Jesse Winker came into the season as the Reds best hitting prospect, and in spite of an up and down season, he remains the Reds best chance for an All Star caliber bat in the minor leagues. Winker dominated high A as a 20 year old in 2014, batting .317/.426/.580 in 249 plate appearances. He was promoted to AA and played only 21 games before he tore a tendon in his right wrist and missed the rest of the season.
To make up for missed at bats, the Reds sent Winker to the competitive Arizona Fall League. In the AFL, Winker led the entire league with an OPS of .999. The AFL typically has a number of excellent prospects, and Winker outperformed them all. His strong performance pushed him up many prospect lists and cemented his position as the best hitting prospect the Reds have had since Joey Votto and Jay Bruce came through the system.
His defense has never wowed scouts, but the bat has been a loud tool for three years as a professional. He doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have elite power, but Kiley McDaniel (lead prospect analyst at Fangraphs) has stated that he might hit 20 homeruns a year at peak development. McDaniel also states that Winker doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have a ton of risk, likely because of his advanced plate approach.
Many fans clamored for Winker to get a shot at the everyday left field position in Spring Training. But with only 21 games above single A, the Reds sent Winker back to AA for some more seasoning.
Winker struggled out of the gate in 2015, hitting for a low average in April and May and more alarming, slugging .259 in May. He continued to show elite plate discipline, which kept his on base numbers at a strong level. But the power that could take Winker from an above-average bat to an All Star bat was nowhere to be found.
Then June rolled around and WinkerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s bat caught fire. Winker has hit .325/.415/.475 this month with 13 BB and 16 K. Coming into June, Winker had only eight extra base hits all season. He has seven this month. His current season slash line now stands at .262/.366/.371, and he has an impressive 13.5% BB rate. Even with the low slugging percentage, Winker has produced 13% better than the league average player in AA.
WinkerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s early season struggles forced him to make adjustments, a skills teams want to see in their prospects before they reach the major leagues. One scout even suggested that WinkerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s makeup would allow him to struggled at an advanced level and become a better player for it. He is only 21, about three years younger than the average player in his league and already holding his own against older and often more polished competition.
WinkerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s turnaround isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t unexpected. He has the bat speed to compete, and his knowledge of the strike zone keeps him from getting himself out frequently.
Another encouraging sign is WinkerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s defense. While he will never play elite, corner outfield defense, he has six assists this year and has yet to make an error. Some reportsÃ‚Â before the season suggested that he might have gained a tad bit of speed since he was drafted, which may contribute to better range. Regardless of the reason, Winker may end up being an average defender. If his bat plays to potential, he would be an excellent player.
The Reds have plenty of questions to answer before the end of the season. Going into next season, they still must address the left field issue. They likely wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t give Marlon Byrd enough plate appearances to trigger the vesting option in his contract. Devin Mesoraco will return to catching most days unless he proves he canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t catch anymore. Unless the Reds want to sign another stop gap, they may give the job to an internal candidate.
Winker remains the Reds best chance to stabilize the black hole of left field for an extended period of time. Ã‚Â He does have competitors, and the Reds may eventually need to find space for Yorman Rodriguez and Kyle Waldrop as well, but they should not count on all three panning out.Ã‚Â Rodriguez is the most toolsy of the three, but Winker has such an advanced approach that he is the least risky of the three.
The Reds strong run from 2010-2013 was built largely on the farm system. Even players they brought in from other organizations (Latos, Choo, etc.) were bought with players the Reds developed. It’s time for the next wave of position prospects to begin making a difference. Eugenio Suarez and Tucker Barnhart are already contributing. The Reds talented group of outfielders are likely next.
Winker will be an interesting player to watch the rest of the season. If he can continue his resurgence and rediscover some of his power from 2014, Winker may put himself into the Reds equation for 2014. If not, he may not make his debut until 2017. At 21, Winker has plenty of time to develop into the player fans and scouts think he can be. If the Reds want to build another contender, they need their best prospects to produce. In spite of a slow start, Winker seems on schedule.