2023 was a Beacon of Hope for the Cincinnati Reds and Their Fans
Shortstop/third baseman Elly De La Cruz showed flashes of brilliance during a relatively up-and-down rookie season, ending the season as a below-average hitter but showing off his toolsy makeup.
Matt McLain submitted an absolutely wonderful campaign at second base and shortstop, showing his versatility by being a solid defender at both positions and showing the ability to hit through every level, posting a 128 wRC+ through 83 games, unfortunately ending his season on the injured list with an oblique injury.
Spencer Steer bounced back from a disappointing first appearance in the majors by hitting at an above-average clip and playing a bit of outfield and the first base position.
Add in a few more contributions from young guys like power-hitting corner infielder Christian Encarnacion-Strand, former Mariner top prospect Noelvi Marte, outfielders TJ Friedl, Jake Fraley, and Will Benson, and the Reds have a formidable lineup that could seriously make some noise going into 2024.
That Sounds Great, What's the Problem?
Their issue? That's a lot of position player talent, and I didn't even mention newly signed corner infielder Jeimer Candelario or former NL Rookie of the Year Jonathan India.
While there's some opportunity for platoon situations and letting a few of those players mentioned above spend a bit more time developing in AAA (Marte and De La Cruz might be better served to get a few more at-bats down there), there's a serious opportunity here to make a few changes and being a serious contender next year.
The Reds were in the very early stages of their rebuild when they were greeted with this surprise early success, so perhaps they balked at the idea of trading a guy like Marte. However, there are only so many innings to go around, and the timelines don't match up regarding controllable assets.
Moving on from a player like India might not be ideal either, as India's value is not likely as high to others as it would be to Cincy if they just kept him. He's regressed a bit from his stellar 2021 rookie campaign. He's never been a good fielder at second base, and his hitting numbers have regressed to below league average, although his process stats provide hope, as he's got a decent xwOBA (top third of baseball), a really good chase rate, and an excellent sweet sport %.
So again, his value to the Reds might be higher keeping him as a low-risk, high-reward type of player at a low-offensive output position.
Unfortunately, the Reds' pressing issue is their pitching, with young guys like Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo spending significant time on the injured list and a bullpen that over-performed quite a bit last season, with their biggest contributors out of the pen sporting FIPs that were a bit higher than their ERAs.
What can they do to Address Their Pitching Staff?
They've made some minor moves to address these issues, signing veterans like Emilio Pagan, Nick Martinez, and Frankie Montas to short-term, low-cost deals, and this could be for the best in regards to free agency. The big-name pitchers, who are likely to command the highest $ and year totals, are more of a product of the low supply of high-end arms in the free-agent pool after Ohtani and Yamamoto.
The Reds' main avenue to acquiring pitching talent would be through trading one of their high-level prospects for any combination of Dylan Cease, Shane Bieber, or Corbin Burnes.
If they believe in their roster enough to do so, they could pull the trigger and risk giving up a really elite prospect for a high-end arm that could leave for free agency very soon or command a sizable contract extension.
Of course, if they dealt for Bieber, the least attractive of the 3 trade candidates mentioned above, they could try to get away with not including any of their super big-name prospects and deal from the lower levels with a guy like 3B Cam Collier or first-rounder from this past season's draft, RHP Rhett Lowder.
Bieber has dealt with his fair share of injuries though, so dealing for him won't be a sure thing either.
So, What's the Plan?
The Reds staying the course and continuing their "rebuild" as planned is the best option. They don't run the risk of missing out on any cheap, controllable talent and they maintain both roster and payroll flexibility. Plus, the NL Central is such a winnable division that they could win the division pretty comfortably without dealing any of their promising young prospects.
They may have an overflow of infielders, with Encarnacion-Strand at DH, Candelario at 1B, McLain at either short or second, De La Cruz and Marte trying to fill in somewhere, India still playing second, Steer perhaps finding a place in a corner outfield spot, and the rest of the outfielders either platooning or providing even more depth.
Injuries and underperformance are bound to happen, so the Reds wouldn't be crazy to try and hold onto their depth instead of pushing their chips in too early.
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