TJ Friedl Is the Reds’ Center of Attention So Far

In a season where wins will be hard to come by, fans focus on players who are interesting and fun to root for.
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Through eight games of the 2023 season, TJ Friedl has been one of the most entertaining and productive players on the Reds roster. Cincinnati’s athletic center fielder is hitting .345/.387/.655 with a couple of homers to go along with a double and a triple. His goal at the plate this year is to create “chaos,” he said this week.

Part of that chaos is his emphasis on bunting. Friedl had two bunt hits on Saturday, giving him five such hits already this season. (The Reds had just eight bunt hits all of last season, and Friedl was responsible for five of them.) Now, I’m firmly in the “Never Bunt, Hit Dingers” camp, but I’m intrigued with what Friedl is trying to do.

As reported by MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon, Friedl first began perfecting the bunt while in college, and when the Reds brought in former big leaguer Brett Butler—one of the best bunters in baseball history—Friedl was an eager student. He now says his goal is to get five bunt hits a month, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but that’s 30 extra hits per season. It’s not nothing, as they say.

I’ve long been a critic of bunting as a strategy because I think that it rarely makes sense to trade an out—you get only 27 of them in a game, so they’re precious—for an extra base. But if Friedl is using it as a weapon? “To me, it’s never really a sacrifice,” he said. “I’m always trying to bunt for a hit.”

Who knows if he can actually add the bunt base hit to his repertoire, or if big league defenses will adjust to it. But the reason I’m intrigued is this: Friedl also has power! He had eight homers in 225 at-bats last year and is always a threat to take one deep.

Am I just overreacting to a small sample size? Well, yeah, maybe. On the other hand, Friedl has been pretty good since he returned to the Reds last August after a couple of months at Triple-A Louisville. Since his return on August 16 of last year, he has 190 plate appearances and posted a slash line of .280/.360/.555 with 10 home runs All eight of his homers last year came in the 43 games he played after he came back from the minors.

And sure, that’s still a small sample size. But Steve Mancuso over at Reds Content Plus noticed that Friedl changed his batting stance during that time in the minors, which seemed to produce immediate and dramatic improvement in his performance. On the other hand, Mancuso correctly cautions against drawing too many conclusions on such a small data set:

“It would be wonderful if the simple narrative—that Friedl changed his stance last summer and his new one has generated a long-lasting improvement in his hit and power skills—was right. The truth is, the data is inconsistent, confusing and still way too limited to assert that claim with any confidence.”

At least Friedl has been a lot of fun so far, and not just because he’s draping viking robes over the shoulders of his teammates. Is he the answer to the Reds gaping hole in center field? The answer to that is unclear, but one thing we can say with certainty is that he’s always been underestimated. As a high-schooler, college scholarship offers weren’t forthcoming, so he walked on at Nevada. He got only 37 at-bats as a freshman and hit .216. He was buried so deep on the depth chart that he redshirted his sophomore year. It’s safe to say that no one other than Friedl himself thought he would one day play in the big leagues.

He had a breakout season as a junior but went unclaimed in the 2016 MLB draft. Friedl’s draft story has always made me want to root for the guy. The reason he wasn’t drafted is that no one—scouts, teams, even Friedl himself—realized that he was even eligible for the draft. Once everyone realized he was eligible, the draft was over and the Reds swooped in to sign him to a free agent contract.

And here he is, fighting for a place on the Reds for the next few seasons at a position that’s about to get competitive. No one has played more games in Cincinnati’s center field than Nick Senzel over the last four seasons. Reports say that he could return to the big leagues as soon as this week. But Senzel, who was drafted No. 2 overall the same year that Friedl went undrafted, has played as much third base in Louisville as he’s played center field, and he also played some second base this spring. There is no guarantee that Senzel will be handed the center field job when he returns, given that he’s struggled to hit consistently in the big leagues. His future might be as a super sub, playing all over the diamond when healthy.

Could the Reds platoon the right-handed hitting Senzel and the lefty Friedl? It’s an interesting possibility. Senzel’s platoon splits show that he’s a somewhat better hitter against lefties, while Friedl only has 38 plate appearances against lefties in his career. It’s an option, anyway.

A couple of weeks ago, I would have said that Will Benson was a real competitor for the center field job. Benson is 6-foot-5, has big-time power and elite speed, and is a former first-round pick of the Cleveland Guardians. He has only played left field and right field so far, but impressed in center field during spring training. A brutal .067/.125/.067 start to the season, with nine strikeouts in 16 plate appearances, makes it more likely that he’ll be sent to Triple-A when Senzel is ready.

And that brings us to Matt McLain. Like Senzel, McLain is a first round pick, drafted in 2021 out of UCLA, so he hasn’t been underestimated like Friedl. He’s often mentioned as one of the big shortstop prospects in Cincinnati’s minor league system. But what many don’t realize is that McLain played center field at UCLA nearly as much as he played shortstop. Could he be an option?

Joey Votto is certainly impressed with the 23-year-old, making a point to praise McLain this week after seeing him up close in Louisville. Votto particularly pointed out his athleticism, which might make you think that he could stick at shortstop. And with Jose Barrero continuing to struggle at the plate in Cincinnati, perhaps that will be his ultimate destination. And if that happens, maybe super-prospect Elly De La Cruz will need to learn to play center field.

Either way, McLain or De La Cruz appear to be the long-term solution at the position, though the Reds haven’t yet moved their prized prospects away from the middle infield.

In the meantime, Friedl may only be the short-term solution for the Reds, but you won’t hear me complain. He exemplifies the fun, all-out hustling nature of this Cincinnati lineup. If the Reds aren’t going to be good—and the 2023 Reds are almost certainly not going to be particularly good—all I ask is for players that are interesting and fun to root for. Friedl definitely fits that bill.

Chad Dotson helms Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, The Riverfront. His newsletter about Cincinnati sports can be found at chaddotson.com. He’s @dotsonc on Twitter.

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