The Cincinnati Reds just had a winning season. After a 100-loss season. No, they didn’t make the playoffs, but this year was a huge step forward. For most of us, the only question left is, “what comes next?” This feels like a team ready to take the next step. What does that mean? Let’s take a look.
(Before we get going, I’m going to talk about Joey Votto, in some depth, later in the article. I’m also gonna write about him in a bigger picture sense later this week.)
Right now, under team control, the Reds have the following players who seem likely to command regular spots in the lineup next year:
C – Tyler Stephenson
1B/3B – Christian Encarnacion-Strand
2B – Jonathan India
2B/SS – Matt McLain
SS/3B – Elly De L Cruz
3B/SS – Noelvi Marte
LF/RF – Will Benson
CF – TJ Friedl
RF/LF – Jake Fraley
1B/3B/2B/OF – Spencer Steer
That is a fairly stacked lineup, especially when we note that only Tyler Stephenson and Elly De La Cruz were below average hitters for their positions last year. Stephenson was only slightly below average for a catcher (85 wRC+ for Stephenson vs. 89 for catchers on average). Meanwhile, De La Cruz is obviously not going anywhere and most of us assume that he will eventually become the consistently great player we saw inconsistent flashes of this year.
You could make a case for keeping that group together and seeing what they can do. However, there are two specific places where improvement could be had. Jonathan India is the only player on that list who only played one position in the field this year. Depending on your thoughts on Spencer Steer, he is also either the 4th or 5th best defensive infielder in the group. Among those who can play second base and/or shortstop, he’s also likely the 5th best hitter (assuming De La Cruz improves). It’s awfully hard to see where this team is the best version of itself with India in the lineup most every day. And he would, you’d think, be able to bring back something solid in a trade.
(Aside: Yes, I know all the noise about India being a “leader.” I read a lot about the Reds, and the person I’ve heard talk about that the most is India. He does not seem to come up a lot with the other players unless he is directly asked about.)
But what if India were packaged with another fairly valuable piece? Like, say, Jake Fraley.
Fraley and India are both good major league players. I like watching both of them play. However, they are both limited. India doesn’t really have a spot on the field and Fraley absolutely cannot hit lefties at all. Though Benson and Friedl were also frequently platooned, they don’t have profiles that indicate that as a necessity the way Fraley does. So, let’s say the Reds trade both. The daily lineup could then be:
C- Tyler Stephenson
1B – Christian Encarnacion-Strand
2B – Matt McLain
SS – Elly De La Cruz
3B – Noelvi Marte
LF – Spencer Steer
CF – TJ Friedl
RF – Will Benson
I had it suggested to me by everyone’s favorite stat guy, Joel Luckhaupt, that the Reds could use a 30+ HR guy in the lineup. There’s room for one now. Maybe he’s a free agent. Maybe he comes via a trade for the two guys mentioned above and/or some prospects.
I could also see keeping Fraley, who would then give you a buffer in case of injury. But a new power hitter could provide that as well. But in no case does Jonathan India make sense on this team as an everyday player. I suspect he’ll be traded one way or another.
So what does the position player roster look like. Assume India is gone. Assume you have Fraley/new guy who hits homers. That’s a good starting nine. Truly. I have no issues with that lineup.
Now, let’s talk about the bench.
Backup Catcher – Luke Maile, one assumes. I doubt they carry a third catcher next year.
Utility – Nick Senzel is the only guy who maybe has an inside track? Maybe, I guess. He also seems like good tradebait. I’m about as lukewarm on him as I can be. Yes, he killed lefties this year, but that was a departure from the rest of his career, when he’d been basically fine against them. Also, as good as he was against lefties, he was somehow worse against righties where he was so bad (in more plate appearancess than he had against left-handed pitching this season, I might add), that you wonder if he should ever face right-handed pitching. He’s basically reverse Fraley at this point, and I’m honestly not sure if that’s enough to justify a spot for him.
Utility – Stuart Fairchild and Nick Martini are the two players who saw any kind of actual playing time who hit the best this year. But really, the last two spots on this bench are probably not getting a ton of plate appearances over the course of the year and are as likely to be shaped by who’s healthy at the moment as anything else.
And what about Joey Votto?
I do not know. No one, including Joey seems to. He’s old. He hit just about league average this year coming off major surgery that required a second injured list stint for rest. His BABIP was crazy low, but he was also hitting a lot of groundballs, which will get you a low BABIP. It’s pretty hard to know what, in terms of performance, the Reds could get from him.
That said, Will Benson and TJ Friedl have both talked about Joey helping them as hitters. Christian Encarnacion-Strand noted that Joey helped him in the field. I watched Elly De La Cruz go sit with him after an at-bat to go over what happened. Matt McLain and Votto clearly have a bond. Joey seems like the clubhouse leader everyone has always wanted him to be, but he isn’t noisy about it. If the Reds want a veteran presence who is already part of the culture, there’s a case for keeping Joey. If they were lucky, more recovery time would yield someone who could split 1B and DH with Encarnacion-Strand. Or maybe he’s just power off the bench and some starts against righties. I don’t know, and I think you can make a case for either option.
If Joey were willing, I think, even if I weren’t a fan, I’d want to keep him around for one more year to be the team’s Crash Davis/Scott Rolen and get the kids all grown up.
And Pitching, Too
Hooboy. There were some growing pains with the pitching staff this year. And the Reds REALLY didn’t get the pitching when they should have. That said, you can squint, and make a case for standing pat. It’s not a good case, and the Reds will be idiots if they do, but it’s a case that can be made. It goes like this:
SP1 – Hunter Greene
SP2 – Nick Lodolo
SP3 – Graham Ashcraft
SP4 – Andrew Abbott
SP5 – Brandon Williamson
SP6 (waiting in Louisville) – Connor Phillips
Swing Man – Ben Lively
CL – Alexis Diaz
RP – Lucas Sims
RP – Buck Farmer
RP – Ian Gibaut
RP – Sam Moll
RP – Alex Young
RP – Derek Law or Fernando Cruz, etc.
Sure, if no one gets hurt, that’ll probably get it done. But someone is going to get hurt. And someone else is going to have growing pains. And after Phillips, the cupboard is bare. The Reds need to get at least one established starting pitcher and at least one bullpen arm that didn’t have 250 appearances in 2023.
I actually think this is where India is most likely to be used as a trade chip. I could see some package including him bringing legitimate relief help or an innings-eating, but non-elite starter. The Reds could also go to the free agency well (Hello again, Sonny Gray?). I’m not sure what they’ll do, but they absolutely have to do something. 199 pitchers had at least 40 innings pitched as a starter in MLB in 2023. In short, if you don’t have at least seven starting pitchers who can handle major league batters, you are going to find yourself in some unfortunate situations.
The bullpen did a great job covering for what the starters didn’t do this year, but that’s going to take a toll. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least half of the group listed above came up hurt next season. The Reds have to be ready for that.
The Reds called up Matt McLain on May 15. That’s when they started trying to win. From then on, they played at an 85-win pace, even with a pitching rotation that had no starter healthy and/or good enough to qualify for the ERA title.
They need a starter, some relievers, and maybe a power hitter.
They have a payroll that would barely cover a kid’s school lunches for a year and two years of talk about how they had a plan. The plan is all here.
Go spend money, win 95 games, and get to the playoffs every year for the next five years. You have what you need to do it. Go do it.