The 2016 season is over. The Cubs won the World Series, the awards have been handed out, and the winter meetings are about to start. That means it’s time to really start thinking about the 2017 season.

2016, we all know, was the year of bottoming-out for the Reds. It was bad, but we knew it was going to be bad. 2018 is supposed to be when the Reds compete again. So what about 2017?

It matters. Let me explain what I mean.

There has been a lot of talk about who to play, and where, and when to call them up to account for service time and all that. Much of it gets away from what should really be the focus of the 2017 season — figuring out what the best team for 2018 will be.

Let’s start somewhere easy, like the middle infield. If they aren’t traded this offseason, it is certainly possible that Brandon Phillips and/or Zack Cozart could play themselves into having trade value during 2017. However, no matter how well they play, neither of them is going to bring a return that is likely to impact the Reds positively in a way that offsets keeping the available prospects on the bench or in the minors. The Reds have Eugenio Suarez, Jose Peraza, Dilson Herrera, and (soon) Nick Senzel to fill three positions. Should more than one of them falter, Tony Renda may enter the picture. But, with the exception of Senzel, none of them have anything left to do in the minors. They need to play so their role in 2018 can be assessed with a full season’s worth of data. Playing Cozart and Phillips to start the year makes it harder to field a competitive team in 2018 because it reduces the information you have about the relevant players.

In the rotation, the Reds have the following players in the mix as potential 2018 contributors: Anthony DeSclafani, Homer Bailey, Brandon Finnegan, Dan Straily, Amir Garrett, Robert Stephenson, Cody Reed, Tim Adleman, Rookie Davis, Tyler Mahle. Only those last two have much development left to do in the minors. That’s eight players for five spots 2017 and ten for five spots in 2018. And yet there has been noise about signing a “veteran” starter this year to be the fifth starter. No. NONONONONONONONO. no.

Garrett, Stephenson, and Reed all need to be given chances at the MLB level this year. Frankly, given how likely he is to regress, the Reds need to be ready to move Straily out of the rotation if two or three of the top guys really start to get going. Why? Because Dan Straily and “unknown veteran starter” aren’t part of the 2018 plan, and it’s time for the Reds to figure out what they have so they can patch any holes they need to patch next offseason. Picking up on a theme yet?

The last spot up for discussion is the outfield, where we have three players (Jesse Winker, Adam Duvall, and Scott Schebler) for two spots. I know, I know, blah blah Duvall arguments and all that. I am not arguing that Duvall isn’t a useful player. However, as Winker is supposed to be an important part of the next winning Reds team and as Duvall and Schebler are on the old side for relatively new players, at some point this year, preferably early, Winker needs to be given a starting job and told to sink or swim. He may very well sink. And if he sinks so disastrously that his future value is seriously called into question, that’s important information to have and it matters more than making sure that Duvall or Schebler get a full year of ABs (count me in the pro-platoon camp). And don’t forget that T.J. Friedl should move through the system relatively quickly.

The point I’m trying to make is this: Every decision the Reds make this year should be about getting information for 2018. They have more players than they do spots to fill and so giving playing time to players who are definitively NOT part of the plan for 2018 and beyond only hamstrings the development of the young players and limits the information available when making decisions about where to spend on the free agent market next offseason and/or who to target for an extension.

2017 matters. The Reds may or may not field a team that manages a winning record, but they certainly need to play the players who are ready to graduate. Holding them back only does a disservice to the next truly competitive Reds team.