CINCINNATI — In the steamy home clubhouse lobby at Great American Ball Park, Nick Senzel took questions from a throng of media members with the composure of a seasoned veteran. Confidence oozes from the 23-year-old Atlanta native. So does a little swagger.
Asked about batting second behind Joey Votto on Friday, Senzel, hours before making his first big-league appearance, said: “Doesn’t make any difference to me. Joey will just get on, and I’ll hit him in”.
His's bold prediction fell short when Votto struck out and he was robbed of his first career hit on a diving catch by Giants center fielder Kevin Pillar.
When asked if he was looking forward to playing on Friday, Senzel said, “Yes, because I didn’t play yesterday.”
— Philip Lee (@PhilipRLee) May 3, 2019
Although most rookies are amped up for their debut, Senzel appeared comfortable in a big-league batting order. He saw 20 pitches in his first three at-bats with two walks and had an infield single in the ninth for his first career hit in a 12-11 loss to the Giants.
“He’s here for a reason — he’s very talented,” said Reds manager David Bell. “We’re excited to have him, and he’s going to be a big part of a great team culture here.”
Senzel is the top-ranked prospect in the Reds organization and numbers among the top prospects in all of baseball. He has been on the cusp of a promotion the past two seasons, and he said he's known it: "I was ready last year, but it got cut short."
It has been a long, frustrating road for Senzel, who prior to this season was ranked No. 6 on MLB.com’s top prospects list and No. 10 by Baseball America. He was ranked the top overall prospect in the Reds organization for two straight years. In 2017, Senzel earned the Sheldon “Chief” Bender Award as the Reds’ minor league player of the year.
Coming into this season, Senzel was batting .314 with 27 home runs and 130 RBIs in 231 minor league games, but injuries and circumstances delayed a big-league debut for the infielder turned outfielder.
Senzel was cut late in spring training. The Reds wanted him to have more time to acclimate to center field, after primarily playing third base.
“We asked him to do a lot in terms of switching positions, and he answered the call every time,” said Reds president of baseball operations Dick Williams. “It was a very selfless approach.”
With former center fielder Billy Hamilton gone and Senzel’s more natural positions of second and third pretty much locked up, Senzel could be the answer for the Reds in center. To this point, Jesse Winker and Scott Schebler have shared center field duties. The Reds are pleased with the way Senzel handled that position during the spring and in Triple-A.
Senzel started in center on Friday and in the sixth inning made an excellent running catch of Steven Duggar’s drive to the warning track.
“The main thing was getting games in (in center),” Senzel said. “The more I see, the more comfortable I am out there, getting reads and routes.”
With third baseman Eugenio Suarez getting the night off on Friday, Senzel batted second. Although his spot in the lineup remains fluid, Reds manager David Bell likes Senzel near the top of the order, where he adds an element of speed and an ability to get on-base.
“Part of what makes him so good is that he expects a lot of himself,” Bell said. “I’m excited to look 10 years from now and say, ‘Wow, look at what this guy has done.’ Hopefully he’s here for a very long time.”
For that to happen, Senzel needs to stay healthy.
He was limited to only 44 games at Triple-A last season, having missed most of May due to a resurgence of the vertigo he had dealt with earlier in his career. He fractured his right index finger June 22. Six days later, he had season-ending surgery to repair the finger. In October, he underwent another surgery, this time to clean out bone spurs in his left elbow.
The injury bug bit Senzel again when he sprained his ankle late in spring training. Had it not been for the injuries, he would have debuted a lot sooner.
“Nick progressed through the minors as well as anyone could,” said Williams. “Unfortunately, the injuries set him back. We wanted an injection of energy into this team. This is a team that doesn’t need a savior, but it could use a jolt.”
In his first seven games at Triple-A, Senzel hit .290 with a homer and two RBIs with six straight starts in center field. He finished the 2018 season on an 11-game hitting streak.
At the time of his finger injury last year, Senzel ranked fifth in the International League with a .310 average, along with six homers, two triples, 12 doubles and 25 RBIs.
“Mentally, it made me a stronger person,” Senzel said of the injuries Friday. “The game’s taken away from you. It makes this moment even more emotional.”
The Reds hope Senzel’s arrival can provide a spark for the club, which started 1-8 under first-year manager David Bell before winning 11 of its next 19 games. The pitching staff ranked among the best in baseball during the first month of the season, but the offense has struggled. Senzel, who was rated the best pure hitter in the 2016 draft, could help change that.
After four consecutive 90-plus loss seasons, the Reds are hoping Senzel’s arrival can help them move on from a lengthy rebuilding process. The Reds blew an 8-0 lead on Friday night.
“I want to produce and help the team win,” Senzel said. “But I can’t make it bigger than it is and let it all fall on my shoulders. We have good players here. We’re going to get it going. It’s just a matter of time.”