Playing Pepper 2023: Cincinnati Reds

If there is one thing baseball is good at, it’s tradition.  (OK, so that point could be debated with the changes over the last few years.)  Tradition around here states that the beginning of the season means that it’s time for Playing Pepper!  This is the fifteenth season–a decade and a half!–of the series that helps you get ready for the season by going around the league and talking with people that live and die with their teams.  Bloggers, former bloggers, podcasters, we’ve got them all as we take a tour of MLB and play some pepper!  If you get inspired to make some predictions during this series, this contest is open to fans of all teams so enter today!

Cincinnati Reds
62-100, fourth (tie) in the NL Central
Website | Twitter | Twitter List
Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by fWAR: Tyler Mahle, Luis Castillo (2.2)
Top hitter by fWAR: Brandon Drury (2.6)

Being one of the Cardinals’ NL Central foes, we’ve all had a front row seat to Cincinnati’s foibles of late.  The team tried to put together a competitive squad for a while but now seems to be willing to go the rebuild route and wait for some of their talented youngsters to come up.  That is, if there’s anyone that is still in the stands when they make their debut.  We’ve got some long-suffering (or at least suffering) Reds fans to tell us what’s what about this squad.

Contributor Site Twitter
Doug Gray Redleg Nation dougdirt24
Shawn Weaver coweaver
Jim Walker Redleg Nation jn_walkerjr
Wick Terrell Red Reporter wickterrell

C70: The free agent signings of a few years ago never completely panned out and now it seems the Reds are going in a new direction. How are you feeling about the Reds and where they stand coming into 2023?

Doug: There’s a bit of a mixed bag here. The 2022 season was basically given up on by ownership when they traded away Eugenio Suarez, Jesse Winker, Sonny Gray in spring training for prospects, and also let Wade Miley just get away for nothing. They didn’t replace or even pretend to attempt to replace Nick Castellanos who had left in free agency. That left a bitter taste in the mouth of much of the fanbase. Then in 2022 the team made more trades of established big leaguers at the trade deadline, moving Luis Castillo, Tyler Mahle, Tommy Pham, Tyler Naquin, and Brandon Drury in deals to bring back more prospects.

Moving the guys at the trade deadline can make sense. The team wasn’t winning in 2022 and some of those guys weren’t going to do much for 2023, either. And the team got back several high-end prospects in those deals. But the fact that the team went into spring training without spending hardly anything (they did sign Wil Myers to a deal for $6M for one year) despite cutting about $60M in payroll from where the team was projected to be at in 2020 is disheartening. Teams make the decision to rebuild and not try to win when you can both build a farm system and try to win at the big league level at the same time. It’s easier and less risky to just not spend money, though. Good for the owners but terrible for the fans.

With all of that said, the Reds won’t be good in 2023 short of a perfect storm of nearly everything going right for them on every possible level. There are some high end prospects that should debut in 2023 and when they do arrive – be it making the club out of spring training or coming up around mid-season – it will make for a more exciting and hopefully fun-to-follow brand of baseball for the fan base. But that probably won’t result in a whole bunch of winning yet, either. There isn’t much pitching depth in the rotation – be it in the big leagues or the minor leagues – and that could make things get real ugly if anyone in the top three of the rotation misses time.

Shawn: During the 2019-2020 offseason, the Reds looked at a roster that had finished 75-87 in 2019 and decided that to make a run at the playoffs in the twilight of Joey Votto‘s career, they would have to put some more pop in the lineup. They signed Mike Moustakas, which was strange since their best hitter in 2019, Eugenio Suarez, played third base as did Moustakas. The Reds promptly announced Moustakas would play second base, replacing free agent Jose Peraza. The Reds were giving up on a young, speedy player who played good defense in favor of a power hitter with far less mobility. They went to Japan to sign Shogo Akiyama, who could make up for that lost speed, and then slugger Nick Castellanos, who figured to add ever more power. This, however, combined with holdover outfielders Jesse Winker and Nick Senzel, gave them an overloaded outfield. How could this be resolved?

Then, of course, COVID hit and derailed the 2020 season. It did add a DH, which solved the problem of too many outfielders, while it discombobulated everything else. The Reds did make the postseason, albeit because of expanded playoff spots, and got swept in their wild card series against the Braves. Still, an improvement with a finish slightly over .500. The Reds effectively stuck with their 2020 hand for 2021. They managed another above .500 finish at 83-79 in spite of a bullpen implosion but missed the playoffs. Castellanos then activated his opt-out clause and hit the jackpot by landing in Philadelphia for their World Championship season, while the Reds management decided to blow up the team after a labor dispute shortened the 2022 spring training. Now, no one knows what the plan is or if there is a plan. Fan faith in management is at an all-time low in the Queen City.

Jim: How about angry, disgusted, disillusioned and disheartened to top the list? The best that can be said is that President of Baseball Operations Nick Krall appears to have done very well at stocking the mid and lower levels of the Reds minor league system as he followed ownership’s direction to go cheap and develop a winning team from within. But do the Reds have the ability to develop the crop of prospects recently brought into the system in an orderly and timely fashion?

Additionally, the Reds have the beginnings of a competitive core of position players and starting pitchers already with the MLB team. However, catcher Tyler Stephenson and second baseman Jonathan India are in line to be arbitration eligible for the 2024 season with pitchers Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo just a season behind them as arbitration eligible for 2025. Will the ownership pay to keep these core players long enough to merge them with rising prospects? Might it have made more sense to try and immediately bolster this core with acquisitions at or closer to the MLB level?

Wick: The Reds have paid more money for Shogo Akiyama and Mike Moustakas to simply go away than they spent in total on 2023 free agents. It’s hard not to think those events aren’t directly entwined, especially with the departure of Dick Williams from the front office during that span. The fact is, the Reds are going all-in on a future window as their lone strategy these days, and while that’s exciting in a number of ways, it’s hard not to look in the rear-view mirror and see years of floundering while being asked to chalk up 2023 as another rough year, too.

I like where the Reds are going. I very much do not like where they are.

C70: The club has been termed a “non-profit”. The fans have been asked “where are you going to go?” How frustrating is it following a team where the ownership seems to be almost antagonistic toward the fan base?

Doug: It’s incredibly frustrating. It’s insulting. If Phil Castellini – the man behind those quotes – weren’t the son of the team’s CEO and man who owns the largest portion of the Reds (which has an ownership group that features 19 listed “investors” that are either individuals or LLCs) he would have been fired a long time ago. 

Shawn: The Castellini family has exhausted its supply of good will among Cincinnati baseball fans, Unless this crop of young players produces quickly, it is hard to see how they can win back the fan base. Winning solves a lot of problems, but that seems a long way off.

Jim: It is very frustrating. Last spring (2022), after dumping ~$40m in salaries (Tucker Barnhart, Wade Miley, Sonny Gray, Eugenio Suárez and Jesse Winker) in the off season and early spring training, the Reds inexplicably pivoted and sunk nearly half that amount into Mike Minor and Tommy Pham. Neither seemed to be an upgrade over players they had salary dumped. So why the dumps?

This activity came on the heels of moving bullpen stalwarts Raisel Iglesias and Archie Bradley following the 2020 season only see the team blow a clear chance for 2021 playoffs because of a very subpar bullpen. With due respect to the Cardinals and their fans, despite their team’s historic September 2021 run, with either Iglesias or Bradley in the Reds pen from the get-go, the Reds well might have had an insurmountable lead for a wild card spot in September.

Wick: Selfish, ungracious owners of professional sports teams are nothing new. It’s when those owners repeatedly back up their personalities with awful on-field performance where the frustration finally boils over, as in the end we’re all fans because we inherently seek some enjoyment out of all of this in some form or fashion. This group, spearheaded by the Castellini family, has had what, 17 years to accomplish something? I don’t think I need to tell fans of the game of baseball what the Reds have not accomplished in that time. 

It will be that, the on-field turnaround we’re all hoping for, that ultimately will decide where things go from here. Reds fans aren’t abandoning ship, but they sure do have a more specific face to point at should things continue to fail.

C70: It’s Joey Votto’s last year under contract unless the club picks up his option for 2024. How likely are they to do that and what are the expectations of Votto after an injury-shortened 2022?

Doug: That is one of the big questions for the Reds this year and the answer is simply that I don’t think anyone knows. Votto’s shoulder injury clouds everything. If he comes out and performs even to something close to average, I think that the team has to bring him back for 2024 if he wants to keep playing. They would owe him $7M to not play. To bring him back they would owe him $20M, which is just an additional $13M versus sending him packing. He might be the last player to ever be a lifelong Cincinnati Red (at least of note who happened to play 10 years or more). He’s a future Hall of Famer. The team owes him that much, unless he’s just very, very bad in his return.

As for the expectations…. Who knows? Shoulder injuries aren’t good. Some guys come back from them better than others do. The timeline for coming back and being normal also seems to vary wildly among those who can and do return to form. Votto’s 39-years-old, so his body probably doesn’t quite recover like it would have when he was 25. But the guy is about as hard of a worker as you’re going to see, too. He’s going to give it all he’s got to get back to where he thinks he should be. He basically played with one arm for the final two months in 2022 and was only a little below-league average at the plate.

Shawn: Votto has now gotten back on the field, but it’s too early to see what he has in the tank yet. With Joey, he’s not done until he says he’s done, but this is a wait-and-see proposition. If Votto produces at anywhere near his accustomed levels, the club will have no choice but to bring him back. The final decision, though, will be Votto’s.

Jim: Let’s start by clarifying the numbers. The buyout on Votto’s 2024 option is $7m against a $20m salary for 2024 if the Reds pick up the option; so, the option essentially is a $13m decision.
Votto is currently in camp rehabilitating from (August 2022) surgery to his left shoulder area which repaired tears in the rotator cuff and adjacent bicep. While Votto has recently progressed to appearances in the Reds spring games, he not committed to declaring himself ready for regular season play.

Ultimately the decision on Votto’s option could come down to how he performs on the field in 2023 and how his health projects looking forward to 2024. However, the $13m difference between the sunken buyout cost and potential 2024 salary seems like a high bar in the Reds current situation. I suspect if Votto is with the Reds as a player in 2024, most likely it will be on a decreased contract following an option buyout.

Wick: I don’t see any way the austere Reds pick up the option on Joey’s contract, even if he turns back the clock in 2023 and posts a season like he did in his resurgent 2021. That’s sad on a number of levels, but it’s something they’ve certainly prepared us for in advance with how they’ve managed their finances recently.

He had major surgeries this offseason. Plural. He had both a rotator cuff and biceps that needed major repair, and while he’s only just gotten back on the field in Cactus League play this spring, he looks like he’s pain-free again, finally. If that’s the case, I think he’ll ultimately put together a stretch of really good hitting again this year, even if the power’s not as prolific as the go-go juiced-ball seasons. My personal expectations for him, should he stay healthy, are something around a .360-.370 OBP with a reasonably decent old-guy slugging percentage around .430.

C70: There are a number of younger players on the team and some that are on their way. Which rookie or limited-MLB-experience guy will have the most impact on the club this year?

Doug: Another tough question because it’s tough to know who will come up and when. I’ll say this much – I don’t think it’s going to be a pitcher. If I had to bet on it – and I don’t bet on things I have no say in the outcome on – I’d say either shortstop Elly De La Cruz or corner infielder Christian Encarnacion-Strand. As I type this Christian Encarnacion-Strand has an OPS of 1.748 with just two strikeouts in 27 plate appearances. He’s coming off of a 32 home run season in the minors last season and he’s hit everywhere he’s been.

Elly De La Cruz is the team’s top prospect, and he’s a top 5-10 prospect in all of baseball depending on exactly which list you want to look at. He’s got tools for days. He also won the triple crown in the Reds farm system last year at just 20 years old. We’re talking about a guy who hit a 500 foot home run last year who also stole 47 bases in 121 games. The upside is unbelievable.  Both guys, though, only have *some* playing time at the Double-A level. Encarnacion-Strand had 148 plate appearances at the level and De La Cruz had just over 200. Both performed very well at the level, but there’s no Triple-A experience, and both guys have things that they appear to need to still work on.

Shawn: Spencer Steer looks to have the third base job; the sophomore pitching trio of Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo, and Graham Ashcraft will head the rotation. Those guys are being counted on to contribute. Others may force their way onto the roster during the season. Elly de la Cruz is the highly-anticipated shortstop prospect everyone wants to see. Jose Barerro gets another chance to win the shortstop job but he will have to hit or get passed by. Matt McLain figures to be seen in Cincinnati sooner rather than later. Christian Encarnacion-Strand has made a push to force his way onto the roster. A lot will depend on how long the team decides to hold onto mediocre veterans like Chad Pinder.

Jim: Among position players, the club seems to be betting on Spencer Steer (25 years of age) who was acquired from the Twins in the Tyler Mahle trade (July 2022). Steer made his MLB debut with the Reds in September, appearing in 28 games and making 108 plate appearances. While his offensive numbers at the MLB level were less than eye catching (72 OPS+), the Reds appear to have made the 2023 third baseman spot his to lose.

However don’t look past three guys who will start the season in the minors but could be up with the Reds by midseason. Christian Encarnacion-Strand (often referred to as CES), a 23 year old who came to the Reds in last July in the same trade as Spencer Steer, was perhaps consistently the best hitter in the Reds MLB camp this spring prior to being recently reassigned to the minor league camp. CES projects as a corner infielder or DH candidate. He will start 2023 at AAA Louisville.

Matt McLain was the Reds first round pick (#17 overall) out of UCLA in the 2021 draft. He has played at SS in the Reds system but bookmark that he has some collegiate level experience as an outfielder. McLain also had a very strong spring run in the Reds MLB camp on the heels of a solid season in the Arizona Fall League. Like CES, he will start the year at AAA.
And saving the best till last, Elly De La Cruz (EDLC) is the 21 year old switch hitting uber prospect who put together an incredible run at AA last season. EDLC is ranked in or near the top 5 of virtually every overall list of top minor league prospects. Like McLain, to date his primary position as a professional has been SS. EDLC is also projected to start the season at AAA. Uh, if the Reds pitching staff was put with the AAA roster might actually be a better team than…… (never mind).

On the pitching side keep an eye on lefty Brandon Williamson (25 years old). He came to the Reds last spring as part of the return in the Eugenio Suárez/ Jesse Winker trade. Williamson struggled in his first year with the Reds organization at Class AA, mainly due to command and control issues. However, reports out of spring training say his stuff has been other worldly and his control appears to be much improved. He is being given every opportunity to pitch his way into the back end of the Reds rotation.

Wick: It’s been Hunter Greene on the front page for most of this winter, and I do think he’ll have the kind of year in 2023 that will make much of the baseball world say ‘oh right, we remember why he was taken 2nd overall a couple of years back.’ That said, I really think Nick Lodolo takes completely off this season and leads the Reds in WAR. His elite movement and ability to throw strikes is second to none on the team’s pitching staff, and I truly think the team has something special in him.

C70: What’s the best case, worst case, and most likely scenario on how 2023 plays out?

Doug: The best case is that the prospects come up and perform well, the rotation stays healthy, and much of the team avoids any further injury issues (they’re already facing their share this spring), and they can push for 80 wins. The worst case is that the prospects either don’t perform and don’t come up, or come up and don’t perform and the rotation sees some injuries that lead to another 100 loss season. The most likely scenario is that the team battles with the Pirates for last place and wins around 70-ish games. Cincinnati simply isn’t that good and aren’t built to really win in 2023.

Shawn: The worst case for the 2023 Reds is another 100-loss season; it would be the second in a row and third in team history. A best-case record would be .500, which seems unlikely. The best-case for the team would be for the young players to develop and begin to sort themselves out. Which of the young infielders will play where, and will some move to the outfield? The best thing that can happen for the Reds would be for the picture of who can play where to become clearer.

In the end this season will be measured by prospect progress rather than win totals. A playoff spot appears to be out of the question, and I don’t think any of us in Reds fandom expects that. What we would like is to see young players begin to succeed, and not to have at-bats wasted on the likes of Kevin Newman and Austin Romine.

Jim: The worst case is if any of the group of Tyler Stephenson, Johnathan India, Hunter Greene or Nick Lodolo greatly underperform expectations or miss significant time to injury, the Reds could be as bad or worse than in 2022.

The best case is that everyone stays nominally healthy, performs to or exceeds expectations; and, uber prospect Elly De La Cruz forces his way to MLB no later than the All Star break and puts together 2-3 all star caliber months with the Reds. In such a situation, the Reds might actually contend for a spot in the expanded playoff format (presuming ownership stays out of the way and allows Nick Krall leeway to exploit the opportunity).

The most likely case is that neither the worst nor the best transpires; and, the team finishes with about ±70 wins. As above, this presumes ownership does not instruct Nick Krall to offload any veterans performing well for prospects at the trade deadline.

Wick: The trio of Greene, Lodolo, and Graham Ashcraft can really be elite, I think. A frontline like that can, if you squint, potentially replicate the kind of top-line starting success seen by Milwaukee of late. If the Reds get that, both Jonathan India and Tyler Stephenson stay healthy and continue to progress, Votto returns to decent form, and the platoon-heavy outfield bats they’ve acquired all pan out the way their splits suggest, this team could tread water through the first half of the season. If that happens in conjunction with Elly De La Cruz breaking into the team mid-year, best-case scenario could lead to a young, exciting team that flirts with .500 ball into September.

That said, even the best-case scenario here has ample flaws. The back of their starting rotation remains a complete question mark, and it was a complete question mark even before injuries to Justin Dunn and Luke Weaver. The bullpen was an absolute mess a year ago, they added almost nobody to that mix, and Tejay Antone and Tony Santillan remain hurt. On top of that, they’re banking on a litany of oft-injured players to simply bounce back in 2023, and that includes Wil Myers, their largest free agent signing.

If the rationalist in you acknowledges that they might begin to slow, or shut down their inexperienced starting trio late in the season, it’s easy to see a scenario where the strength of the team evaporates quickly. Factor in that they don’t figure to be making any high-profile in-season acquisitions, and the second half of the year has a potentially cloudy outlook should the prospect wave not hit the ground sprinting – and when I say ‘prospect wave,’ I mean the position players, since despite the overall solid state of the farm, there aren’t many MLB-ready arms there to step in this season. Any injuries or hiccups with the arms and this whole thing torpedoes fast once again.

I’ll be trying to ignore the team’s overall win/loss record this year (again), but the optimist in me acknowledges that the worst of this particular rebuild has come and gone. The most likely scenario for this year is improvement on last year’s 100 loss campaign, maturation of the young MLB core, and emergence of De La Cruz at some point. I think this club has 70-72 wins written all over it with an expected September slide to close things out, and 75 wins would feel like an accomplishment.

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