Unless David Bell enjoys wasting his own time (he doesn’t) the Reds are taking a good hard look at infielder Jonathan India. The Reds began playing spring training games a week ago Sunday and India was the only Reds player to see the field in each of the club’s first six games. He sat out Sunday but was back in the lineup today. Bell has started India three times at second base and used him as a mid-game sub at second and third.
Based on that, you might sense that India is in the Reds 2021 plans. But the club has someone else signed at third base through 2024 and a different second baseman under a big contract through 2023.
That raises two questions. One, is Jonathan India ready for the big leagues? Two, if so, what can the Reds do with him? Let’s put those questions in context.
College and Minor Leagues
The Reds selected India in the first round of the 2018 draft. He was the fifth pick overall, courtesy of the club’s 94 losses the season before. If you remember, India was fresh off an appearance in the College World Series. His Florida Gators were the #1 seed and finished third. The series capped off a long college season where India was a consensus All-American and made the SEC All-Defensive Team and voted SEC Player of the Year.
2018 India signed with the Reds for $5.3 million. After short stints in rookie ball with both Billings and Greeneville, he finished what must have been a grueling 2018 campaign with 27 more games at Dayton.
2019 In 2019, the Reds assigned India to high-A Daytona where he played 87 games in the pitching-friendly Florida State League before being promoted to AA Chattanooga for 34 more. But India wasn’t finished with 2019 yet. He played 17 games in the Arizona Fall League.
2020 India spent the entire 2020 season at the Reds alternate training site in Mason, never once getting a call-up from the big-league club.
India was thrown right into SEC competition as a freshman, but he held his own, hitting .303/.367/.440. His batting average as a sophomore took a dip as he was slowed a bit by an elbow injury, but India’s line of .274/.354/.429 reflected a better walk rate and more power. His first two seasons in Gainesville were good-not-great. It was during his junior year that India became one of the top hitters in college baseball. He finished 2018 in the national top 10 in home runs, slugging, walks and total bases, batting an eye-popping .350/.497/.717.
India’s college coach Kevin O’Sullivan added: “Everyone’s talking about Jonathan’s average, and his home run total is up, but the thing that separates him from most in the country is the ability to play defense and the ability to run the bases. He’s got that rare combination that’s hard to find.”
At the professional level, India has yet to show that elite offensive ability. In his 2019 A+/AA season, India put up more good-not-great numbers: .257/.365/.402. By comparison, Nick Senzel in his age-22 season, splitting time in A+/AA, hit .321/.391/.514. India did show good plate discipline with a walk-rate of 11.5%.
A wrist injury may have impacted his performance in 2019, particularly his power. It bothered the Reds infielder enough that the club cut his Fall League appearance short by a week.
That brings us to the 2020 COVID season. With no minor league games and India not making the major league roster, there are no publicly available stats or video to evaluate. One report is that with a healthy wrist, India was back to hitting the way the Reds expected when they drafted him, including more bat speed and power. Eric Longenhagen, the prospects guru at FanGraphs, has seen data and video from India’s alternate site work. He notes “renewed scout confidence” in India’s bat. The Reds themselves have been effusive in praise for India’s offensive progress at Prasco Park.
What position has India played? The answer at the college and professional level is the same. Jonathan India played mostly third base. At Florida and with the Reds in 2018 he played a handful of games at 2B and SS. The same was true in 2019, with the Reds giving him a few games at 2B in Daytona. All India’s games at AA-Chattanooga were at third.
Two Home Runs
When Jonathan India looks back at his baseball career, he might find that two home runs were responsible for big steps forward. The two blasts were three years apart and had nothing in common except traveling over the fence.
On April 26, 2018, the Florida Gators faced Auburn University in the rubber match of a crucial 3-game series. Jonathan India came to the plate in the first inning against Auburn All-American Casey Mize. Mize was the odds-on favorite to be the #1 pick in the MLB draft a few weeks later (in fact, the Detroit Tigers did select Mize with the first choice). India had also been rocketing up major league draft boards and was viewed as a potential top-10 pick. More than 60 scouts were in attendance to see India blast Mize’s second pitch, a belt-high cutter, into the left field bleachers. Watch for yourself, scouts and all.
— Florida Gators Baseball (@GatorsBB) April 26, 2018
A home run off a pitcher like Mize in a big situation certainly boosted India’s draft stock. You wonder how many millions of dollars he made from that one swing.
That brings us to the second of India’s pivotal home runs. If you were paying attention last Friday, you may have witnessed it. Watch as the Reds infielder blasts a Taylor Clarke fastball out into the Arizona desert.
Jonathan India – Cincinnati Reds (1)* pic.twitter.com/mrAkCwsd26
— MLB HR Videos (@MLBHRVideos) March 6, 2021
There were noteworthy differences between the two bombs. The home run Friday was hit off Diamondbacks starter Taylor Clarke, not Casey Mize. The more recent homer was hit off a fastball with a wooden bat and to the opposite field. The first one was off a cutter, with an aluminum bat and pulled to left. Most important, of course, are India’s glorious new locks.
Those with great memories might recall that India had home runs last July off Amir Garrett and Lucas Sims in back-to-back spring training 2.0 intra-squad scrimmages. That’s impressive given the quality of the two pitchers. But the nature of the long fly last week — deep and to the opposite field — had to grab the attention of the Reds brass. It was no cheapie. Wrist now healthy, India has shown he’s more than capable of hitting for power.
April in Cincinnati
As the Reds’ second-best third baseman and second-best second baseman, Jonathan India appears blocked. We know he’s not going to beat out Eugenio Suarez or Mike Moustakas for a starting job. (Although, for the record, India fits in a platoon with Moustakas at 2B.) Further, the Reds have come to the same conclusion as the Florida Gators that India falls a little shy of what they’re looking for in an everyday shortstop.
Barring injury or a trade involving Suarez or Moustakas, that means the primary scenario for India to contribute to the Reds this year is off the bench, where his main attributes are versatility, a good eye and right-handed power. India’s ability to play across the infield is an asset, especially if he can perform as a passable SS for a few innings in an emergency. In furtherance of India’s Swiss Army Knife status, David Bell could try him in left field later this month. Watch for that. Sure, it would be the first time India has played in the outfield. But ask Nick Senzel if the Reds could do something that crazy. Finally, what separates India from other candidates for the utility spot — Alex Blandino, Dee Strange-Gordon, Kyle Holder, Max Schrock, Alfredo Rodriguez — is his ability to hit for power off the bench.
One other possibility, a long shot, remains that a newly svelte Eugenio Suarez might end up being the best overall fit at shortstop. In that case, Mike Moustakas moves to his normal position at third base and Jonathan India gets installed as the regular second baseman.
Assuming the Suarez Bank Shot doesn’t happen, the organization faces a choice. Should they go ahead and plant Jonathan India on David Bell’s bench to help the major league team? India’s bat could make a difference in one or two games, an edge that might be crucial come September. Or should the Reds start their top position player prospect in the minor leagues for a few months to give him time to develop? Remember, India has played only a few dozen games above the A+ level.
It turns out that the lingering effects of COVID-19 protocols may offer an elegant solution to this dilemma. MLB has delayed the start of any minor league seasons until at least May 4. Until then, teams will operate alternate training sites like they did in 2020. My guess right now is that because of the later minor league start, Jonathan India will make the Reds Opening Day roster.
What more does he have to prove at Prasco Park? India could play with the Reds in April and gain whatever major league experience he can. If at the end of the month, he’s still largely riding the bench, send him to Louisville to play every day and sharpen up, at least for a while. But if in the first month India is playing and helping the Reds, keep him up.
All this assumes Jonathan India continues to prove he’s major league ready this spring. For those of you keeping score, he had two walks and a single today. He’s been on base in nine of his 15 plate appearances with five walks and that big home run to right field.
Featured image: https://twitter.com/Reds/status/1364585897669320704/photo/1