospect in the MLB. The 24-year-old brings three above-average pitches: a mid-to-low-90s fastball with sink, a plus slider in the low-80s, and a changeup with good deception and fade. With all these pitches to go with solid control, Lodolo has certainly earned his opportunity in the big leagues.
Outside of the rotation, the Reds are counting on youngsters to step up at other positions as well. With gaping holes at shortstop, third-base and outfield, someone needs to make a move. Fortunately for the Reds, they seem to have ample players who could fit the bill.
At outfield, the Reds already brought in Fraley from the Mariners, but there are several in-house candidates to take the next step. Aristides Aquino is a name that should be familiar to most Reds’ fans, as he clobbered 14 homeruns in one month in 2019, setting a National League record for a rookie. Since then? Not much to write home about.
For one thing, Aquino strikes out too much. In a lot of ways, he is the Reds’ spiritual successor to Adam Dunn and Suarez - loads of power and loads of strikeouts. If the 27-year old outfielder is ever going to put it all together and become an everyday MLB player, this has to be the year. Otherwise, the Reds are most likely going to move on and give opportunities to other, more consistent prospects.
Another young outfielder who could splash in 2022 is T.J. Friedl, a 26-year-old speedster who led the AAA-Louisville Bats in triples, runs scored, and walks in 2021. While he may not project as a top-of-the-order, table-setter, Friedl has potential and could potentially fill in as a spot-starter or late-inning pinch-runner or defensive replacement.
Outside of Aquino and Friedl, the Reds are hoping to finally get some production out of their former #2 overall pick back in 2016, Nick Senzel. Since breaking into the majors in 2019, Senzel’s career has been sabotaged by injuries, including a torn labrum in 2019 and knee inflammation that kept him out of most of the 2021 season. Once viewed as the safest prospect in the entire 2016 draft class, Senzel has fallen from grace quickly. The 26-year-old has made it his goal in 2022 to play in 140 to 150 games. If he can reach those marks, that will go a long way towards replacing the production the Reds lost when Winker and Suarez left the building.
Things are a little more settled in the infield, with Rookie of the Year Jonathan India manning second-base, future Hall of Famer and all-around good-guy Joey Votto at first-base, and Tyler Stephenson entrenched at catcher. Third-base and shortstop are in flux, though. Third-baseman Mike Moustakas, one of the Reds’ big, free agent acquisitions back in 2019, has been alternately injured and ineffective. Shortstop Donovan Solano, a 2022 free agent acquisition, is 34 and is not a long-term solution. The future at these two positions lies in Jose Barrero and Elly de la Cruz.
Barrero, formerly Jose Garcia, is currently dealing with an injury, but projects to be an above-average starting shortstop with some pop. The 23-year-old is also slick with the glove, potentially being Gold Glove-caliber. The Reds 2021 Minor Leaguer of the Year will need to be everything the Reds envisioned if they are going to compete for a playoff spot in 2022.
De la Cruz, meanwhile, has put together a fabulous 2022 spring, putting himself in surprise contention for a spot on the Opening Day roster. The 6’5’’ switch-hitting string-bean has surprising power for a player of his stature. Combine that with speed, the ability to make consistent contact, a strong arm and good glove, and you have an honest-to-goodness five-tool player. Not bad for a little-known Dominican who signed with the Reds for just $65,000 in 2018.
If Green and Lodolo are able to be everyday starters at the MLB-level, and two out of the combination of Fraley, Friedl, Senzel, Barrero or de la Cruz can make a significant impact, the Reds could surprise and compete for a playoff spot in 2022. However, the odds that the Reds get consistently positive production out of these young players are long. Breaking into the major leagues is never easy, no matter how talented of a player you are.
At least there seems to be a plan in place. Get the youngsters playing time and see who develops. Maybe some blossom into All-Stars. Maybe Greene or Lodolo wins a Cy Young. We can dream. The Bengals made a surprise Super Bowl-run, why can't the Reds surprise everyone with a World Series appearance?
That said, the writing may already be on the wall for 2022. This looks like a gap year where the Reds are going to push some of their prospects into the deep end and see if they can swim. They say that cream rises to the top. Well, the Reds had better hope that the cream-of-the-crop of their farm system is sweet. Otherwise, the summer of 2022 will be a long one for Reds’ fans.