2021 or Bust: Nick Senzel

Do we know less about him than we did when he was drafted?

There is a point in a prospect’s career where the hype fades and they can get caught in a purgatory of not playing against the elite competition to improve, but also not doing enough to justify giving them a spot to play more elite competition. Very few prospects have the talent to force a franchise to bring them up and give them a spot. So many factors come into play when deciding whether to bring up a prospect. The most important one is the timing. Is there an opening for them on the depth chart? Were there free agent signings? Did the team just draft someone with a similar skill set? Have they been healthy enough? Have they been brought up and sent down so much that your confidence is shot? Are they in an organization that pushes and challenges prospects? Or are they in an organization that sits on talent until it absolutely has to promote it?

Any one of these is reason enough to slow a prospect’s development or career. If a prospect experiences more than one of the questions above, he might not ever get a real chance despite having All Star talent. That’s how you get late bloomers like Max Muncy, Jacob deGrom, Mitch Haniger, Josh Donaldson, and so on.

 

2021 or Bust
Brendan Rodgers (1/12/21) Victor Robles (1/19/21) Brendan McKay (1/5/21) Andrew Benintendi (1/26/21)
Kyle Wright (2/2/21) Luis Urias (2/9/21) David Dahl Brent Honeywell
Royce Lewis Zack & Nick Burdi Austin Meadows Franklin Barreto
Nick Senzel (2/23/21) Readers’ Choice

It’s hard to believe that Nick Senzel will turn 26 this season. Currently, the feeling about his time as a professional is one of wasted talent due to injuries and indecision by his employers. Even as you read this, we do not know if Senzel has a starting job. He’s probably the starting center fielder, but the Reds have options — many of which they signed after bringing Senzel up. Of course, there is an odd list of injuries, which could explain this feeling of stunted growth, but for me, the injury list exacerbates the Reds’ miscalculations when it comes to Senzel. Whether it’s because of changing positions, employing too many outfielders, or wanting to save money, it is my opinion that Cincinnati has at the very least suppressed his talent in 2018, 2019 and 2020 by not giving him as much time on an MLB field as they could while he was healthy, and at most have hindered his potential from here on out.

 

History

 

Undrafted out of high school, Senzel committed to the University of Georgia on a scholarship before being released because the Bulldogs fired their coach. He walked onto Tennessee instead, where he terrorized SEC pitching from the start. Senzel’s power progressed naturally through college to the point where he was viewed as a possible 20-25 homer threat at the major league level. If you combine that slightly above-average power with a potential to hit .300, to get on base at an advanced clip, and to steal 20 bases and it’s no wonder he was drafted second overall in 2016.

Despite being drafted No. 2, Senzel was viewed by many to be a “safe” pick. That label has followed him through his career, perhaps to his detriment. The term safe implies that he has a low ceiling, which simply isn’t true. This was a prospect with 20/20 potential, a .300 average and is athletic enough to play just about any infield or outfield position. That is a four- or five-WAR guy.

Unlike many players in this series, Senzel’s hype reached a fever pitch long before his debut. Entering the 2019 season, the expectation was that he could win a roster spot outright in spring. After all, he rocketed through the minors with the following numbers:

 

Senzel 2017-2018

 

Hype

 

In just over a 162-game span, Senzel put up a near .320 average with 20 homers and 22 stolen bases — all with very good walk and strikeout rates. Which begs the question: why wasn’t he called up in 2018? A ligament injury in his hand prematurely ended his season. At this point, however, Senzel had nothing to prove at the plate. He was also a capable 3B, but was asked to learn centerfield because Eugenio Suarez had a breakout year.

The hype reached its apex in the spring of 2019 when Senzel held his own against major league pitching, hitting .308 in 12 Cactus League games. The concerns that the Reds were going to wait until May to promote him and avoid Super Two status started to permeate. Of course, those concerns didn’t become an issue, as a bout with vertigo sidelined him for the end of spring and the beginning of the 2019 season. It is worth noting that this was Senzel’s second time experiencing vertigo because fluke injuries or conditions have been commonplace.

 

What Went Wrong

 

Deciding what went wrong right now is a little premature. There are too many factors, and none of them are really baseball-related. I think of Senzel’s career as a comedy of errors on the Reds’ part. Why did he have to learn a completely new position? Why couldn’t Senzel simply play 2B in 2019? That is a really good question. Second base is a position he has played in the minors, along with third base and shortstop. He’d spend his entire minor leagues in the infield. The Reds had an All-Star at second in Scooter Gennett, but he started the 2019 season on the IL and simply wasn’t the same afterward. Senzel could have stepped in there, having a history at the position. Also, the Reds were looking for a shortstop in both 2019 and 2020, starting Jose Iglesias, who they brought in on a minor league contract in 2019, and offensively anemic Freddy Galvis in 2020. Say what you want about Senzel potentially not having the range to play short, but it was — and still is — a deficiency in Cincinnati.

It’s true, Senzel has been injured for about a month every year in 2018, 2019, and 2020. Only one of those, however, was a significant injury. His torn labrum at the end of 2019 could have affected his power performance in 2020. Unfortunately, the Reds’ reluctance to give him a starting spot early on has exacerbated every absence. For example, despite dominating every level in the minors, the Reds insisted on keeping him in Triple-A in 2018 after he’d shown he had nothing left to prove. Then a freak accident, a torn ligament in his finger, ended his 2018 season before he could make his debut. The following spring training, Senzel performed well enough at center field to earn the starting spot, but the Reds elected to send him down in favor of Scott Schebler — a decision that was meant to manipulate his service time and gain them another full year of control before bringing him up. Senzel injured his ankle while in Triple-A a week later, halting any momentum he had from spring and stalling his debut again. Those two small injuries combined with the Reds’ decisions not to promote him essentially robbed Senzel of a full calendar year as a major leaguer. He’s played just 127 games in two seasons, despite being major-league-ready for three.

Another part of what has gone wrong with Senzel is a misconception of his rookie performance. Had he not faced an injury at the end of 2019, he would have likely finished the season posting 15 homers and 20 stolen bases with a .750-ish OPS — all while learning a new position. Under most circumstances, that would be considered a moderate success for a rookie. Even still, after having success in the outfield, they were sh0pping Senzel after just one season there, due to signing Mike Moustakas at 2B, and outfielders Shogo Akiyama and Nick Castellanos. These were all choices the Reds made instead of investing in a 24-year-old former first-round pick with just one year of service time.

All the while, Senzel has posted nearly league average exit velocities, launch angles, K%, BB%, Hard Hit %, xwOBA in his young career, and most of those marks improved from 2019 to a short 2020 stint. Approach-wise, his overall contact rate is above average (81%), as is his SwStr % (10.8). He doesn’t swing at pitches out of the strike zone, and he isn’t susceptible to any specific pitch. He pulled the ball more in a short stint in 2020 but overall he uses the whole field.

Bottom line: Senzel’s performance is pretty much neutral at this point. He hasn’t wowed, but there also isn’t an indication that he’s overly struggling either. So in terms of what has gone wrong, it’s all circumstantial.

 

Why 2021?

 

Health and playing time. That is what Senzel needs. That is what he’s always needed.

The vertigo is a factor. I mentioned it before, but he’s had multiple issues with the disorienting disease. It’s just another factor keeping him away from the diamond. Combined with the other small injuries and it becomes more challenging to get the playing time needed to fulfill his talent.

I’ll admit, if Senzel was tearing the cover off the ball, none of this would matter. The fact that he was merely a rookie playing like a rookie is one of the factors contributing to the lack of confidence from his franchise. But that in itself is strange. Most organizations will do as much as they can to see if a first-round pick will pan out, especially one who was hailed as a franchise cornerstone like Senzel. Since the Reds have already considered trading him despite proving he can play both multiple infield positions and in the outfield is concerning. Their lack of confidence in him could lead to a backup role which he might not recover from until he winds up with another org that values the talent he once had and might still have.

2021 is also Senzel’s last season before arbitration. That is when organizations start to make hard decisions. Given his so-so performance, he won’t get much of a raise, and the Reds could give him another chance, but you also never know what the goals of their management are from one season to the next. That is partially why they continued to sign outfielders despite moving Senzel there.

 

Verdict

 

I’m not out on him. The fact that he is still on the Reds concerns me though. It seems like at times they’d rather have anybody than him. Signing players who play his position and giving others who are not as talented other positions he could play can’t help his confidence either. Senzel’s performance is not discouraging. It’s not really encouraging either. Right now all we know is that as a rookie he was fine, then he injured his shoulder, needed surgery, and did not have much power. All of these things are expected. When you put them together though, and add in a shortened season due to COVID, and you wonder if he’ll ever get it together.

If it doesn’t happen in 2021, for whatever reason, I’ll agree with you.

If I were in a dynasty, I’d try to trade buy low and hope he pops. If I’m in a re-draft league, I’d try to snag him late and hope for a breakout.

Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)

Travis Sherer

All Seattle Mariners fans have learned the future is all we have because the present is always too painful. I am Western Washington University alum, a local sportswriter, an official NCAA basketball statistician, a freelance radio and television production statistician, and a minor league standup comedian. Follow me @ShererTravis on Twitter.

Account / Login
>