Their would-be leadoff man is nearing a return, and the roster will have to evolve to accommodate him.
The last three days of baseball saw Chris Taylor of the Los Angeles Dodgers put plenty of talent on display. He went 4 for 10 in total, walked twice, bonked a triple, scored thrice, and drove in a run in his time against the Cincinnati Reds, wrapping a three-game series that saw him hit 3rd, 5th, and 6th in his trio of outings.
It was also a series that saw him get starts as both the team’s CF and at 2B. In 25 games so far this year, Taylor has also gotten starts in LF, RF, and at SS, adding to the 4 games he started at 3B as recently as 2019. And while that kind of rotation all over the baseball field could often describe the life of a baseball nomad or utility man, Taylor’s tale is quite the opposite – it’s precisely because he can play absolutely everywhere that he’s almost always in the lineup, a key cog of the engine specifically because he’s not bolted to any one spot.
Yesterday’s series finale between the Dodgers and Reds might’ve given a glimpse at a similar plan, albeit this time on Cincinnati’s roster. While the Reds bullpen was putting what had been a tight game completely out of reach, Nick Senzel slid in from CF to 2B, the second time in the last week the former college and minor league infielder has put on a stubbier glove. Back on April 17th, Senzel made a similar late-inning move, too, getting reps at his once-familiar 3B in a Reds victory over Cleveland.
It’s the latest in the Reds saga of trying to find ways to get the most out of their former 2nd overall draftee, the top rated position prospect to come through the system in over a decade. But much like his move to CF to finally crack the big leagues in 2019 was born out of necessity given the crowded roster at the time, a move to Chris Taylor-lite could well be the perfect move that unlocks what’s appearing to be an increasingly crowded, disjointed roster.
In Jesse Winker and Nick Castellanos, the Reds have formidable, everyday corner outfielders. In Tyler Naquin, they’ve got another lightning-bolt option for all spots in the outfield, a former 1st round pick who appears as healthy as he’s been in years. And in about one more week, they’ll also welcome back Shogo Akiyama from the injured list with a presumably healed hamstring, a player whose on-base ability down the stretch in 2020 helped fuel the team’s surge into the expanded playoffs.
Last year, of course, the National League had the Designated Hitter, a spot that is no longer around in 2021. But with that transition comes something of the anti-DH for NL managers to work with, as the ability to stay in the game when double-switches become paramount is, in effect, a way to keep a key bat in the lineup at all times, too. That requires peak versatility, though, and it would appear Nick Senzel is getting the opportunity to show he can be that guy for the Reds this season.
Considering the Reds are committed to carrying a 9th bullpen arm for the time being, the focus on positional versatility becomes even that much greater, too, with a short bench being part of the design.
If you squint to look beyond that, and beyond the rosiness that was the magical first week of the season, a slightly less fortunate outcome could be under consideration. Despite his absolutely brilliant start to the season, Jonathan India has slumped mightily of late, going just 7 for his last 58 over the last 15 games. Given that he’s still only logged 34 minor league games above A+ ball in his career, perhaps he ends up back in the minors for some seasoning when the roster crunch inevitably hits, a scenario that would open up significantly more time in the infield, too.
Obviously, Senzel is going to need some more days like yesterday to continue to make this a pressing issue. His 4-hit day from the leadoff spot was a breath of fresh air for him after a recent slump of his own, and his ability to simply stay on the field in the last two seasons has been a bugaboo for him, too. Still, he’s clearly the likely best athlete on this roster at the moment and despite his limited use there in the big leagues owns the most versatile defensive skillset, and that’s something that the Reds surely know they’d be best to leverage in the coming weeks to get anything close to the most out of their existing roster.
Hopefully, that’s a Taylor-like expanse of what he can show us on a daily basis. Or like Jeff McNeil, or Ben Zobrist of yore, or Tommy Edman, or Kris Bryant, or the ever-expanding list of NL players who continue to help fill this role as the number of pitching changes – and double-switches – increase rapidly across the game. Because if the Reds don’t let Senzel get that chance, I’m not sure there’s truly another option on this existing roster who can.
Doing so would open up more time in the outfield, time that Shogo can hopefully slide back into with form similar to his brilliant finish to last season. And if that happens with the thump that’s developed with the other outfield options on the Reds roster right now, this dynamic offense might be about to hit an even higher gear.