Heading into the season, the Cincinnati Reds had four starting outfielders and three spots to play them. But so far, the fourth outfielder hasn’t been the one the Reds were expecting.
Through the first homestand of the season, outfielder Tyler Naquin leads the National League with 13 RBI in only 19 at-bats. He hit his second lead-off homer in two days in Wednesday’s 11-4 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates. Naquin has a .316 batting average and a 1.382 OPS filling in for left fielder Jesse Winker at the top of the lineup.
'Bunch of ballers out there':Cincinnati Reds break more records, sweep Pittsburgh Pirates
Nick Senzel:How he quietly sparked a win for the Reds
When Winker returns from his stomach bug, what will the Reds do with Naquin?
“It’s a good problem to have when guys are playing well, but also guys understand,” manager David Bell said. “We’ll be able to figure that out, and we’re going to need everyone.”
Entering spring training, Naquin was a non-roster invitee competing for the last outfield spot. He had a strong spring training to make the team, and Naquin entered the regular season as the Reds fourth outfielder after Shogo Akiyama injured his hamstring.
Naquin came off the bench on Opening Day and was 0-for-1 at the plate. He had his first extended opportunity two days later. Winker left in the top of the sixth inning of the second game of the season, and he hasn’t appeared in a game since then.
In 2020, Winker was the Reds best hitter with a team-high in batting average and OPS. In August, Winker was one of the best hitters in MLB with a .369 batting average and a 1.257 OPS.
In spring training, Winker demonstrated his continued improvement against left-handed pitching, and he opened the season as the Reds lead-off hitter. In eight at-bats in 2021, he has three hits, one walk and a double.
Winker has been on track to get everyday playing time, and Bell said Winker should be “fully ready to start” on Friday against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“We can’t wait to get (Winker) back, Bell said.
With Winker starting in left field, there are two spots left in the outfield, and those two players are having some of the best stretches of their career. Right fielder Nick Castellanos has been the biggest threat in the Reds lineup with a .435 batting average and seven extra-base hits. And center fielder Nick Senzel has a .357 batting average, scored each of the first eight times he has reached base and been a standout defender.
While Naquin has a lower batting average than the other outfielders, he became the first Reds lead-off hitter since 1984 to hit lead-off homers in consecutive games.
“He loves being here, and he loves playing on this team,” Bell said. “He’s getting some opportunities here early, and he’s absolutely made the most of it and has been a big part of our first week and getting some wins.”
The Diamondbacks haven’t announced a starting pitcher for Saturday’s game, but their other two scheduled starters are right-handed. The Reds play a series against the San Francisco Giants after that, and all five of their starting pitchers throw right-handed.
Naquin, a left-handed hitter, has a .282 career batting average against right-handed pitchers and a .234 batting average against left-handed pitchers. This season, Naquin is 1-for-2 against left-handed pitchers and 4-for-12 with two homers against right-handed pitchers.
Whether or not Naquin stays in the starting lineup, the Reds will find a way to get him at-bats.
“If you know his personality, if you get to know him, it's pretty cool to watch what he does and how even-keeled he is in the batter's box,” shortstop Kyle Farmer said. “Seeing him put good swings on the ball, it just trickles down the lineup. He's a great leadoff hitter and he's a heck of a player.”