by Kyle Berger

Which three players should be on the Reds’ Taxi Squad?

As the Reds approach their first road trip of the season, which begins Friday, July 31 in Detroit, they must make a decision on who to carry with them on their taxi squad. A new wrinkle for 2020 because of COVID-19, each team is allowed to have three players from their 60-man pool travel with the team for each road trip. The only stipulation is that one of the three players must be a catcher. With that in mind, let’s take a look at who the Reds could carry on their taxi squad roster for the first road trip.

The Catcher

As mentioned before, one of the three members of the taxi squad must be a catcher. The Reds have three catchers currently on the 60-man roster that are not on the active roster. Those three are Francisco Peña, Mark Kolozsvary, and top prospect Tyler Stephenson. We could already have likely narrowed this decision down to Peña or Stephenson, as Kolozsvary is a defensively minded catcher that has yet to play above High-A. His presence on the 60-man roster is most likely to enable him to work with Hunter Greene at Prasco Park, as Kolozsvary caught Greene when they both played for the Dayton Dragons. 

Peña and Stephenson are two entirely different players and both factor differently into the Reds’ plans. Peña is a veteran presence with some Major League experience, having played in 82 Major League games since making his debut in 2014, while playing for three different teams. Peña is not much of a threat with the bat, with just a .559 OPS (52 OPS+) in those 82 Major League games. He did hit well in AAA last year, slashing .290/.327/.547 in 297 PA between the Cardinals’ and Giants’ affiliates, but he can’t be expected to bring much with the bat at the Major League level. 

Peña’s value is in his experience and defense, which would allow him to step in at a moment’s notice as a short-term backup. This could prove useful in the event of a minor injury to Tucker Barnhart or Curt Casali, or in the case of Casali or Barnhart going on the COVID-IL. Peña, however, doesn’t seem to be a long term solution in the event of a more major injury that costs one of the Reds’ catchers significant time. The other downside with Peña is the fact that he is not currently on the 40-man roster, though if Casali or Barnhart landed on the COVID-IL, that would clear a 40-man spot. 

Tyler Stephenson is a top prospect who made his Major League debut on Tuesday against the Cubs. Unlike Peña, Stephenson is in the Reds’ long term plans, has already been on the Reds’ roster briefly this year, and has a valuable 40-man roster spot. With regards to carrying Stephenson on the taxi squad, there are two competing logics. On one hand, the Reds likely want Stephenson to be practicing or playing every day at Prasco, as it will be beneficial to his development. On the other hand, it also may be beneficial to have Stephenson travel with the team so he can be around the Reds’ clubhouse and learn from the veteran leaders on the team. The taxi squad catcher will also be used as a bullpen catcher, so it would give Stephenson an opportunity to work with some of the Reds’ pitchers. Because of the fact that he was already on the roster once, has a 40-man spot, and can gain experience working as the bullpen catcher, the Reds opted to include Stephenson, as confirmed by C. Trent Rosecrans of The Athletic.

The Second Spot

With the second spot on the taxi squad, it’s safe to assume the Reds will carry a pitcher. Given that pitchers are generally more susceptible to injury, it seems logical that the team would want to carry an extra pitcher in case this would happen. The Reds have 13 pitchers in the 60-man player pool that are not currently on the active roster, giving them an abundance of options to choose from.

Given that the top pitching prospects will benefit from working out at Prasco, we can eliminate them from consideration. Additionally, it makes a lot of sense to carry someone that already has a 40-man roster spot on the taxi squad, so a corresponding 40-man roster move wouldn’t be needed to add this pitcher to the roster. With Matt Bowman heading to the IL on Thursday, that narrows the decision down to three pitchers: José De León, Ryan Hendrix, and Joel Kuhnel. De León is the favorite, as he has Major League experience and formerly had a pedigree as a top prospect. He pitched well with the Rays’ AAA affiliate last year and got a brief call up, pitching four innings while allowing just one run and striking out seven. De León is also a versatile pitcher, who could provide an option in long relief or even as a starter, if needed, but also has stuff that would play up in a short relief role. Kuhnel wouldn’t come as a surprise given his experience with the Reds in 2019, but we will give the edge to De León.

The Final Spot

This is where the decision isn’t as clear-cut. The Reds could go one of two routes, either carrying a second pitcher, or carrying a hitter. Prior to making the 30-man roster, Christian Colón seemed to make sense in this spot, given that he is a veteran utility player that can play multiple positions.

Using the same logic as before, the third player on the taxi squad will likely also be someone on the 40-man roster. This leaves Alex Blandino and the newly-acquired Robel García as the most likely hitters, along with the two pitchers from above that did not make the taxi squad already. García had intriguing numbers at AAA in 2019, and had a brief call up with the Cubs last year, but Blandino’s extra Major League experience, as well as the fact that he’s been with the club longer, will likely give him the edge. It’s fair to assume the Reds would want a hitter on the taxi squad in case of an injury or COVID-IL placement to a position player, so we will give Blandino the edge for the final spot.

Conclusion

Tyler Stephenson has already been confirmed to be one of the three members of the Reds’ taxi squad. The other two players the Reds will likely select for the taxi squad are infielder Alex Blandino, and relief pitcher José De León. This could be dynamic and change on any given road trip based on opponents, length of the trip, and other factors such as knowing that a player on the active roster is dealing with a nagging injury. For example, if the Reds know going into a road trip that an outfielder is dealing with an injury that may end up requiring IL placement, that could lead them to opting to carry an outfielder on the taxi squad. Otherwise, these three seem to be good bets to comprise the initial taxi squad beginning on Friday in Detroit.

Kyle Berger is a lifelong Reds fan who has lived in the Cincinnati area for his entire life. Kyle has always been interested in the analytics side of baseball, and recently graduated from Miami University with a degree in Business Analytics. You can follow him on Twitter @KB_48, where most of his Tweets are about the Reds or baseball in general.