CINCINNATI -- When the Reds were last together in Goodyear, Ariz., in mid-March, there were some roster battles percolating and decisions to be made. Then everything stopped as the rest of Spring Training was canceled and baseball was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
About 3 1/2 months later, it’s as though some of those issues have been frozen in time. When workouts resume on Friday, it will be the first chance for the players, manager David Bell, the coaches and the front office to be together again. Evaluations of fitness will dominate the early days before the team gets down to the business of choosing the active roster.
Here are some refreshed Reds storylines as the club prepares for the abbreviated regular season.
1. Who fits in the outfield puzzle?
In some ways, this situation has become easier for Bell and the front office to solve. Rosters were expanded to 30 players for Opening Day. Two weeks later, those rosters will be trimmed to 28, and to 26 two weeks after that. The designated hitter rule is in effect for the National League, but that doesn’t entirely help the numbers issue.
Cincinnati appears to have five locks for the outfield (Shogo Akiyama, Nick Senzel, Nick Castellanos, Jesse Winker, Phillip Ervin) and four others (Aristides Aquino, Scott Schebler, Travis Jankowski, Rule 5 Draft selection Mark Payton) competing for spots.
Castellanos and Winker fit the profile at DH, but any position player could rotate through the spot. With the new rule that states extra innings begin with a runner on second base, the speedy Jankowski could be an asset now that he is recovered from the March hamstring injury that set him back. Schebler is out of Minor League options, while Aquino has options remaining. As a Rule 5 Draft player, Payton must stay on the active roster all season or be offered back to the A’s, his former organization.
“The 30-man roster, if you’re a niche player, if you’re just a hitter good against one side, or you’re a pitcher that can give you some length, there are a lot of different variations you can have just to keep an extra guy on your roster,” general manager Nick Krall said. “To be able to have that flexibility is going to play into what we do.”
2. Bullpen decisions more complex, critical
The first five spots of what was to be an eight-man bullpen were likely set, with closer Raisel Iglesias, left-hander Amir Garrett, and right-handers Michael Lorenzen, Pedro Strop and Robert Stephenson. The expanded roster allows for more relievers, but who?
Because starting pitchers aren’t expected to be fully stretched out by Opening Day, their outings will be briefer. That will make middle relief critical to bridge the game to the back end. Depending on how Bell and pitching coach Derek Johnson handle the rotation, some spots could go to starter-depth pitchers Tyler Mahle, Lucas Sims and Sal Romano. The club could also give an opportunity to lefty Nick Lodolo. Ranked the No. 1 prospect in the organization by MLB Pipeline, Lodolo is a future starter but could be useful in long relief.
Non-roster invite Nate Jones had a strong spring, while prospect Joel Kuhnel worked 5 2/3 scoreless innings in five appearances. Cody Reed, who is also out of options, would be a good left-handed choice. Matt Bowman, Justin Shafer and non-roster invite Tyler Thornburg are also in the mix.
3. Injury issues
Just as play was halted, third baseman Eugenio Suárez was about to debut as the DH. It was the latest progress in his return from right shoulder surgery following a pool accident at home in January. Senzel, who underwent surgery on his right shoulder in September, was four games into his return -- all as the DH -- as he continued his throwing program.
Suárez and Senzel are both fully recovered and expected to be ready without limitations. But because of an accelerated camp after a long layoff and a 60-game season sprint awaiting, injuries will be a concern for the entire roster. Of course, an overriding concern above all is players developing COVID-19 symptoms that force them to exit.
4. How do prospects figure into the equation?
Four of the top five Reds prospects -- and a few others in the Top 30 -- are in the 57-man player pool. President of baseball operations Dick Williams expects the team to carry prospects, with the mindset of helping them this season rather than just advancing their development. Lodolo is already in the pitching mix. Catcher Tyler Stephenson (No. 3) could step in if something happens to Tucker Barnhart or Curt Casali. José Garcia (No. 5), who impressed big time at Spring Training, has a big league-ready glove, but he has never played above Class A Advanced. Alfredo Rodriguez (No. 17) also has a big league-ready glove but is a light hitter.