The Cincinnati Reds won 62 baseball games in 2022. It was their worst season in four decades and one of the worst seasons in the history of the franchise. 100 losses was only topped by the 1982 squad. The .383 winning percentage was only topped (or bottomed?) by six teams (and matched by another one). Those 1930’s Reds teams were baaaaaad (1930, 1931, 1933, 1934, and 1937 all had a lower winning percentage than the 2022 Reds, and the 1932 team was only slightly better with a .390 winning percentage).
ESPN’s Bradford Doolittle doesn’t see the Reds pulling a 1939 just yet (the Reds lost the World Series that year). Utilizing the Steamer Projections and adding in his own projections for playing time, he ran simulations to come up with what the 2023 season would look like and things were not good for Cincinnati. His projections came up with a 60-102 record for the Reds. That was the worst record in baseball (43 wins worse than the New York Mets who were at the top and two wins behind the Rockies for next worst record).
If you want some hope, there is a little bit. But don’t get too excited, because the hope isn’t something that’s going to likely generate enough wins to truly be competitive.
I, as I am sure are many Reds fans, am very much looking forward to the eventual ascension of shortstop Elly De La Cruz. He’s not alone in terms of future Cincinnati hopes, but he’s on the 40-man roster and he’s exciting.
While Elly De La Cruz is the organization’s top prospect, as Doolittle notes, he’s not alone. And if there’s one thing that projection systems tend to miss on is rookies having good years. These systems are built around past performance and when you don’t have much of any experience in the big leagues, or any at all, they don’t tend to project you to be a difference maker. Now, it’s also fair to say that most prospects don’t become difference makers out of the gate, if ever.
Still, when there’s a real chance that half of your lineup could be rookies by July (De La Cruz, Spencer Steer, Christian Encarnacion-Strand, and maybe a Matt McLain or Michael Siani in your outfield), it’s possible that the team projection is a little worse off simply because of how the non-big leaguers are projected.
With that said, ZiPS also projected Spencer Steer to be the Reds best position player as of a week ago (Wil Myers had not yet been signed and is thus missing from the projection, so it’s possible that this is no longer true). Steer’s 20 home runs to go along with a .756 OPS and solid defense was enough to put him at the top of the projections.
But a guy like Christian Encarnacion-Strand may be underrated here. He’s projected as the second best hitter on the team with a .255/.309/.482 line with 27 home runs if he’s given a full season of playing time (he almost assuredly won’t get that), but he is massively dinged for his defense. On the surface that makes sense given that he’s posted an .893 fielding percentage at third base in his two professional seasons. That likely leaves the projection systems with two beliefs: One, if he winds up playing third base he’s going to be atrocious and the system dings him massively there. Or two, he slides to first base or designated hitter and loses tons of positional value on the defensive side of things.
There’s a reason to believe that he’s a much better defender than his statistics suggest. There’s no denying that he’s been very bad overall in his minor league career at third base. It’s impossible to try and suggest a guy with an .893 fielding percentage has been good in the field. But things flipped over night in the middle of 2022. As I wrote at RedsMinorLeagues.com earlier this winter, on June 17th Encarnacion-Strand made an error that dropped his fielding percentage to .827 on the season at third base. Over the next three days he didn’t play in the field. From June 21st through the end of the season he posted a .976 fielding percentage at third base over his remaining 35 games he played at the position.
That kind of improvement that’s unseen could mean a few things. First is that it likely improves the overall value projection because the systems in place probably didn’t break down his game-by-game fielding stats to see that there was a massive improvement at the midseason point that makes it far more likely he could remain at third base. But secondly, with those improvements – assuming they continue moving forward – means that it’s likely he arrives in the big leagues sooner because there’s not a glaring weakness in his game that must be improved upon before he can be placed into a big league lineup. That could get a true power bat into the lineup more frequently, and in Great American Ball Park…. well, sometimes that can make things far more interesting.
At the end of the day, what these projections tell us is that the Cincinnati Reds are going to be bad. That doesn’t surprise anyone. The team was very bad in 2022, traded away most of their quality big league talent at the trade deadline, and replaced it with…. Wil Myers and hope.
With sports gambling legal in the state of Ohio in 2023, if a sports book puts the over/under on wins for Cincinnati at 60, I’ll sprint to place a bet on the over. It’s certainly not impossible to squint and see that the team does finish the season with 60 wins, but it also doesn’t feel likely. That’s not to say that they’ll win 78 games, either. Injuries always come into play, and while there does seem to be enough depth in the minors on the positional side that they could not only weather some injuries but even see some improvements in the second half if and when some of the top guys arrive, the pitching depth in the minor leagues may not be there. Health on the mound could be a big factor – as it always is, but even more so when your depth is mostly guys who are AAAA types rather than prospects with upside who need to take a step forward in some particular area.
That’s not to say the cupboard is bare in the upper levels, but it does appear to be limited in scale as of right now. Four of the Reds top 25 prospects are pitchers who should start in AA or AAA in 2023, but none of them are coming off of a particularly strong season. Three of them showed real control issues with high walk rates, and the other one had an ERA of 4.75 in 91.0 innings in AA last season. Each of them has enough going for them that you can see a big league future, but all must take at least one step forward (and in one case, a huge step forward) if they’re going to pitch in the big leagues with success in 2023.
Still, keeping guys like Nick Lodolo and Hunter Greene healthy – both of whom project very well according to the Steamer Projections (both are above 3.0 WAR) – could be the difference between watching a team with a solid pitching staff and one that is painful.