It was less than a year ago when Kyle Farmer approached Cincinnati Reds manager David Bell about playing shortstop.
Farmer knew he could handle it, but he wasn't given the opportunity. He was a four-year starter at the University of Georgia, owning school records for best fielding percentage, but he was forced to abandon the position when he was drafted as a catcher.
He made 10 starts at shortstop during the 2020 season, plus one start in the postseason, but like many Reds fans, he was anxious to see how the Reds would address the position this winter.
“Trust me, I was on Twitter every day seeing if they were going to sign a shortstop,” Farmer said, laughing.
The Reds didn’t add a shortstop and now Farmer is in the mix to be the starter. At this stage, Farmer seems likely to start against left-handed pitching. Dee Strange-Gordon and Kyle Holder, two other candidates in camp, are both left-handed hitters and could form a platoon with him.
Jose Garcia seems set to begin the season in the minor leagues unless he has a breakout camp because he struggled offensively as he jumped from High-A to the Majors. Bell said Alex Blandino is another candidate.
But the key for Farmer, along with all the other shortstops, is that a lot of their playing time will ride on how well they hit.
“Whoever hits the best is going to run out there and play every day, that's the name of the game,” Farmer said. “We've got to score runs this year. Our offense was down last year, especially at the end of the year and so I think this year we're focusing more on offense and aggressiveness. Whoever drives in the most runs is going to get to play.”
Farmer hopes to be viewed as more than just a guy who can hit left-handed pitching, but that’ll depend on the improvements he made this winter. During the last two seasons combined, he had an above-average .838 OPS (on-base plus slugging) in 87 at-bats against lefties and a .568 OPS in 160 at-bats vs. righties.
He underwent what he called a “really drastic” swing change this past offseason working with Pittsburgh Pirates hitting coach Rick Eckstein, who lives about 20 minutes away from him and is a coach he worked with when he was in high school.
“My swing last year was not built for my body,” Farmer said. “I'm using more of my legs now, more of a downhill, on top of the ball swing instead of trying to lift the ball in the air. I listened to Justin Turner, who is one of the best hitters, when I was with the Dodgers. I realized what people say is not what they do. That's just the way they think. He could be thinking one thing but doing the opposite, where he's telling me something, but I can't do that.
“I learned more about my body this offseason than ever and how my swing now goes along with how my body moves. That was pretty cool to see. My exit velocity came up more, hitting more line drives and backspin the ball better.”
Farmer has been a utility player throughout his career, with added value as a third catcher, but he had a change the way people thought of him to earn his opportunity at shortstop.
Earning more starts against right-handed pitching is his next challenge and could be a big factor in the Reds’ plans for filling shortstop. He hit daily off a right-handed slider pitching machine this winter.
“I was stamped early in my career as being only able to hit left-handed pitching,” he said. “It's a hurdle I’ll have to get over and definitely prove myself like I've had to forever."
Farmer, who will focus on shortstop for much of spring training and less on catching, lost 10 pounds this offseason, dropping to 195 pounds, which he said was his lowest since his freshman year.
This might be the best opportunity in his career to earn everyday playing time. He’s motivated to make the most of it. He arrived at camp with pitchers and catchers, which was his option, and he does extra fielding work at shortstop with coaches Freddie Benavides and Delino DeShields.
"It's kind of full circle to me, coming from college then all the way up to 2021," Farmer said. "I finally had the nerve to go up and tell (Bell) that I wanted a shot last year, to prove myself, and I still have more proving to do. There’s still a lot more work to do and I want to earn that role, so we’ll see how it goes."