Former University of Tennessee star Nick Senzel has marched right into one of the most fun-loving baseball teams you’ll see.
It’s easy to see how Senzel could feel overwhelmed by his surroundings, new to the big leagues, playing the outfield after spending most of his life as an infielder, facing the likes of Max Scherzer.
But the Cincinnati Reds don’t look like a team with attitude problems, and that probably bodes well for a rookie.
Since coming out of Farragut High School in Knoxville, Senzel could hit. He has played 28 games in the big leagues since being called up by the parent club in May. Manager David Bell has plugged him into the leadoff spot in the batting order.
It would appear to be a recipe to be uptight.
But Senzel is on a team that, despite sputtering in last place in a highly competitive National League Central Division, has fun. The choreographed celebrations near the dugout, the little dances put on that even have veteran Joey Votto behaving like a youngster, make it clear the Reds may be behind but they’re loose.
The key to all the shenanigans appears to be outfielder Jesse Winker. From his time in the minor leagues, Winker was known for his wit. The stories had Winker saying of himself, “The Wink can do two things. He can hit. And he can really hit.”
Winker can look as down as anybody after hitting into a double-play. But he clearly injects humor into a ballclub that has definitely needed levity in recent seasons. And it appears to be rubbing off on a lot of players, including Senzel.
Senzel can be seen comically interacting with Winker in warmups. He’ll make funny gestures to the dugout after getting on base. Despite what appear to be moody moments from a frustrated Yasiel Puig, the Reds look like a group of players having fun. And the rookie is doing his part.
Senzel is batting .267, which is nowhere near what’s he’s accustomed to, having batted .312 in the minor leagues. But he is the Reds’ top prospect, and a lot has been expected from Senzel since he was drafted in the first round in 2016.
The early word on Senzel was that he could become a big-leaguer quickly, and despite an injury along the way, he is right where most people thought he would be now. In fact, the case can be made that the club should have kept him on the major-league roster coming out of spring training, the old extended service time issue, but an injury made that point moot.
Senzel reached base in 20 straight games until he ran into Washington’s Scherzer on Sunday, so Bell’s use of him in the leadoff spot looks solid.
He’s not the only former high schooler from Knoxville playing a role in the National League Central. Lane Thomas, who played at Bearden High School, has been up-and-down between the St. Louis Cardinals and the AAA Memphis Redbirds and will be in the minors this week as the Reds play a series in St. Louis. Senzel and Thomas have become friends.
Senzel, at age 23, has made stops at minor-league clubs Billings, Dayton, Pensacola and Louisville on his way to the parent club Reds. He has been as steady as they come.
Even though the Reds put him in the outfield simply because they needed to put his big-league-ready bat somewhere in the lineup, speculation continues that he may end up back at an infield position. Then again, with the Dodgers making an art form out of utilizing the versatility of their roster, baseball may be headed in a fascinating new direction by shifting players around, even during games. The Reds have their own bright example in Michael Lorenzen, a pitcher who can turn around and play the outfield thanks to his hitting ability.
So far, Senzel is handling the pressure factor well. Sometimes, no matter the talent level, the hot prospects need time to adjust to the majors. Byron Buxton, who is finally playing well for the Minnesota Twins, is a prime example. It simply doesn’t look like Senzel will be one of those players who ride the roller coaster between AAA and the big-leagues. He appears to be in Cincinnati to stay.
And given his surroundings, it looks like he will have fun.
If the Reds start winning, and most observers believe they at least have that potential, there could be good times ahead in Cincinnati. Whatever the environment, Senzel appears likely to be a big part of it.