Nearly four years ago, Aristides Aquino’s career was at a crossroads. Signed as a 16-year-old in 2011, he flashed raw tools that made scouts drool, but he’s never been able to put it all together. He hit .216/.282/.397 in Double-A in 2017, then followed that up with a slash line of just .240/.306/.448 as a 24-year-old at the same level. After that 2018 season, the Cincinnati Reds non-tendered Aquino and dropped him from the 40-man roster, making him a free agent.
Shortly thereafter, Aquino signed a minor league contract with the Reds and set to work improving his game. Working with Reds coaches, he entered the season with a completely redesigned open stance. “I changed my stance so I could be better at recognizing the pitches,” Aquino explained. “That helped me to have more balance and see better pitches. I’ve got better balance in my body.”
It worked. Aquino hit .360 in spring training, then he took Triple-A Louisville by storm, hitting .299/.356/.636 (a 143 wRC+) with 28 homers. Then, when he got a chance at big league pitching, Aquino had a month that cemented him in Reds history forever. He hit his first homer in his third game, and just didn’t stop. In his second week as a big leaguer, Aquino hit home runs in four consecutive games, including one game in which he hit three bombs in consecutive innings. One of those homers had an exit velocity of 118.3 mph; that’s still the hardest-hit ball by a Red that’s ever been recorded (dating back to just 2015).
Aquino was the first player in MLB history to hit 10 homers in his first 16 games; he finished the month with 14 home runs. No rookie has ever hit that many in a month. When the dust settled, he finished August hitting .321/.391/.767. Not surprisingly, he was named NL Player of the Month.
Fast forward to 2022. After two sub-par seasons, Aquino, now 28, was designated for assignment by the Reds at the end of April. He’d just gone hitless in 25 straight at-bats, batting .049 with one homer in 15 games and striking out in 23 of his 41 at-bats. No other team in baseball claimed him, so Aquino was outrighted back to Triple-A.
This month, after going back and forth a couple of times between Louisville and Cincinnati, Aquino returned to the big leagues as the starting right fielder for the Reds, thanks to the trade deadline fire sale overseen by GM Nick Krall. For the rest of the season, he’ll get yet another chance to prove that he belongs in the big leagues. Why does Aquino keep getting chances?
Well, there are a couple of reasons. One is that he works hard and is popular in the dugout. When Aquino was designated for assignment earlier this season, manager David Bell described it as a really tough day “for our whole clubhouse. We still believe in him as a player. … He did everything he could, played hard, [a] great teammate, and he will definitely be missed.”
Another reason is that, while Aquino can’t seem to hit with any consistency, he is actually really good in one area of the game: defense. If you’ve paid attention to any Reds highlights this year, you’ve seen him gunning down runners on the basepaths. He has nine outfield assists, which ranks fourth in all of baseball. Aquino also gets good jumps and is the fastest player on the Reds roster. His coaches and teammates rave about his defensive prowess.
The real reason Aquino keeps getting chances, however, is pretty obvious: Reds management has gutted the roster, and they need bodies to insert into the starting lineup. Aquino qualifies. Besides, remember that month when he was great?
Alas, it’s become abundantly clear that Aquino was a one-month wonder. After winning that NL Player of the Month award in 2019, he promptly followed it up by hitting .196/.236/.382 in September—and it’s only gotten worse since. As of today, if you exclude that torrid August, Aquino has hit .184/.262/.358 as a big leaguer. You may have noticed that those numbers aren’t very good.
Since getting yet another opportunity this month, Aquino hasn’t exactly grabbed the brass ring. Instead, it’s been more of the same: .177/.236/.235 with one home run in 15 games. He’s struck out 21 times in 55 plate appearances. His career batting average is the fourth-worst among any Cincinnati player in history with at least 600 plate appearances. (Mike Moustakas has the fifth-worst average, by the way.) Are you getting the picture yet?
Last week, Reds legend Eric Davis joined the television broadcast crew and, among many hot takes, provided his assessment of Aquino’s struggles:
“I just think No. 1 … he’s never been willing to change. He’s stuck in what he believes is the proper structure for him. And this game is about adjustments. And whenever you are fearful of change, you’re not going to improve. To me, he’s too big to be that tall and stiff (in his batting stance). And his hands (don’t move). And all he does is become something that he taught me: It’s that when you’re rotational you’re robotic. And there is no freeness in his hands, which is not going to be freeness in his swing. … I would spread him out and put him in his legs and lower his hands … because he’s so powerful, he doesn’t have to overswing to hit the ball hard. It’s just a matter of him … getting his bat and his head closer to the strike zone. If you watch him, the only pitches he really hammers are balls that are up and out over the plate. Because the further your head is away from the strike zone, the further your hands are away from the strike zone. … His head and his hands never get into where you see that square is. He’s nowhere near that.”
Davis, of course, has forgotten more about hitting than I’ll ever know, so I’m in no position to say whether his assessment is accurate. But it must be noted that Aquino’s willingness to adjust is what got him to the big leagues back in 2019, and he’s been noted as an extremely hard worker as far back as 2013.
At this point, however, I wouldn’t bet the ranch on Aquino ever hitting enough to be a productive big leaguer. I wouldn’t bet a single dollar on that proposition. But perhaps there’s another way Aquino could help this club.
Let’s go back to August 2019 again. During that three-homer game I mentioned above, he uncorked a throw from right field to third base that was recorded at 101.5 mph. No throw from the outfield that season was faster, and the one thing Aquino has done consistently his entire career is throw triple-digits heat from the outfield.
Obviously, it’s time to give Aquino a shot on the mound! After all, the Reds are desperate for relief pitching, and can you imagine Aquino’s 6-foot-4 frame staring down at hitters in the batter’s box? After the season and before Cincinnati parts ways with Aquino, they should ask him to come to Goodyear, Arizona, and throw a few balls from 60 feet, six inches. What’s the worst that could happen?
Sure, it’s a long shot, but it’s not unprecedented. Braves closer Kenley Jansen failed as a hitter in the minor leagues and was on the verge of being released when the Dodgers decided to give him a shot as a pitcher. He’s now a three-time All-Star on the mound. Who says Aquino can’t be converted to a hurler?
Yes, this is almost certainly a silly suggestion. Being a big league pitcher is really hard and, yes, my tongue is planted firmly in my cheek. Oh well, we’ll always have that one month when Aristides Aquino was a baseball legend. Nothing can take that away from us. Though a few more strikeouts will certainly obscure it in my memory…
Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, The Riverfront. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available in bookstores and online.