What The Reds Do At Third Base Will Say A Lot About The Rebuild

 

 

As you’ve surely heard by now, Reds third baseman Eugenio Suarez took a pitch off his right thumb on Sunday in Pittsburgh. X-rays revealed a fracture, sending Suarez to the disabled list and sending Reds further fans into despair (yet again). That pitch to Suarez also sent me into a funk as I realized that I may be forced to talk Reds fans off the ledge every single week here until the season ends.

There are worse fates. But seriously, can anything else go wrong in this 2018 season? We’re only a couple of weeks in, and the Reds have experienced one disaster after another. I’m the most optimistic fan on the planet—you’re talking to the “Reds are going to the playoffs” guy—but even I am starting to waver a bit. Seriously, look at what has happened to the Redlegs since spring training began:

  • Injuries to several important pitchers, including Anthony DeSclafani, Brandon Finnegan, and Michael Lorenzen
  • A season-opening sweep at the hands of the Nationals, followed by losing 3 of 4 to the Pirates
  • The bizarre signing of Yovani Gallardo to a $750,000 major league contract, and manager Bryan Price’s inexplicable insistence on actually pitching him in close ballgames
  • Scott Schebler is hit by a pitch, and the Reds decide to play short-handed until he returns…whenever that will be
  • Just weeks after signing a 7-year, $66 million contract extension, Eugenio Suarez breaks his thumb, will be out for…??? Too long, surely.

First things first: Suarez was the #2 hitter in the Cincinnati lineup, and he leaves a huge void on a team that wasn’t exactly scoring runs at will over the first ten days of the season. Do the Reds have anyone on their current roster to take that spot in the order? Not really, to be honest. This was proven when Price batted Jose Peraza—career OBP .310—in the second spot on Monday.

I mean, I guess the Reds could hit Tucker Barnhart in the second spot against right-handed pitchers; he does have a career .346 on-base percentage against righties, and that isn’t so bad. Probably the best idea would be to have Joey Votto hitting second. He’ll get on base a ton, and it’ll help him get a few extra at-bats. That’s a good thing.

But other than those two—and they are imperfect fits for that lineup spot—no one else fits the bill. Frankly, no one else gets on base enough to be hitting in front of Votto, regardless of what Price thinks of Peraza. And no one on the bench is ready to slide into the lineup and hit near the top of the order (specifics below).

Yes, baseball is dumb and everything is terrible.

But everything I said last week remains true, and I still don’t think we should overreact to this latest piece of bad news. At least, not yet. After all, there are two guys currently in the minor leagues that could move right into that second spot in the order. The first is a guy you may have heard about.

Yes, this is a great opportunity for us to finally get a look at uber-prospect Nick Senzel in a Cincinnati Reds uniform. Senzel is playing second base this season (for the first time as a pro), but he had only played third base before this season. So he’ll slide right into that third base position—and with a career OBP of .394, he’ll look good at #2 in the lineup—until Suarez returns, right?

Not so fast, my friends. I’m as eager as anyone to see Senzel playing in Cincinnati, but it’s not going to happen right now. The Reds are playing service time games, and if they wait until after April 13 to call Senzel up to the big leagues, they will get an entire extra year of team control before he’s eligible for free agency.

And that’s why the Reds called up Alex Blandino to take Suarez’ spot on the roster. Blandino, who was already on Cincinnati’s 40-man roster, was a first-round draft pick back in 2014, and has been playing third base at Triple-A Louisville. (He has also spent plenty of time in his pro career at second base, and is an option at that spot for the Reds if and when there is an opening at that position.) He’s 25 years old, and over two levels of the minors last year, Blandino hit .265/.382/.453 with 12 home runs.

Blandino has a good defensive reputation at both second and third base—he was drafted as a shortstop out of Stanford after all—and it will be interesting to see if his bat will translate to the big league level. I’ve thought for some time that Blandino is a sure-fire big league backup, but that he could be a serviceable starter on the infield, if not a star. So he’ll slide right into that third base position until Senzel is ready, right?

Again, not so fast, my friends. Here’s what intrepid Reds manager Bryan Price had to say about the situation: “We do have some options….Pennington and Gosselin do a fine job playing third base.”

Sheesh. That’s Cliff Pennington and Phil Gosselin. Pennington has played 56 games at third base over his 10-year big league career. But he’s also “hit” .224/.291/.306 over the last three seasons; that’s an OPS+ of 64 (100 is an average hitter). And he’ll turn 34 years old in a few weeks. But yes, as you might have expected if you have ever watched Bryan Price manage a big league baseball game, Pennington was the starting third sacker for your Cincinnati Reds in the first game after the Suarez injury.

Gosselin has somewhat better career numbers: .271/.321/.372 (86 OPS+), though he hit .146/.180/.188 for two teams last year. And he’ll be 30 on his next birthday. There are good arguments for having either of these guys on your bench, I suppose. But there is no argument whatsoever for having either of them starting games regularly for the big league club. And, to be fair, Price’s comments were (likely) made without consulting with GM Dick Williams or anyone in the Cincinnati front office.

But is this a rebuild, or isn’t it? If the Reds are serious about this rebuilding process, they will give Eugenio’s at-bats to players who might be able to contribute to the proverbial Next Good Reds Team. That means letting Blandino play until this Friday, at which time the keys to the Cincinnati hot corner should be turned over to Nick Senzel. (Playing the service time game makes plenty of sense, but playing the Super 2 game feels like a luxury the Reds can’t afford at this point.) And no one else should play that position until Suarez returns. There are no other reasonable options for a team that is looking to develop young players. Period.

But if Gosselin or Pennington are playing third this week, and then the Reds don’t call up Senzel on Friday, all bets are off. You have my permission to overreact at will. Because, at that point—on the heels of the Gallardo nonsense—everyone should be questioning the way the Reds have conducted this rebuilding process.

It’s actually exciting, if you are an obsessive fan of the Cincinnati Reds. Finally, this week, after all the losing, we’re going to have an enormous clue as to whether this Cincinnati front office has a plan, and whether they have any idea what they are doing with this rebuilding process…or if they’re just stumbling around in the dark.

I choose to be optimistic. Welcome to Cincinnati, Nick Senzel and Alex Blandino. We hope you’ll stick around for a while.

Chad Dotson is a contributor to Nuxhall Way, and the founder of Redleg Nation. His first book, “The Big 50: The Men and Moments that made the Cincinnati Reds” is available now, in bookstores and online.

 

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