Over the weekend the Cincinnati Reds made it official with their signing of Tommy Pham. Manager David Bell noted that Pham would be the left fielder. Earlier in the spring, before Pham had signed, Bell had said that Nick Senzel and Tyler Naquin were two of his starting outfielders. At this point it sounds like the starters are set. Jake Fraley, who was acquired in the trade with Seattle that sent Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suárez out west, seems like he’s going to be on the team as well. That likely leaves one spot in the outfield on the roster, even with expanded rosters in April that will probably be filled by two additional pitchers due to starters not being ready to go at 100% due to the shortened spring training.
That leaves the Reds with a tough decision of sorts. While it’s possible that both Aristides Aquino and Shogo Akiyama could both be on the outside and looking in, it seems almost guaranteed that at least one of them will be.
Both players have one big thing in common beyond being outfielders: Both have had one big, outlier month in their career in the big leagues. Shogo Akiyama hit .318/.456/.365 in 23 games in September/October of 2020. In no other month in which he has had 10 plate appearances has he posted an OPS of .600. Aristides Aquino’s August of 2019 was a record setting month. Literally. As a rookie he hit .320/.391/.767 with 14 home runs and 33 RBI in 29 games played. in the 370 plate appearances since then he’s hit .189/.281/.387.
Aristides Aquino is out of options, so if the team doesn’t place him on the roster then he will have to be placed on waivers. Unlike Akiyama, Aquino has had some solid months along the way since his big month in August of 2019. But he’s had some bad ones, too. The Reds have used Aquino to play all three outfield spots over the past few seasons, though he’s pretty stretched in center and is much better suited in the corners from a range perspective.
For Shogo Akiyama the one thing that plays in his favor, perhaps more than anything else, is that he makes a lot more money than Aristides Aquino does. He is owed $8M for the 2022 season. Aquino has not reached arbitration yet and will make well under $1M. For a team that doesn’t seem too keen on spending a bunch of money this season, eating $8M in order to keep a different 5th outfielder could come into play. With that said, the team is going to be paying that money whether Akiyama is on the team or not.
Akiyama is the better defender of the two. He has the range and experience to play center. That aspect, though, is about the only area in which he has a real advantage over Aquino. Sure, he makes more contact than Aquino does but if that contact leads to nothing then it’s not really an advantage.
Not that teams should use spring training stats to make roster decisions, but if they were going to, things aren’t looking great for either player. Akiyama is currently hitting .231/.231/.231 across his 13 plate appearances. Aquino is hitting .182/.308/.455 across his 13 plate appearances. That’s certainly a better line because it includes a walk, a hit by pitch, and a home run, but both are extremely small sample sizes against varying competition.
The upside between the two players feels large. Everyone saw what Aquino can do when he catches fire and it was special. When Akiyama caught fire he hit a bunch of singles. The upside just feels so different. But the reality is that Aquino’s been little like the guy he was in August of 2019 ever since and he’s going to be 28-years-old before April is over. There’s probably still more upside with him than with Akiyama – he’s certainly mixed in more quality months at the plate as a Red – but it also feels like the expectations may be a bit too high for some, too.
Cincinnati is going to have to make a decision soon on their 5th outfielder. It’s likely to come down to these two guys who haven’t performed very often in the last two seasons. Or maybe someone like TJ Friedl grabs the spot and both guys are looking at playing elsewhere on April 7th.