By Jordan Shusterman
FOX Sports MLB Writer
Last year, the Cincinnati Reds could not hit.
Now, it isn’t particularly fair to judge a 60-game season alongside all the other seasons in baseball history, but the Reds’ team batting average of .212 was not just the lowest in MLB in 2020 but also the lowest of any team in the expansion era (since 1961). They squeaked into the expanded playoffs thanks to their excellent pitching but petered out in fitting fashion: scoring zero runs across 22 innings in two games against the Braves. It was bleak.
This year, the Reds can hit. OK, that’s not entirely accurate. What I should say is: This year, the Reds have two guys who can REALLY hit.
Enter Jesse Winker and Nick Castellanos. Recently, I was doing my routine gawking at the absurd season of one Vladimir Guerrero Jr. when I realized that the two players sitting right behind or near him on many offensive leaderboards were … both on the Cincinnati Reds?
Indeed, through Wednesday’s action, the only players rocking a 1.000+ OPS besides Vlad Jr. are Winker and Castellanos. If the All-Star Game were tomorrow, they’d be deservedly flanking Ronald Acuña Jr. in the National League outfield:
Normally in these spotlights, I dive into how an individual player got to where he is today, from his amateur days to his big-league breakout. Admittedly, each of these guys probably warrants his own profile, but my favorite part about this dynamic duo is how eerily similar their paths have been to this point.
Born in 1992, Castellanos played his high school ball at Archbishop McCarthy in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He played for USA Baseball’s 18U National Team in 2009. He was renowned as one of the best high school hitters in his class. He committed to the University of Miami but was selected 44th overall by the Tigers in 2010 and decided to sign.
Born in 1993, Winker played his high school ball at Olympia in Orlando, Florida. He played for USA Baseball’s 18U National Team in 2011. He was renowned as one of the best high school hitters in his class. He committed to the University of Florida but was selected 49th overall by the Reds in 2012 and decided to sign.
Castellanos’ first full season as a pro was as a 19-year-old in the Midwest League, and he hit really well. The next year, he began in High-A and crushed it (1.014 OPS in 55 games) before earning a promotion to Double-A, where he finally struggled (.678 OPS in 79 games). He was pushed to Triple-A the next year and made his MLB debut by the end of that season.
Winker’s first full season as a pro was as a 19-year-old in the Midwest League, and he hit really well. The next year, he began in High-A and crushed it (1.006 OPS in 53 games) before earning a promotion to Double-A, where he finally struggled (.677 OPS in 21 games). The Reds weren’t as aggressive with Winker as the Tigers were with Castellanos, having him spend all of the next two seasons in the minors before calling him up in April 2017.
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The parallels in the early parts of the two careers are obvious, but their big-league careers haven’t transpired quite the same way. While Castellanos is only 17 months older than Winker, he entered this season with more than 600 more MLB games to his name. This can be attributed largely to his head start on debuting but also in large part to his track record of health relative to Winker’s. Castellanos has hit the injured list only once in his big-league career (a fractured hand cost him the final two months of the 2016 season), while Winker has dealt with myriad injuries (hip flexor strain in 2017, shoulder subluxation in 2018, cervical strain in 2019).
In turn, until this year, Castellanos had been in the spotlight far more than Winker. He played 140 games for a first-place Tigers team in 2014. His 58 doubles in 2019 rank 10th on the all-time single-season doubles list, and his epic second half after being traded to the Cubs that summer catapulted him into the upper tier of star hitters before he inked a four-year, $64 million free-agent deal with Cincinnati.
Castellanos struggled down the stretch in 2020 but seems to be back operating at maximum capacity in 2021. He’s comfortably leading the league in batting average and currently sits second in fWAR behind only Vlad Jr.
Winker, meanwhile, seems like more of a true breakout. That said, it’s not like he hadn’t been hitting well before 2021. His career OPS before this season was a healthy .859. Add this year’s terrific start, and his career OBP now sits at .388, 11th in baseball since his debut in 2017. He has been raking the whole time, but the fact that his performance was limited to spurts between injuries, combined with the Reds’ not really competing until last year, had greatly obscured his ability until now.
This year, though, Winker’s numbers are undeniable. His greatest feat yet: his two three-homer games that came just 16 days apart.
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To put this into perspective, consider that only 116 players in MLB history have had multiple three-HR games in their careers. Of those 116, only 23 (including Winker) have done it twice in one season. If Winker notches another three-HR game this year — there’s plenty of time — he’d join Sammy Sosa in 2001 as the only player in MLB history with three three-homer games in a season.
Now paired up in the Cincinnati outfield, these two are back in sync and carrying the Reds’ offense on a daily basis. How far can this duo take Cincinnati? It’s unclear. These two guys cannot do it alone; the team will likely need the other cornerstone guys, such as Eugenio Suarez and Luis Castillo, to improve drastically if they want to stick around in the postseason hunt.
So far, though, this two-man, NBA Jam-style wrecking crew has done it all for the Reds, and it has been glorious to watch.
Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball analyst for FOX Sports. He lives in Maryland but is a huge Seattle Mariners fan and loves watching the KBO, which means he doesn’t get a lot of sleep. You can follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_.
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