Let’s talk about Young Guns, shall we? It’s 1877, and a group of young gunmen, led by Billy the Kid, become deputies to avenge the murder of the rancher who became their benefactor. But when Billy takes their authority too far, they become the hunted.
OK, that was actually a 1988 movie starring Emilio Estevez, Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland, and the immortal Lou Diamond Phillips. But I don’t want to talk about those young guns—or, to be more accurate, my benevolent overlords here at The Magazine prefer I focus on baseball instead of late-1980s westerns for some reason. Let’s discuss the Cincinnati Reds instead, who have their own group of young guns ready to storm the National League.
For a few years now, most observers have lamented the lack of production from Cincinnati’s farm system. After all, the Reds haven’t drafted and developed an actual long-term difference-maker on the offensive side of the ball since Joey Votto, nearly two decades ago. (I suppose we could quibble about Tucker Barnhart, who was drafted in the 10th round in 2009 and has won two Gold Gloves. That ain’t nuthin’, as they say.) The last time the Reds drafted a hitter in the first round who ended up making a difference for the club was probably catcher Devin Mesoraco, all the way back in 2007.
All of a sudden, however, a group of young former first-round picks has emerged onto the scene here. Jonathan India, Nick Senzel, and Tyler Stephenson have taken on big roles for a Reds team that sits atop the NL Central Division in the early days of the 2021 season. These three could be the key to whether the team takes the next step, from a doormat in recent years to an actual contender.
Let’s take them in the order they were drafted. Stephenson was picked 11th overall in the 2015 MLB draft, a hard-hitting catcher out of Kennesaw Mountain High School in Georgia. After struggling with injuries early in his professional career, he displayed the promise on the minor league level that had him ranked as one of the top prospects in all of baseball. Then, last year, he finally made his big league debut, memorably homering on the second pitch he saw.
This season, at age 24, Stephenson made the Reds Opening Day roster for the first time. He’s sharing time in the lineup with Barnhart, but the expectation is that he’ll eventually take over the primary catching duties. For now, he’s hitting .357/.400/.571 with a homer and two RBI in five games. There is no question that Stephenson is the future at the position for the Reds, and it appears that the future is in good hands indeed. (Let’s not shuffle Barnhart off to the retirement home just yet; after all, he has those Gold Gloves and is mashing the baseball in the season’s early days as well. In fact, Cincinnati’s catching tandem is arguably the second-best offensive group in the entire league at this point in the season, small sample size caveats notwithstanding.)
Next up is Senzel, Cincinnati’s first-round pick back in 2016 and second overall. What more do I need to say about him that I haven’t already said? (Seriously, go read my 2020 feature piece on the young center fielder for some insight into why he’s been so highly regarded.) The only question about Senzel at this point is health; when he’s been able to stay on the field, he has produced. At some point, he’s going to have to stay healthy and produce on the big league level if he wants to deliver on that promise.
If 2021 is the season he takes the next step, it will pay huge dividends for the club. The early returns are good: Through nine games, Senzel is hitting .348/.464/.435 while playing outstanding defense in center field. I can’t predict health, but I can predict that he’ll be a dynamite presence in the Reds lineup if he can actually stay in the lineup. Fingers crossed on that point.
Finally, we have to talk about India, since everyone else seems to be talking about him. He was drafted fifth overall in 2018, a slugging third baseman out of the University of Florida. India’s minor league results were mixed, but last year we started to hear some rumors out of the Reds alternate site that he was impressing everyone. Then, this spring, he played well enough to force himself onto the Reds Opening Day roster.
When the 24-year-old started at second base on Opening Day—a position change necessitated by the lineup shuffling caused by the Reds refusing to obtain a shortstop in the off-season—he became the first rookie position player to start the first game of the season since Chris Sabo back in 1988. The last second baseman to make his debut on Opening Day for the Reds? You have to go back to Pete Rose in 1963.
Pretty good company India is keeping, no? Well, he immediately set out to prove that he belonged in a group with those Reds legends, hitting safely twice on Opening Day, twice the next day, and collecting hits in seven of his first eight games. India leads all National League rookies in hits and runs batted in. It has been a storybook start to what we hope is a long, productive career.
Yes, these early season results are a small sample, and time will tell whether this trio is going to mature into the cornerstones of the next great Reds team. But all come with excellent pedigrees—they were first round draft picks for a reason, after all—and their continued development could be a particularly bright feather in the cap of former President of Baseball Operations Dick Williams, who engineered an overhaul of the Reds minor league system after the false starts early in the so-called “rebuild” under former GM Walt Jocketty.
(I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Alex Blandino, who also made Cincinnati’s Opening Day roster in a bench role. He was a first round pick of the Reds in 2014 out of Stanford University. And technically, Jesse Winker, the best hitter I’ve mentioned yet, was a supplemental first round pick, 49th overall, in 2012.)
There’s every reason to believe that the best is yet to come for the featured trio—let’s include Winker and call it a quartet—and they could be joined very soon by the next phase of Reds first-rounders, mostly pitchers. Let’s dub them Young Guns II. Lefty starter Nick Lodolo (seventh overall pick in 2019) is likely to make his big league debut at some point this season. And it’s not hard to imagine Hunter Greene (second overall pick in 2017) joining the club late in the season, bringing that 105-mph fastball to the Reds bullpen as they fight for a spot in the playoffs, a la Aroldis Chapman in 2010. He’s only 21 years old, but Greene is close to being ready for the big leagues. And he’s the real deal.
Back to the original Young Guns. Sure, the heart of the Reds lineup consists of veterans Joey Votto (37 years old), Mike Moustakas (32), Nick Castellanos (29), and Eugenio Suarez (29). But the kids are here and ready to make their mark. How India, Senzel, and Stephenson develop very well may be the most important thing to watch this season.
Finally, in the interest of stretching this metaphor even further, perhaps Young Guns 3 is in the works? I’m talking about Cincinnati’s 2020 first round pick, Austin Hendrick, a high school outfielder from Pennsylvania. This week, he blasted a 460-foot home run that shattered the windshield of a truck in the parking lot at the Reds instructional facility in Goodyear, Arizona. The kid is only 19 and already raising eyebrows.
I can’t wait to write the screenplay about the 2024 World Series champion Cincinnati Reds, featuring all these guys. But the 2021 direct-to-streaming version is looking pretty good at the moment. Stay tuned.