The Reds Are in the Middle of Some Big Decisions

As Scooter Gennett comes back to the lineup, the team faces a talent logjam in the middle of the infield.
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The Cincinnati Reds have a problem. Yes, they’re currently in last place in the NL Central for the fifth consecutive season—but that’s not the problem I’m here to discuss. I’m confident that Cincinnati will climb out of the cellar sooner rather than later.

Very soon the Reds are going to have a logjam in their infield. To be sure, having too many good players and too few positions for them is a good problem to have. But how the club resolves the situation will say a lot about the future of this never-ending rebuilding process.

 

To clarify, this logjam is confined to the middle infield, as Joey Votto and Eugenio Suarez will be occupying the corner spots for the foreseeable future. What should the Reds do with second base and shortstop? There are plenty of good answers, but here are the two primary questions.

Short-term: With the imminent return of Scooter Gennett to the Reds’ roster, what does that mean for the everyday lineup, and who is the odd man out? Long-term: With the outstanding play of Jose Iglesias so far this season, does he factor into Cincinnati’s future plans, and what does that mean for some other guys vying for spots?

By my count, there are no fewer than seven names in the mix for the Reds going forward. Let’s take a look at those candidates, and try to decipher what the Reds intend to do.

Scooter Gennett. Currently on the 60-day injured list, Gennett (age 29) is traveling with the team and expects to be ready for game action within the next two or three weeks. Scooter, of course, has been the team’s primary starter at second base for the last two years and has been highly productive at the plate during that time: .303/.351/.508 with 50 home runs and a 124 OPS+. The flip side of that coin is that Scooter is signed only through the end of the 2019 season and so will be a free agent in a few months.

Derek Dietrich. Dietrich (29) is essentially a Scooter clone, only with more gold chains. Both are hard-hitting second basemen who aren’t exactly Gold Glove candidates. To this point in the season, Dietrich has been the most productive Reds hitter, slashing .254/.364/.720 with 17 home runs and the same wRC+ as Mike Trout (172). He has certainly been the most entertaining Reds player, with antics (such as his beekeeper routine) that have endeared him to the local fans in short order.

Dietrich has played mostly second base but has also appeared at first and third and in left field. Signed in the off-season to a minor league deal, he’s eligible for arbitration after this season, so the Reds will have him for one more year (assuming they choose to offer arbitration).

Jose Iglesias. Also signed to a minor league deal before the 2019 season, no one could have predicted the impact Iglesias (29) would have. Installed in the starting lineup from day one (thanks to Gennett’s injury), Iglesias has been as smooth a defender as any Reds shortstop since Davey Concepcion, maybe? He’s that good.

What surprised many observers has been his facility with the bat. Iglesias is hitting .306/.337/.434, and he’s even hit four home runs, including a grand slam against Pittsburgh on Monday. His contract expires at the end of the 2019 season.

Jose Peraza. One year ago, Peraza (25) was the fifth-most productive shortstop in the National League in a breakout season that saw him hit .288/.326/.416 at the tender age of 24. It certainly looked like Peraza had turned the corner and was on the verge of realizing some pretty high expectations as a former top prospect.

This season has been an unmitigated disaster for Peraza, unfortunately. He was shifted off of shortstop and has played primarily second base this season, but his bat has disappeared: .197/.261/.322, five homers. He remains under team control for the next three seasons but has seen his playing time diminish, having started only 14 games in May.

Josh VanMeter. VanMeter (24) was on no one’s radar coming into the season, but he made tactical changes to his swing and the results were immediate: .336/.431/.736 with a AAA-leading 13 home runs at the time of his call-up to the big leagues. He isn’t a candidate for a starting infield spot on the 2019 Reds, but VanMeter has certainly inserted himself into the long-term conversation. He was the primary second baseman for Triple-A Louisville, but he has played every infield position along with left field during his time in the minor leagues.

Alex Blandino. Remember him? He’s on the injured list, recovering from surgery to repair a torn ACL and MCL, but Blandino (26) is in extended spring training and is expected to begin playing in minor league games soon. What I said here last year still applies: 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 and that he could be a serviceable starter on the infield, if not a star.

Nick Senzel. Admit it, you’ve forgotten about Senzel (24) as an infielder, haven’t you? Since the Reds stopped playing service time games with their top prospect and finally brought him to the big leagues, Senzel has been just what the doctor ordered; in fact, the offense is averaging about two more runs per game since he arrived. Senzel has also looked awfully solid in center field—good thing the Reds gave him a few games in Triple-A in April to learn the position, right?—and it’s not a crazy proposition to think that he could be the long-term answer out there.

So there are your candidates. How is this going to play out?

First things first: I expect Scooter to be the primary starting second baseman, at least initially. Of course, Dietrich’s emergence as a Cincinnati folk hero complicates things, but Scooter was a folk hero first. Then, if Scooter returns to form pretty quickly, there is some possibility that he could be a trade candidate at the July deadline—assuming the Reds can find a trade partner, which has been difficult to date.

What that means is that Dietrich and Peraza will see their share of playing time at second base decline. Dietrich likely returns to a super-sub role, still starting four or five times a week at different positions. What about Peraza, though? Coming into the season, he was presumed to be the everyday shortstop, and two months into the season he may be out of a job.

How this situation is resolved may also depend on Cincinnati’s long-term plans. Do they think Peraza is the long-term answer at short? Do they intend to offer a contract extension to Iglesias? Who do they expect to be the shortstop in 2020?

I would be surprised if Iglesias immediately went back to the bench role he was expected to fill before Scooter’s injury. He’s just been too good over the first 50 games of the season. But (a) he’s not likely to continue hitting this well, as he’s never before been this productive over a full season, and (b) Iglesias probably isn’t going to be a Red next season. So I think Peraza, who is still impossibly young and has a bright future ahead, will ultimately transition back into getting the majority of starts at the keystone.

If the Redlegs think Iglesias could handle the position for the next three years, then they may seek to sign him past this season. If that happens, Peraza is out of luck. But he could become an even more versatile super-sub, getting 450-500 at-bats a season and playing reasonably competent defense at five different positions, and that’s not a bad guy to have on your roster. Either way, Peraza or Iglesias is likely to be the starting shortstop for at least the next season or two, at the very least.

Long-term, second base is much less clear. If Scooter isn’t traded, it’s not readily apparent that he’s in the long-term plans for the club. For more than a year, Gennett has indicated his willingness to sign a contract extension and the Reds have responded with silence. And why would the Reds offer a lot of money in an extension? Just three short months ago, they signed Dietrich—who is the same age and has very similar career statistics to Gennett (but no four-homer game yet or All-Star team selection yet)—to a minor league deal. If you’re choosing between those two, Gennett might be the better option, but the difference isn’t vast.

Could Gennett or Dietrich handle the position adequately for the next three seasons? Sure, but that’s going to require contract talks. VanMeter’s track record isn’t nearly long enough for me to have any confidence in his ability to be an everyday big leaguer, but I’m intrigued. Peraza could handle it, certainly. Blandino would just be a stopgap, but I’d be OK with him covering the position for a year or two until a better option emerged.

Or, as with everything else in this organization, it will all revolve around Nick Senzel. The Reds have changed their plans for Senzel about a dozen times in the last couple of years, as he’s been the franchise’s future third baseman, shortstop, second baseman, and center fielder at various times.

I’ve kind of assumed for a while that he was the second baseman-in-waiting, but all we know now is that he’s the long-term answer somewhere. If he moves back to second base next season, then nothing else above matters—it’ll be Senzel and Peraza/Iglesias in the middle infield for the foreseeable future.

If Senzel remains in center field in 2020 and beyond, perhaps because Dietrich has been widely recognized as the best hitter in baseball, all bets are off. But the Reds have a lot of good options to fill those infield spots, so I can’t wait to see how it all plays out.

Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, Redleg Nation Radio. He wrote about the 1970s Reds as part of the magazine’s “10 Events That Shaped Cincinnati” package. 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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