Photo Credit: R.J. Oriez (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nick_Senzel_(5663929)_(cropped).jpg)
After an offseason filled with player departures, there was a generally unhappy vibe amongst Reds fans regarding the state of ownership. Many (like yours truly) couldn’t believe that the Reds would sell off some of their best players one year after finishing with an 83 - 79 record and just barely missing out on a playoff appearance. Maybe we were too quick to judge.
After defeating the Atlanta Braves 6 - 3 on Sunday afternoon in rookie phenom Hunter Greene’s first career start, the Reds moved to 2 - 2 on the season. Typically, a team starting the year with a .500 record is nothing to write home about. In this case, I’m going to make an exception.
For starters, the Braves are the defending World Champions. The Reds are…rebuilding? Retooling? Something like that.
On Opening Night, the Reds faced off against lefty Max Fried, owner of baseball’s best ERA during the second half of the 2021 season and the starting pitcher for the Braves World Series-clinching Game 6. Fried went six innings against the Houston Astros in Game 6, allowing zero runs on just four hits to go with six strikeouts. Against the Reds, Fried could only go five and two-thirds innings, allowing eight hits and five runs.
Now, it’s only one game. For all we know, Fried just had an off night and will go on to dominate baseball like he did for most of 2021. But for the Reds, this could be an important development.
Take, for example, a player like the Reds’ Aristides Aquino. For his entire career, this 6’4’’ 220lbs Dominican has been defined by his prodigious ability to hammer a baseball over fences, into bleachers and out of ballparks. However, all that power comes at the cost of a lot of swings and misses. The wind generated by an Aquino swinging-strikeout is enough to power a small town. I’m sure the Reds would have been happy to install wind turbines at Great American Ballpark this season to take advantage.
Against Max Fried, though, Aquino did something many weren’t sure he was capable of. While he did strike out four times in the game, in his second at-bat, Aquino managed to fight off several tough pitches from Fried before hitting a single to extend the Reds’ rally in the third inning. Aquino would later score on a Tyler Stephenson sacrifice fly, extending the Reds’ lead to 3 - 0.
While going 1 - 5 with four strikeouts isn’t exactly a good game by any stretch, it’s refreshing to see Aquino contributing in ways outside of hitting a homerun. This new approach to making solid contact over swinging for the fences seems to have permeated the entire roster as well.
In each game this series, Reds hitters could be seen working deep into counts, fouling off pitches repeatedly, and stringing together hits like the Beatles in the ‘60s.
Another standout from the Braves series is center fielder Nick Senzel. Drafted #2 overall by the Reds back in 2016, Senzel has dealt with a litany of injuries since becoming a professional, including a torn labrum his rookie year and knee surgery last season. This year, Senzel is 100% healthy and out to prove he was worth the Reds’ investment. Through four games this year, he’s been worth the wait.
Although he’s just 2 of 14 on the season, he’s contributed a double, an RBI and a run scored, while playing excellent defense in center. He’s also a speed demon, as demonstrated by the fielder’s choice he forced yesterday. What should have been a routine, inning-ending double play turned into another run allowed for Braves’ starter Ian Anderson when Senzel beat out the throw to first.
While it’s still hard to imagine that a player like Jesse Winker wouldn’t be contributing to this current Reds’ roster, players like Aquino and Senzel stepping up when needed softens the blow somewhat, and may give us a peek at what’s in store for the Reds down the road. There are young players littered about this roster and the Reds are counting on all of them to make a difference.
Another young player who’s impressed in the early stages of the season is Hunter Greene, the other highly-regarded #2 overall pick in the Reds’ organization. Making his first major league appearance yesterday, Greene went five innings, allowing three runs on four hits, while striking out seven and demonstrating the elite talent that made him such a tantalizing prospect.
Wielding a demonic, 100+ mph fastball, a sweeping slider and an improving change-up, Greene made a dangerous Braves’ lineup look downright silly at times. With veteran Tyler Mahle looking good as ever on Opening Night, 2021 revelation Vladimir Gutierez looking solid in his first start of the year on Saturday, and fellow highly touted prospect Nick Lodolo making his debut on Wednesday vs. the Guardians, the Reds could have the makings of a dynamite, and very young, rotation.
Only Reiver Sanmartin struggled amongst the Reds’ starting pitchers versus the Braves, going just two and one-thirds innings and allowing five runs. But, and here’s the exciting part, Sanmartin isn’t likely to remain in the rotation long-term. Instead, Reds fans can expect to see former ace Luis Castillo return once he’s done rehabbing his sore shoulder. On top of that, the Reds also have youngsters Brandon Williamson and Justin Dunn waiting in the wings, once they make the MLB roster from AAA and the Injury List, respectively.
All of this is to say that there might be a lot more talent on this Reds roster than anyone thought. Beyond the exciting, young starting pitchers the Reds have accumulated over the years, they have hard-throwing relievers and dynamic position players too. They put the bat on the ball, make pitchers work, and play solid defense.
There’s even more reason to get excited. Future contributors like Elly de la Cruz and Jose Barrero are still waiting for their opportunity. The bullpen seems to be significantly improved. Joey Votto is still Joey Votto (by the way, to anyone who missed his “Mic-ed Up” appearance on Opening Night vs. the Braves, go check it out on Youtube - you’re welcome).
Even after such a promising start to the season, it’s still only four games. Baseball, like no other sport, is a game of slumps and hot streaks, of rallies and routs. There will be rough outings for some of these young starting pitchers. For all of his talent (and it is tremendous), even Greene struggled at times against the Braves’ potent lineup, especially against first baseman Matt Olsen, who tattooed a homerun off Greene in the fifth inning and went 3 - 4 on the day.
The name of the game for the Reds this year is steady improvement. If players like Greene, Lodolo, Senzel, Aquino and Gutierrez can continue to reward the Reds’ faith in them, this team could easily eclipse the 83 win-mark and make a postseason push. At the same time, development should be the priority. The Reds are in a good place right now, and that’s pretty amazing for a team many thought would be going nowhere fast in 2022.