As the 2022 season comes to a close, Redleg Nation diehards know all too well that we spent the past six months watching one of the worst teams ever assembled in the long history of the Cincinnati Reds franchise.
Creating a consistent player pipeline from the minors to the big-league team, along with payroll savings, are the clear objectives of the front office. Winning? Not so much, at least in the short run.
My objective for this article is to lay out a plan for 2023 that:
- Does not deter from the objective of developing players for the major league level
- Takes advantage of a very modest current payroll commitment for 2023
- Gives loyal Reds fans something better to watch
Key points to keep in mind:
- None of the team’s top position-player or pitching prospects is clearly ready to make the step from Class AAA Louisville. There are numerous top prospects at Class AA Chattanooga and below, but the jump from Class AA to the bigs is very rare. So there is at least a full year before the pipeline will be producing as is hoped.
- Cincinnati has only $46.5 million in major league payroll currently committed for 2023.
- The major-league pitching staff has guys who appear — as a group — to be able to do their part to keep the team competitive. The rest of the team — absolutely not.
Let’s start by building the pre-winter meetings 40-man roster, which will need to be finalized in November (prior to the Rule 5 draft at the Winter Meetings).
Nine players among Cincinnati’s top prospects will become eligible to be selected in this fall’s Rule 5 draft (according to Fangraphs) if they are not placed on the major-league 40-man roster before then:
- Noelvi Marte
- Elly De La Cruz
- Ivan Johnson
- Nick Northcut (the Class AA first baseman who came from Boston in the Tommy Pham trade. He’s coming off a 30-homer, 75 RBI season in the Red Sox system.)
- Brandon Williamson
- Levi Stoudt
- Lyon Richardson
Also, outfielder TJ Hopkins and catcher Daniel Vellojin.
(Names of top prospects you don’t see in this list are not eligible for Rule 5 selection until at least late 2023.)
Because the organizational priority is developing the pipeline from minor leagues to the big-league roster, we’ll start here. That’s nine of the 40 roster spots:
- Pitchers: 3
- Catchers: 1
- Infielders: 4
- Outfielders 1
Next, let’s add the pretty obvious choices: players under contract for 2023 and players already on the 40-man roster with team control remaining:
- Tejay Antone: 3 options, 3 contract control years remaining
- Graham Ashcraft: 3, 6
- Luis Cessa: 0, 1
- Fernando Cruz: 3, 6
- Alexis Diaz: 3, 5
- Daniel Duarte: 3, 5
- Justin Dunn: 3, 3
- Buck Farmer, 0, 1
- Hunter Greene: 3, 5
- Jeff Hoffman: 0, 2
- Derek Law: 0, 3
- Nick Lodolo: 3, 6
- Dauri Moreta: 2, 6
- Connor Overton: 3, 5
- Reiver Sanmartin: 2, 6
- Tony Santillan: 1, 5
- Lucas Sims: 0, 2
- Jared Solomon: 2, 6
(Vladimir Gutierrez starts the year on the 60-day IL after his Tommy John surgery. Ian Gibaut, Ryan Hendrix, Joel Kuhnel and Art Warren do not make our 40-man roster.)
- Tyler Stephenson: 2, 4
(None of the other five catchers on the current 40-man roster make ours.)
- Jose Barrero: 2, 5
- Kyle Farmer
- Jonathan India
- Mike Moustakas
- Spencer Steer: 3, 6
- Joey Votto
(Neither Alejo Lopez nor Matt Reynolds makes our 40-man roster.)
- Allan Cerda: 3, 6
- Stuart Fairchild: 2, 6
- Jake Fraley: 2, 4
- TJ Friedl: 2, 6
- Nick Senzel: 3, 3
- Michael Siani: 3, 6
(Aristides Aquino does not make our 40-man roster. We chose to protect Hopkins from the Rule 5 draft after a 21-homer, 80-RBI season at Chattanooga and Louisville combined, instead of Aquino.)
Updated 40-man roster totals:
- Pitchers: 21
- Catchers: 2
- Infielders: 10
- Outfielders: 7
Essentially, this is the same cast of characters that has produced one of the worst records in franchise history.
Priorities for 2023 major-league improvement
1) Improve offense however possible. Aggressively pursue any major league player with an above-average batting record at the big-league level. The major league roster is populated with what are essentially a bunch of platoon position players. Focus on the outfield, in particular.
2) Improve infield defense. I’d move India to third base, where he played in college. He’s been brutal at second base this year. I’d prioritize acquiring a starting shortstop and second baseman (who are on short-term contracts). If they can’t get a second baseman, move Senzel there to lower the chances of him banging into outfield walls.
3) Stephenson is your catcher and probably best hitter. But he needs a competent backup. There has to be someone available who can be a better backup catcher (both defensively and offensively) than the motley crew we’ve witnessed this year.
This team’s pitching staff has the potential to be able to hold up their end of the deal with at-least average production. But the position players are nowhere near able to do that. The farm system is still years away from filling out a starting lineup with major-league caliber players.
In September, the Reds’ team batting slash was .211/.283/.358/.641. Essentially, a team of Billy Hamiltons with the bat. Will that improve with a return to health of many of the walking wounded? Certainly. But not enough to be even close to competitive.
If you run a team of Billy Hamiltons out there again in support of a starting pitching staff that appears to have great potential of three young studs, aren’t you actually “wasting” those pitchers’ years under team control? Much as the team has “wasted” most of Joey Votto’s career by not providing him adequate support?
With that in mind, here’s a plan for what can be done before Opening Day for noticeable improvement.
It appears somewhat safe to slot Greene, Lodolo and Ashcraft as the first three in the rotation. The hope, of course, is that they will show even more improvement with a full year of valuable experience behind them. Then, you fill out the rotation from a gaggle of guys you tell in training camp that they have a chance to compete for starting spots: Overton, Dunn, and Cessa to start with. Then you start working the phones with the agents of the many free agents and other veterans who are let go. You want at least five or six guys in that battle for the final two spots.
We also know from very sad history that we should plan for at least one of the starters we’re counting on to get hurt. This is another good reason to bring in as many live arms as are willing to show up.
Some may want Williamson to have a shot. I say he has to go back to Louisville early next year and improve on his 6.02 walks per nine innings. If I’m Derek Johnson, I’m telling the entire organization that nobody who is walking more than four batters per nine innings will toe a major league mound. As of Saturday evening, Cincinnati pitching had walked the most batters in the big leagues for the year — and by a pretty wide margin. That just has to stop. Only 16 of the 37 pitchers who appeared for the Reds this year had walks-per-nine less than 4.00. Through Saturday, the team total for the season was 3.84 walks per nine.
This could very well turn out to be the strength of the team in 2023. Diaz appears ready to be slotted into the closer’s role, and veteran righties Farmer and Law were largely dependable as seventh and eighth-inning options. Lefty Sanmartin had a 2.74 ERA as a reliever, and that definitely will play. Another lefty would be ideal, and — as is the case with starting pitchers — there will be many veterans looking for opportunities come spring. The most intriguing aspect of the bullpen is the possible healthy return of Sims, Antone and Santillan. Antone is coming off his second Tommy John surgery, so please be aware that the success rate after two such procedures is very low. If even one of the three can come back and return to their top form, that would be amazing.
I very much liked what I saw from Fernando Cruz, but the sample size is admittedly very small. He, Hoffman, and Moreta look like depth options for when inevitable injuries strike. There are many variables at play in the bullpen, but many could develop positively.
I’m of the opinion that Stephenson should be moved to first base or DH to protect what appears to be a dynamic hit tool from the constant injuries he has suffered as a catcher. But for that to happen, there has to be another catcher on the roster who can perform at least at an average major league level offensively and defensively. That person does not exist in the system currently. I’d at least approach free agent Tucker Barnhart to see what his interest is in returning as a backup.
Votto is expected back at first base after his shoulder surgery, but at what fraction of his peak performance? Impossible to say. I’m hoping for a great probable final year under contract for Votto, but not expecting that. He’s essentially a platoon player to be used against righties at this point. I like Donovan Solano as a righty bat to fill out that platoon if they can bring him back.
India would move to third base as the everyday starter, and I’d like to find established starters at second and shortstop who would sign short-term deals. The free agent market doesn’t appear to have much to offer on those terms. As mentioned, that would mean Senzel would move to second base, and likely Farmer at short. Farmer makes all the plays he can reach, but lacks range.
Ideally, Farmer would be best suited as a jack-of-all-trades guy who would start somewhere any time a lefty is pitching against the Reds. Against lefties this year, he’s batted .309/.380/.568/.948.
Barrero has not earned serious consideration based on his performance this year. He’ll have to return to Louisville next year and hit like Roy Hobbs to reopen decision-makers’ eyes.
Steer may fill the utility infielder position held this year by Reynolds.
I’m looking to add some major-league talent from outside the organization here. We know the Reds won’t be in play at the top end of the free agent market, but some names who might be forced to consider shorter-term contracts include:
- Aledmys Díaz (age 32)
- Corey Dickerson (33)
- Adam Duvall (33)
- Wil Myers (32, Padres likely to decline club option)
- Tyler Naquin (32)
- David Peralta (35)
None of the current outfielders on the current big-league roster strikes me as being ready to hit productively as an everyday player. That may change with some additional minor league seasoning for some of them. They all have options left, and there should be no sacred cows. Play the guys who show they can hit and field the best. End of story.
It’s my belief that lefty batters Friedl and Fraley will be in the best position to succeed in platoons with righty batters Fairchild and perhaps Myers.
As was the case this year, this will likely be someone different every day, based on matchups.
I expect Nick Krall to continue to trade with a focus on exchanging experienced players for prospects. But if I was his boss, I would tell him to keep his eyes open to available players in the $5-million to $10-million range with one or two years left on their contracts.
- No minor leaguers truly ready for the majors will be blocked, meaning the pipeline development process continues.
- The major league team will be more entertaining to watch.
- If the injury epidemic can be reduced, this could be a team that is semi-competitive — maybe in the mid-70ish win range.
What do you think? Let’s talk about it below!