As the 2017 season enters its final month (for the Reds, at least), plenty of questions still remain heading into 2018. At the top of the list is, undoubtedly, the starting rotation. But the team has some good problems, too, namely an abundance of outfielders and infielders.
Even with Zack Cozart set to become a free agent, the Reds have several options to replace him. If Jose Peraza continues his second-half improvements at the plate, he could slide over to shortstop next year. While third baseman Nick Senzel likely won’t start 2018 in Cincinnati due to service time and arbitration concerns, he’ll certainly be called up at some point next summer. As a result, Eugenio Suarez could move back to shortstop, where he recently appeared in a game and has been taking ground balls.
At second base, the Reds have no shortage of options either. Scooter Gennett is having a career year and making a strong case to be the starting second baseman next season. Peraza is still an option, as well, if his defense keeps him from playing shortstop in the long run. And although Dilson Herrera’s Reds career has been slowed due to a nagging shoulder injury (for which he recently underwent surgery), he figures to be back in the mix at second base next year.
In the outfield, the logjam is already presenting itself. Adam Duvall, Billy Hamilton, and Scott Schebler began 2017 as the starters. Duvall’s offense and Hamilton’s defense figure to keep both players in the lineup on a daily basis, while Schebler proved himself to be a capable everyday player before a shoulder injury led to a July slump. Jesse Winker — the organization’s top big-league ready hitting prospect other than Senzel — has a 136 wRC+ in 83 plate appearances and deserves a spot in the starting lineup, too.
But there are two players, one infielder and one outfielder, that often seem to be afterthoughts in the Reds’ future plans.
In the outfield, we’ve recently gotten a look at former first-round pick Phillip Ervin, though he was a forgotten prospect for many before he burst back onto the scene in Wrigley Field last week. Another ex-first-rounder, Alex Blandino, should compete for playing time next year at second base, shortstop, and third base.
Neither player has produced gaudy numbers in the minor leagues, but both are more than deserving of a chance in the big leagues next year and beyond.
Ervin was the 27th overall pick out of Samford in 2013. With his speed-power combo, he looked to have big-time potential and was rated the Reds’ No. 3 prospect by Baseball America heading into the 2014 season. But his subpar hit tool quickly saw him drop in stock, as he batted just .237 in his first full professional season. His average has more or less hovered in that range since then, as he’s a .251 hitter for his minor-league career.
Here’s what MLB Pipeline has to say about Ervin’s struggles to hit for a high average:
“Ervin has never hit for a high average in pro ball, largely because he doesn’t cover the outer third of the plate particularly well. He tries to generate power too much and pulls off the ball instead of just letting his natural bat speed and strength work for him. If he can make that adjustment and start driving pitches out there to right-center, he’ll be a much better all-around hitter.”
A quick glance at his batting average has been enough for many people to write him off as a disappointment. A deeper dive into the numbers shows a far more productive player, though. Former MLB scout Bernie Pleskoff praised Ervin’s bat speed, which has helped him hit 50 career home runs in the minor leagues and two in only 10 MLB plate appearances. His foot speed is also impressive, as he’s swiped 137 bags in five seasons, stealing 30 or more bases in each season from 2014–16 and 23 in 99 games in Louisville this year.
More than anything, Ervin’s on-base skills make him a productive player in spite of the low batting average. His career on-base percentage (.343) sits nearly 100 points higher than his average thanks to a 10.7 percent walk rate, which peaked at 12.9 percent in 2016. The numbers dipped a bit in Triple-A as he adjusted to a new level of pitching this season, but he still holds a strong .328 OBP and 9.1 BB%.
Defensively, he can also play all three outfield spots, giving him the versatility that Duvall and Winker lack. Ervin has logged at least 500 innings at each spot, though left field is considered his best position.
While the stats don’t scream superstar, plus speed, solid power, and defensive versatility are ingredients to a useful player. At worst, Ervin should be a fourth outfielder in the coming years and a dependable bat in the lineup when called upon. At 25 years old, he’s certainly ready to stick around in the majors and make the outfield conversation even more interesting, though he may need a trade or an injury to open up any sort of consistent playing time.
Blandino isn’t quite as toolsy as Ervin, but he brings a solid bat, plate discipline, and versatility around the infield. A supplemental first-round draft choice out of Stanford in 2014, he looked to be on the fast track to the major leagues early on in his career. He reached Double-A in 2015, his first full professional season, by hitting .289/.369/.457 through his 625 professional plate appearances. Subsequently, Baseball America ranked him the Reds’ No. 6 prospect after the season.
He started 2016 playing for Team Nicaragua in the World Baseball Classic qualifier, where he hurt his hamstring. The injury slowed him down for most of the season, as he hit a disappointing .232/.333/.337 in Pensacola. The OBP was respectable, but the dip in slugging percentage was a potential cause for worry. With his legs back under him, however, Blandino finally got over the hump of Double-A this year and is currently hitting well in Triple-A (.270/.390/.453), with an overall 2017 slash line of .264/.381/.458. That includes a whopping 32 doubles and 11 home runs, both personal bests.
The bounce-back season has Blandino right back in the Reds’ middle infield mix. As Doug Gray wrote on Monday, he may be a candidate for a September call-up; the numbers indicate he’s certainly ready for that.
Blandino won’t be confused for a power hitter (37 career home runs), but does possess some doubles pop from the right side of the plate, accumulating 95 career two-baggers. Like Ervin, Blandino’s patience gives him a chance to be a productive big leaguer. The 24-year-old has a career .360 OBP, and his walk rate has been above 10 percent in all four of his professional seasons. As he’s seen better pitching, Blandino has risen to the level of his competition, at least in regards to his plate discipline, as his BB% has increased in each of the past two years and currently sits at a Suarez-like 13.5 percent in 2017.
Moreover, he can play three defensive positions. Blandino was drafted as a shortstop, though he has moved away from the position a bit in the last two years, spending most of his time at second and third base. MLB Pipeline rates him as above-average with the glove at second base:
“A shortstop at Stanford, he still sees some time there, but he saw more at second, where he’s an above-average defender while also mixing in some good glovework at third.”
Given the uncertainty in the middle infield, Blandino seems to have a better shot at eventually grabbing a starting spot in the big leagues than Ervin. Cozart will likely not return to the Reds next season, and Peraza is far from a proven big leaguer at this point. Herrera, meanwhile, may have fallen behind Blandino in the pecking order due to injuries, though he’ll have the advantage of being out of options in 2018, meaning he has to stay in Cincinnati or be exposed to waivers.
Gennett seemingly has a stronghold on the starting second base job for now, but will he be able to replicate his out-of-nowhere breakout season? Or will the Reds try to maximize his all-time-high value and trade him in the offseason? The answers to those questions could ultimately open up the door for Blandino.
While their prospect status has taken a hit since the time they were selected in the first round, Ervin and Blandino have continued to produce impressive numbers in the minor leagues. They’re often not the first players considered in the crowded infield and outfield picture for the Reds, but each has proven they deserve a shot in the major leagues. At the very least, they both have the pedigree to be valuable, versatile players off the bench, something every winning team needs.
*Header images courtesy of the Cincinnati Enquirer.