Cincinnati Reds Shouldn’t Rush Top Prospect Jesse Winker

Since Adam Dunn was traded in 2008, the Cincinnati Reds have been unable to find their next long-term left fielder. Dating back to the beginning of 2009, 34 different players have appeared in left field for the Reds and only two have started at the position more than 100 times in a season (Jonny Gomes in 2010 and Ryan Ludwick in 2012).

Looking ahead to the 2016 season, the Reds figure to have the same problem once again. Their top option currently on the roster figures to be shortstop Eugenio Suarez, who hasn’t played a single inning in the outfield during his professional career. Fortunately for the Reds, they do have a left fielder of the future in Jesse Winker, currently rated their No. 1 prospect by MLB Pipeline.

Winker had an impressive season in Double-A Pensacola and was the best hitter on any of the Reds’ minor league affiliates, batting .282/.390/.433 with 39 extra-base hits (13 home runs), 55 runs batted in and 75 walks. He also continued to improve with the glove, committing no errors at his natural left field position and just two while manning right field.

The 22-year-old was particularly impressive down the stretch after a rough first half. Winker went on a tear in August and September, hitting .357/.471/.591 with six of his 13 home runs in the final month of the year, including long-balls in five straight games from Aug. 11 to 15.

Given the uncertainty in left field in Cincinnati, there will be plenty of calls from fans for Winker to be promoted and the team might be tempted to do so, but patience is the best route to take with the former first-round pick.

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In his four-year minor league career, Winker has displayed an advanced hitting ability and plate discipline that should translate well at the big league level, but the fact of the matter is that he has yet to play above Double-A. He ended up having a great 2015 season, but struggled initially with the transition to a higher level of baseball. Like quality players do, he adapted and began to figure out how to hit more advanced pitchers, but it took time. It could be valuable to get him experience with hitting against major league pitching, but there’s always a danger of calling a prospect up too soon (e.g., Billy Hamilton).

If the Reds were expected to be contenders and left field was their one missing piece, there would definitely be an argument to make for letting him make the jump to Cincinnati, much like the New York Mets did with Michael Conforto this season. But the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs aren’t going anywhere and the Reds have numerous other issues, so that scenario won’t apply to them in all likelihood.

Promoting Winker would also start his arbitration clock sooner, something that teams are cautious about with their young players due to the Super Two rule, which is explained here by Fangraphs:

In general, players must have accrued at least three years of MLB service time (written as Years.Days) before they can be eligible for salary arbitration. While players with 3.000+ years of service are eligible for arbitration, players with between two and three years of service may be eligible if they rank in the top 22% of service time among players with between two and three years of service.

Basically, the rule means that if Winker was promoted early on in the 2016 season, he’d likely be eligible for arbitration after 2018 instead of 2019, meaning that the Reds would have to pay him more money sooner. For a team that already has huge contracts on the books, it’s smart to save money where you can.

Service time is another factor to consider when calling up top prospects. Players can become free agents after accumulating six years of service time. One year of service time is equal to 172 days spent on the 25-man roster during the season, so teams will often wait until there are 171 days left in the season to call players up, essentially getting a seventh year out of them. This is what the Cubs did early in the season when they decided to send Kris Bryant back to Triple-A after his monster showing in spring training.

It’s natural for fans to want to see their team’s top prospects as soon as possible, particularly when their team is struggling or has a hole at a certain position. But in the case of Winker, it’s best for the Reds to exercise patience and let him continue to develop in the minor leagues. If his play in Triple-A ends up warranting a call-up, there’s nothing wrong with that; if he’s earned it, he’s earned it. However, he shouldn’t be rushed to the big leagues before he’s ready if the Reds aren’t competitive and it’s just going to cause them to lose a year of control on Winker or cost more money down the line.

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