Estragon: You can start from anything.
Vladimir: Yes, but you have to decide.

There’s the rub, Horatio. You have to decide. The Reds’ front office finally decided to bring their most heralded prospect to The Show. For those who thought it should have been sooner, who viewed Nick Senzel’s purgatory in the minors as the utmost example of theater of the absurd, who spat the words “service time” as if they were cottage cheese in their morning coffee, you could forgive had they nicknamed him “Gadot,” never to appear on that stage defined by chalk lines, third decks and endless banks of lights.

But all that is past as the prologue of Nicholas Peter Senzel’s major league career has finally begun.

It was a balmy 80 degrees, one hour before game time at beautiful Coca-Cola Park, a delightful anomaly, given that I had yet to flip my desk calendar over to May. But, here I was, a full 90 minutes west of New York City, in the Piano Man’s “Pennsylvania we never found,” to catch a glimpse of wonderkid Nick Senzel as he and his Louisville mates prepared to turn the Lehigh Valley IronPigs into bacon bits. Hog references abound. A wall of names on the third base side of the park displays names of minor league players that have made it to The Show in Philadelphia with the title “Pigs to the Bigs.”

There to catch my first glimpse of Senzel’s offensive prowess, I was surprised at how athletic he looked at second base, smooth and agile, making one remarkable play, in particular. At the plate he was quiet, and being April, the temperature had dropped 25 degrees by the 6th inning. Deciding to get a jump on the drive home, I left in the 8th. Then, this happened:

Never one to leave a ballpark early, I had violated my own time-honored tenet. Barely a year later, as Jesse Winker lifted a 9th inning ball into the centerfield seats of Citi Field to give the Reds the lead, I rose from my seat behind the Reds dugout—a cold, damp night in its own right, not unlike that evening near Allentown—and remembered the scolding young Senzel had given me as I drove through the New Jersey night, homeward.

.312 / .387 / .509

This is Nick Senzel’s minor league history in one Instagramic snapshot. The hours leading up to—and after—his arrival have led to countless comparisons to Jay Bruce’s debut. But there was a larger moment here if one were so inclined to see it. For Nick Senzel represents a foundational footprint of the rebuild, the first high pick to arrive vis-à-vis the draft since disastrous seasons began guaranteeing high draft picks. Yes, this team has been forged in part by shrewd acquisitions (Castillo, Suarez, DeSclafani) and mining beyond the first round of the draft (Winker (#49), Garrett (#685), Mahle (#225)). But the payoff for all the losing is hitting on those high first round draft picks. They are the difference-makers who strengthen and lengthen the core.

These picks become even more important when you consider that trading for prospects has perils of its own. As Zach Kram over at The Ringer noted, there’s some evidence that even with the most liberal eye, non-traded prospects fare better than traded ones:

Through their first six MLB seasons, the non-traded prospects accrued an average of 27 percent more WAR than their traded counterparts, with sizable advantages for both pitchers (who saw a 25 percent gap) and position players (31 percent). It’s a statistically significant difference, too, which suggests that the discrepancy stems from a real effect and not mere chance.

So, while trading aging players for prospects and staying young is crucial to Reds’ October sustainability, it is those home grown top prospects that likely will provide the cornerstones of teams that fans will remember long after their stat lines fade on the pages of Baseball Reference.

In 2015, Jeff Sullivan wrote at Fangraphs about the forgotten prospects, those that never appeared in the Baseball America Top 100, but nevertheless managed to show themselves good players. Sullivan defined a “good” player as one who amassed at least 3 WAR in a given season. Jeff looked at three seasons, 2012-2014. And what he discovered was that over that period of time, a full third of “good” players were so-called “poor prospects,” players that resided outside the top 100.

It’s comforting to remember that those players exist, that these first-round picks do not purpose the future’s entire burden. But as we ponder Joey Votto’s inevitable retreat from the ranks of the elite in the coming years, this is the likely place where the hammers will be found to close the rivets up and armor the everyday eight for seasons to come.

The Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros have set the bar for building a strong core to build around. The success of each organization through the draft has been instructive, not only for what each has achieved, but for how difficult it is hit on even the highest of picks.

1st Round Selections—Chicago Cubs

Draft Year Pick # Age WAR
Javier Báez 2011 9 26 14.4
Albert Almora, Jr. 2012 6 25 3.7
Kris Bryant 2013 2 27 22.9
Kyle Schwarber 2014 4 26 2.6
Ian Happ 2015 9 24 2.4

 

1st Round Selections—Houston Astros

Draft Year Pick # Age WAR
George Springer 2011 11 29 20.8
Carlos Correa 2012 1 24 19.6
Mark Appel 2013 1
Brady Aiken 2014 1
Alex Bregman 2015 2 25 14.7

In the five years the Cubs were awarded a high pick, they’ve hit on two players, Báez and Bryant. Despite the considerable hype, Schwarber has thus far produced but 2.6 WAR and Happ is back in the minors.

For their part, the Astros have hit on three players, Springer, Correa and Bregman, but failed ignominiously with two #1 picks in a row, selecting one pitcher who never signed—and another who is no longer with the organization.

The Reds are now on the clock:

1st Round Selections—Cincinnati Reds

Draft Year Pick # Age WAR
Tyler Stephenson 2015 11 22 ??
Nick Senzel 2016 2 23 ??
Hunter Greene 2017 2 19 ??
Jonathan India 2018 5 22 ??
         ?? 2019 7 ?? ??

In order of quickest to the big leagues, on deck is Tyler Stephenson (#11). As a competitive balance pick, Taylor Trammell, (#35) doesn’t appear here, but is a welcome wildcard. Then, Jonathan India (#5) figures to arrive. Hunter Greene (#2) is set back at least 14 months with the Tommy John Flu; and barring a collapse this season that awards the Reds another top ten draft pick, the Reds’ last bite at the rebuild apple comes this summer with the #7 pick.

After the June draft, they will have crossed the Rubicon. Cincinnati will either have drafted a sustainable core in this rebuild womb of time, delivering success for years to come, or fall back, having missed an opportunity born of years of losing, suffering scorn and all too familiar contempt in the process.

Chicago and Houston’s draft results suggest the Reds need at least two of these rebuild picks to become foundational players. The Astros provide a particular warning of the fickleness of targeting young pitching. As the story of Mark Appel illustrates, when it comes to finding and successfully nurturing tomorrow’s elite players, the minor leagues—from rookie ball to Triple-A—can be a desert place where only the hardiest bloom. According to  SI’s Ben Reiter, Appel was “as risk-free a pitcher pick as has ever been made.”

Nothing is a given for Nick Senzel, nor is it for the other first round picks that hope to make the Reds contenders for years to come. While watching Senzel’s journey through the minor leagues—cataloging his every swing, following him from base to base—may give assurance of his ultimate ascendency, the cold reality is that fate can always pilfer a dream. Senzel and family know. If you are unsure of the veracity of that thought, debate with your bosom awhile, and let young Senzel’s own words to his father when he got the call remind you:

“Dad, I finally made it.”