Flu season arrives every fall, its microbial soldiers infecting the body and mind of the unfortunate deep into the winter months. Like flu season, the baseball off-season has its own infectious narrative, the hot stove incubating parasitic virions of the mind, turning average fans into trade-crazy hosts, passing on the contagion from one comment section to another, acting as carriers from social media node to seeded podcast.
Welcome to Lindor Fever.
Francisco Lindor is a star of the first magnitude, only the gravity of his own talent keeping his too too solid flesh from combusting, resolving itself into a dew. Averaging 5.5 WAR over his first 5 seasons in the big leagues, he’s a bona fide game-changer. He’s a natural fit for Cincinnati, playing a position of immediate need for the Reds.
As a result, the clamor to bring the Indians superstar reached a crescendo when Jim Bowden made a bold prediction:
“Lindor is traded from the Cleveland Indians to the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for outfielder Nick Senzel, infielder Jonathan India, right-handed pitcher Tyler Mahle, and a player to be named.”
Bowden’s prediction folds together the Indians’ sin of covetousness for Senzel with many fans’ disappointment with three prospects who have failed to live up to early expectations. Many consider Senzel expendable, non-believers in his place in baseball’s celestial heavens, or his ability to remain healthy—or both.
Now, with the signing of Nick Castellanos, the fever has spiked again. Right now, you’re saying to yourself, “Blake, that outfield is crowded.” You’d be right. But, there are all kinds of reasons to think a crowded outfield will sort itself out and a versatile Senzel with 6 years of control is a better bet going forward than two years of Lindor.
When folks aren’t talking about one player drafted #2 overall by the Reds, they are talking about the expendability of another #2—Hunter Greene. The California phenom possess that trifecta of particulars that make him very tradable to some: (1) he’s a high velocity pitcher with all the attendant high-risk that comes with that explosive trait; (2) drafted at the age of 17, he’s a few years away from becoming an impact player inside the walls of GABP; and (3) Tommy John surgery has pushed back that date another 18 months and possibly added to the risk he already carries.
If you see prospects as little more than chess pieces to be sacrificed, as unreliable frauds that too often bring heartbreak instead of heroics, it’s easy to dismiss him, to undervalue him. Still, his ceiling may be higher than any Reds player since Johnny Bench.
Just a smidge over 30 years ago, on June 2, 1987, baseball in the Pacific Northwest hit the mother lode. When the roulette wheel ball dropped and settled into the pocket marked “Seattle,” the rest of baseball turned Mariner green with envy. You didn’t have to be Nostradamus to see that Ken Griffey, Jr. was going to be a generational talent. It was merely a question of how long the incubation period would be before he came roaring out of the egg.
Griffey, Jr.’s legacy would grow, not just on the field, but off. In 1994, he was named Make-a-Wish Foundation Celebrity Wish-Granter of the Year. For three straight years, he won the Mariners’ Roberto Clemente Award for outstanding community service. As a member of the board of governors for the Boys & Girls Club of America, The Kid personally monitored report cards and rewarded high achievers with trips to Disney World and all-star baseball camps as a way of keeping kids motivated.
He would grow up, marry, eschewing the partying, preferring home and hearth over ducats and drama. You wouldn’t find Junior out clubbing or his name on a police blotter. No sir.
Selecting a prep pitcher with a first-round pick is fraught with the kind of possibilities that tighten the posterior of every GM. If seeing that pick develop into a top-of-the-rotation starter feels as rare as a male calico cat, that’s because it is. Think Todd Van Poppel. Or, ask recently deposed Jeff Luhnow about Mark Appel — then prepare to duck. Although not a high schooler when drafted, the Stanford product is still a cautionary tale of the risk inherent in betting on pitchers and their fickle appendages with a high first-round pick.
Still, the selection of Hunter Greene — made possible only when the Minnesota Twins passed on the young hurler — was really the only choice for a team that hasn’t seen a home-grown prospect mature into a stud starter for a long time. This newest Johnny come lately, this new kid in town, is poised to become the first since another Johnny first toed the rubber in 2008, assuming the Reds hold on to him and let a new pitching development regime work their magic.
Greene throws the kind of “easy gas” that sends a thrill down the leg of a scout. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s good enough to have been drafted in the first round as a position player, so good-grief-gifted is the kid. He was throwing the ball 93 mph when he was 14 years old and has already pulled alongside Aroldis Chapman in the fast lane, rolling down the window to say “Hi” with a fastball clocked at 102, before taking the off-ramp to his high school graduation in Sherman Oaks, California. Young Hunter provides juice to an organization that has long been in desperate need of juice.
Make no mistake, the Reds pushed a large stack of chips to the center of the table when they chose Hunter Greene with the second pick in the 2017 MLB draft. Given that his elbow is freshly removed from the surgeon’s knife, the river card likely will not be turned over for two or three years, and only adds to the enormity of the bet.
While the Reds see him first and foremost as a pitcher, it’s somewhat amazing to realize that while his comp as a pitcher may be Noah Syndergaard, his comp as a position player has incredibly been said to be Alex Rodriguez. He has a precocious talent, the kind that had him working out with 12-year olds — when he was 7.
The ability to throw a baseball on a string the length of a football field is both gobsmacking and frightening in the same moment:
“There are concerns over travel ball in warm-weather locales — burnout and overuse top the list — and many fears are well-founded. But Greene strove to be a specialized counterpoint, logging an estimated 70 games a year, and preparing his arm for each one with [Alan] Jaeger’s prescribed regimen of band work and long toss. “You’re never totally comfortable drafting a high-schooler first,” says a major league scouting director. “But you’re more comfortable with this one because of how long and how carefully he’s tracked toward it.” — Lee Jenkins, Sports Illustrated
I came to Foley’s NY Pub and Restaurant to meet Shaun Clancy, proprietor and all-around good guy. Foley’s sits in the shadow of the Empire State Building, part Irish pub, part baseball museum, 100 percent welcoming waterhole. Over 3,000 autographed baseballs adorn the walls at Foley’s. I was there the day after the Reds drafted Greene, eager to have Shaun show me the place where Hunter’s signature ball rested, nestled in alongside legends. Celebrity signatures like Tom Cruise and Cate Blanchett mingle enviously with Hall of Famers like Sparky Anderson and Derek Jeter. If you’re lounging at the bar and if you’re lucky, you might bump up against a sportswriter, manager or even an umpire in the flesh (if that’s your thing).
What Shaun shared with me about young Hunter should excite every Reds fan who understands that the password for entry to a World Series appearance is “gr8pitching” in the form of a #1 starter who can dominate hitters for 2 and potentially 3 games in a 7-game series. Someone like Madison Bumgarner.
As Grant Brisbee wrote in The Athletic, it’s easy to see how the pitching-rich and offense-poor Giants might give up on drafting a pitcher with their first-round pick in 2007 when they had an 82 team OPS+. It’s easy to see them trading that prospect two years later in 2009 for… Dan Uggla:
“Now consider the era that Bumgarner was a prospect. The 2009 Giants needed hitting. Oh, mercy, how they needed hitting. They were having what was the worst offensive season in San Francisco history at the time, and it was happening the same time they were having the best pitching season in San Francisco history. Do you see how freaky that is? The worst hitting season and the best pitching season in the same year? And one of Giants’ best prospects was a pitcher. Like they needed another pitcher.
It took such admirable restraint for the Giants to stare at the 2007 roster and pitching-heavy farm system in the face and draft a high-school pitcher who wouldn’t be ready for years.”
Most impressive to Clancy was the New Kid’s maturity; and his impressive family. They know where they have been and where they are going. The gifted prospect has been humbled by a sister bravely battling leukemia. He is centered by parents who tend to his development, both athletic and spiritual. As far as Shaun is concerned, Hunter Greene is the perfect man for the Reds to build a franchise around. In his words he is “can’t miss!”
Some see the comparison to a young Doc Gooden, but I cannot help but think a better comparison is Junior. Community service efforts in Los Angeles have won him awards. At 8-years old, he delivered a speech to promote youth baseball. Major League Baseball will market the heck out of him, knowing he can potentially do what The Kid once did: inject a needed shot of youth and fun into a game seen as dated by many, plodding and downright boring by a younger generation weaned on soccer.
Just as lady luck smiled on the Seattle Mariners some 30 years ago, maybe the steel roulette wheel ball has landed on red this time, Cincinnati Pantone 200 red to be precise. Maybe the Redlegs have a Cincinnati Kid of their own.
The reward for all the losing of the past five years were the high first round picks that populated the prospect tree. If that fruit is plucked clean prematurely in service of today, where will the Reds be in three years? Maybe you think the Reds can quick-strike their way to the World Series the way the Royals did in 2014-15. But the Dodgers’ relentless slog to seven straight division titles with no World Series trophy to show for it, and the seemingly forever window the Nationals held open before finding the mountaintop say otherwise. Even the Big Red Machine spent five years in the wilderness before that fateful night in Boston.
Championship teams are built in three distinct parts: prospects, via trade and free agency. One requires organizational infrastructure, another requires intelligent player evaluation and timing, and still another requires cold cash and luck.
Every team plays on a fairly level playing field regarding the first two, but not so much for the third. The San Francisco Giants had the forethought, the restraint, or just the dumb luck to hang on to Bumgarner. It’s hard to see them winning even one World Series without him, much less three. Yes, the Reds are flush with starting pitching this morning. But, they could learn from the Giants’ example. Yes, Luis Castillo was acquired by trade, but it’s hard to see that path repeated as teams today value their prospects more and more. The sticker price on Gerrit Cole and even a lessor talent like Zack Wheeler are stark reminders the Reds will not be acquiring top of the rotation pitching via the free agent pitching store. It will likely have to come from the tree.