Before the 1961 season started, Reds General Manager Bill DeWitt made a trade and acquired a third baseman by the name of Gene Freese. He acquired Freese from the Chicago White Sox for Cal McLish and Juan Pizzaro.
This one was a steal. DeWitt’s trade was a big part in the Reds success that year. Freese had a solid season, playing in 152 games, batting .277, hitting 26 homers and driving home 87 runs and the Reds won the National League pennant.
But in many ways, that trade symbolizes a 65-year old problem with the Cincinnati Reds. During that time span, the Reds have never had a long term solution to a third base problem that has consistently plagued them.
The success of the Reds from 1961-1990 is well documented; three World Series championships, six National League pennants, six NL West titles and baseball’s best record in 1981. Since 1990, well, it’s not so hot. Still, throughout that era, the third base problem has persisted. It was fixed for two or three years, then it cropped up again.
Let’s start with Freese. After his fine 1961 season, he was injured in 1962, playing in just 18 games and gone by 1964. Deron Johnson had a fabulous 1965 season at third base (.287 with 32 home runs and a league-leading 130 RBI’s) and was gone by 1968. Tony Perez held the job and had a Hall of Fame bat but fell short defensively. He was moved to first base when Lee May was traded after the 1971 season.
That trade brought us Denis Menke for a couple of mediocre seasons. Dan Driessen followed him but was never the same at third base defensively after he blew a play in Game 5 of the 1973 playoffs against the Mets. Remember John Vukovich, nicknamed “balsa”? So frustrated was Sparky Anderson with Vuckovich’s bat, he pinch hit for him in the second inning of a game at Los Angeles with the bases loaded (Driessen popped up as a pinch hitter). Finally, Sparky pulled the trigger and moved Pete Rose to third base. But Rose was a stop gap solution for the long term problem. He filled the third base position and got George Foster’s bat in the lineup. Four years later, Rose left via free agency.
Ray Knight was pretty solid for three seasons before he was traded to the Mets. Then came the failed Johnny Bench experiment at third.
Do you see a pattern developing?
Young phenom Nick Esasky had a good third baseman’s name but never worked out. Buddy Bell was a great third basemen during the prime of his career. Unfortunately, he came to the Reds near the end of his career. Chris Sabo electrified Reds fans in his rookie season and was the third baseman for the 1990 champs. He played third for six years in Cincinnati, a longevity standard seldom seen by Reds fans.
The list seems endless. Aaron Boone played a good third base for a couple of years. Edwin Encarnarcion was a third baseman for four years and is one that got away from the Reds by the trade that brought in Scott Rolen. The ex-Cardinal held third base down for a couple of seasons. So did Todd Frazier.
The Reds trade to fix this a few times, in their defense. Bob Howsam offered Tony Perez to Kansas City for George Brett and to the Yankees for Greg Nettles. He was turned down both times– which is how we eventually wound up with Woody Fryman.
But now, there seems to be some hope. His name is Nick Senzel.
I’m not sure what fancy footwork the Reds brain trust has in mind for Senzel, who the Reds drafted #1 earlier this summer. They may move him to another position. He has good speed and a great bat. He’s doing very well at Dayton right now (Class A) and many project Senzel making it to Cincinnati by 2018—if not sooner.
But if left alone to refine his craft, make the adjustment to the grind of minor league baseball and polish up his defense at third base, Nick Senzel has the potential to be the first long term solution at third base for the Reds in our lifetime.
Think about that.
I’m not a scout nor an expert. I only watched this kid play two games recently in Davenport. He knocked in five runs those two games (three-run homer, bases loaded walk and a sacrifice fly). He looked patient at the plate. He looked and acted like a pro. And brother, he’s got a quick bat.
Before the first game, I was on the field watching him take batting practice. I wasn’t the only one.
His teammates were watching, too.