First (Round) Things First for the Reds

Since team ownership is counting on a young roster, Cincinnati’s top draft picks need to produce. So far so good with Greene, India, Lodolo, Senzel, and Stephenson.
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On Sunday, Cincinnati’s rookie lefty Nick Lodolo became the latest former first-round pick to make his mark for the Reds, notching his first big league victory in a 4-1 win over St. Louis that snapped Cincinnati’s dreadful 11-game losing streak. After uneven performances in his first two outings this season, Lodolo surrendered one run on five hits over 5 2/3 innings, striking out seven Cardinals and walking none. It was the performance Reds fans have been eager to see since the hurler was the seventh overall pick out of Texas Christian University back in 2019.

This comes on the heels of Hunter Greene’s spectacular back to back performances to christen his major league career. A first-rounder himself in 2017 (No. 2 overall), he struggled with his command and his velocity in his most recent outing, and it appears that the Reds will be skipping his spot the next time through the rotation. It’s a reminder that while both Greene and Lodolo are brimming with talent, they aren’t finished products yet.

In the midst of the off-season fire sale that saw Reds management gut the major league roster, General Manager Nick Krall tried to convince fans that this was all part of a master plan to “eliminate peaks and valleys.” “We need to figure out how to continue to build through our player pipeline, player development and scouting,” Krall said. “That’s got to be the base of everything we do. If that’s the base, that’s how we’ll build long-term success and sustainable success.”

Sounds good in theory, right? Of course, it’s a little difficult to take Krall seriously when just last September this organization ran out of town some of the most well-respected player development staff in all of baseball. They also reversed course on many of the farm system changes implemented under former President of Baseball Operations Dick Williams, seemingly because it was costing too much money. But Krall is correct about one thing: If the Castellinis won’t invest in the major league roster, it’s imperative that the minor league system produce talented big leaguers.

Fortunately, the Reds have a head start, with a cadre of young studs already making their mark on the big league scene. Besides Greene and Lodolo, there is last year’s Rookie of the Year, Jonathan India, the fifth overall selection in 2018 out of the University of Florida. He’s at the center of any plan to build from within, a talented budding star who’s quickly becoming the face of the franchise.

Two other Cincinnati first-round picks are also key members of the current roster. Catcher Tyler Stephenson, drafted in 2015 after an outstanding Georgia high school career, has been the Reds’ best hitter so far this season, on a path to becoming one of the best hitting catchers in either league. Center fielder Nick Senzel, picked second overall out of the University of Tennessee one season after Stephenson, has struggled with injury, illness, and inconsistency, but he’s just 27 years old, and he’s been displaying Gold Glove-level defense as he tries to deliver on the promise he showed in the minor leagues.

Stephenson, Senzel, Greene, India, and Lodolo are reasons to hope that the Reds can actually deliver results while “build(ing) through our player pipeline.” Those are five consecutive first-round picks from Williams’ front office era who have already delivered results for the Reds, with the promise of much, much more. And lest you think it’s easy to draft someone in the first round who will have an impact on the big league club, take a look at some of the names picked by Cincinnati in the draft’s initial round prior to Stephenson in 2015: Nick Howard (2014), Phillip Ervin (2013), Nick Travieso (2012), and Robert Stephenson (2011).

Ervin played in parts of four seasons with the Reds but has tallied just 18 games in the majors since being waived in 2020; he currently plays for the independent Lexington Legends. Stephenson is toiling in the Colorado Rockies bullpen. Travieso is pitching for an independent club, having never risen above Double-A due to injury problems. Howard has an interesting story, but he’s currently struggling at Triple-A Louisville.

There are encouraging signs that the Reds’ two most recent first-rounders might join India and Co. in the big leagues at some point. Matt McLain, a shortstop picked first out of UCLA last July, is rising quickly in the Reds system. At Double-A Chattanooga this year, he’s hitting .294/.373/.628, won the Southern League Player of the Week award a couple of weeks ago, and even hit for the cycle (on just seven pitches!).

The team’s 2020 first round selection, outfielder Austin Hendrick, has not seen as much success, but early returns this season are encouraging. In his first exposure to pro ball last year, he struggled as many high school draftees do, hitting just .211/.380/.388 with seven home runs at Class-A Daytona. In his second chance with Daytona this year, Hendrick has already blasted three homers, with a tidy slash line of .296/.426/.523. His plate discipline is outstanding, and he is still very much in the Reds’ plans.

Building through the pipeline also means the Reds need to find more consistent success on the international market. You already know about Jose Barrero (Cuba), who should join India, Stephenson, and Senzel in the everyday lineup sooner rather than later when he gets healthy. But guys like Elly De La Cruz (Dominican Republic) and Allan Cerda (Dominican Republic) are also exciting young prospects with a bright future.

MLB Pipeline currently ranks the Reds’ farm system as the 10th-best in baseball, so you can be optimistic if you wish. Of course, even if you trust current management to build a sustainable winner using this model, this “plan” doesn’t help the 2022 Reds, who don’t have a deep major league roster around the kids. It’s no coincidence that the Reds have lost eight of nine games since India went on the injured list with a strained hamstring and that Stephenson, Senzel, and Barrero have missed games due to injury/illness during Cincinnati’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad start to the 2022 season.

To be clear, I don’t trust the current ownership or front office; there is no evidence whatsoever that this group is competent in any way. More and more fans are starting to agree with me, it appears, as fan protests continue to pop up in the wake of COO Phil Castellini’s absurd comments. It’s not just the billboard; a plane recently flew over Great American Ball Park with a banner reading, “Where ya gonna go? Already gone. Thx Phil!” Then, over the weekend, fans showed up at GABP wearing bags over their heads saying “Sell the Team, Bob.” Predictably, the Reds figured out how to make a bad situation worse, first interrupting a television interview to tell the fans to remove the bags, then later evidently threatening to eject another fan for the same “crime.”

But if you insist on being optimistic—because baseball is supposed to be fun!—here’s your chance. If you’re squinting and trying desperately to find a reason to be hopeful about the future of your favorite franchise, this is it. In the immortal words of The Who: The kids are alright.

Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, The Riverfront. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available in bookstores and online.

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