Is a New Shortstop What the Reds Need?

Around the league rookie shortstops are injecting a much-needed dose of excitement and intrigue into this 2023 season. MLB debutants Anthony Volpe of the Yankees and Zach Neto of the Angels are already impacting their clubhouses for the better with their youthful exuberance and gritty style of play. Even the multi-gold glove-winning veteran and perennial RF All-star Mookie Betts are getting in on the action as he made his shortstop debut for the Dodgers in a one-off game this past week.

The Mookie experiment aside, let’s bring the focus back to the two names at the vanguard of this current crop of young talent at shortstop.

Is a New Shortstop What the Reds Need

Fresh Faces

Volpe has proven himself to be a big-league defender and a legitimate threat on the base paths. Over 21 games at shortstop (number one in the AL), his dWAR is 0.5–good for third in the AL. His fielding percent (a metric looking at putouts, assists, and errors) at shortstop is top of the league at 1.000.

Offensively, Volpe’s been no slouch, having belted two dingers so far and boasting an OBP of .333. He’s also a perfect eight for eight on the base paths, good for second place in the AL in stolen bases.

Out West, Neto is making his own mark. His sample size of games played is significantly smaller than Volpe’s (due to his recent call-up from Double-A, effectively bypassing Triple-A entirely) but, in his eight games at shortstop in the show, he’s committed no errors and proven himself to be a competent infielder. He has a dWAR of 0.3 and a fielding percentage of 1.000.

At the plate, his bat has been working too. He’s got an OBP of .313 in 27 at-bats and has shown some early plate discipline by striking out only six times while collecting five hits, two runs, and an RBI against top-tier pitching.

Beyond the stat lines though, these two players have just been fun to watch. The Reds’ defense…not so much.

How do the Reds look at Shortstop?

Wondering where the Cincinnati Reds’ infield defense is ranked through 21 games?

According to Statcast, the Reds’ Outs Above Average (OAA) is currently -9, placing them 28th worst out of 30 total MLB clubs. They’re are dead last in the league in runs prevented at -7. The batting average on balls in play (BABIP) for the Reds’ top two pitchers, Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo, is .413 and .448 respectively (the MLB average is .296). The team is tied for 14th worst in the league with 10 errors. Things are bad offensively too but we’ll table those stats for another time.

At shortstop specifically, the Reds have turned to two players this year: Jose Barrero (the de facto day-to-day SS) and Kevin Newman. How do they rank in this mediocre defense?

Not good.

Trouble at Six

Barrero in his 13 games at shortstop owns a dWAR of -1.6, with two errors charged to his name. His OAA is a team-worst -4. While offensively his slash line is one of the more respectable ones on the Reds staff (.255/.328/.353), what he provides on offense does not offset how poorly he’s played in the infield.

The only other Red to spend any appreciable time at shortstop this season, the aforementioned Newman, hasn’t been much better. In his eight appearances at shortstop for the Reds, his dWAR is -0.4 with one error. His OAA is only marginally better than Barrero’s at -2. Offensively he’s been mediocre at best with a current slash line of .200/.229/.356.

With two players underperforming at what is arguably the most active spot on the diamond (aside from the pitcher and catcher), it comes as no surprise that the Reds are struggling defensively.

With that in mind, do the Reds actually have any shortstop prospects they could turn to who could potentially make an impact right now?

Reds Shortstop Prospects

The Reds currently have two promising shortstops prospects at Triple-A affiliate Louisville. While both Noelvi Marte at Double-A Chattanooga and Edwin Arroyo at Single-A Dayton are two other exciting prospects, let’s stick with the two who are most likely to reach the bigs this season, Elly De La Cruz and Matt McLain. (Reds Minor League Roundup)

What could they bring to the table?

Cruz Control

In this year’s spring training, the Reds’ number one prospect (and MLB Pipeline’s current eighth-best prospect overall) De La Cruz flashed moments of defensive and offensive brilliance. Unfortunately, his slash line didn’t reflect this, ending up at .200/.259/.480 in 25 at-bats before he was cut late due to a left hamstring strain. (Reds Future Prospects 2023)

However, over 120 games split between High A Dayton and Double A Chattanooga last year, his true potential was much better represented.

De La Cruz slashed .304/.359/.586 with 29 homers, 87 runs, 86 RBIs, and 47 stolen bases. His wRC+ (a metric that quantifies runs created and adjusts for ballpark variables) was between 161 and 134 during that same time period. He wasn’t just great for a minor leaguer, he was great by any standard people judge baseball players.

Defensively he made some mistakes. De La Cruz committed 20 errors in 120 games while he moved up the ranks of the minors. However, his ranger factor per nine innings (RF/9–a metric that takes put-outs and assists and divides it by innings played at a specific position) for the games that he featured at shortstop (he’s also put time in at 3B), was 3.79–better than Barrero’s 2.84 this season.

It’s also worth noting that De La Cruz finished the year as a Midwest League Postseason All-Star, a Reds organization All-star, and the Reds Minor League Player of the Year for 2022. Not too bad for a 21-year-old.

McLain’s Claim

McLain on the other hand has featured in each of Triple-A Louisville’s 19 games this season. During that time he’s slashed .277/.405/.569 in 65 at-bats with 12 runs, five dingers, 14 RBIs, and six stolen bases. His 2022 season wasn’t as decorated as De La Cruz’s but was still solid.

After initially struggling with his plate discipline in 2022—topping out at a shocking strikeout rate of 28%—McLain started to turn things around later in the season. This improved plate approach seems to have carried over into 2023 as well, demonstrated by the previously mentioned numbers he’s put up so far for the bats this season.

On defense, he’s committed three errors this season at shortstop (he’s also a competent second baseman). But, his RF/9 is a serviceable 3.28–not the best, but again, better than Barrero’s 2.84.

So, for the games both De La Cruz and McLain have featured at SS, their overall defensive value concerning putouts and assists has been higher than Barrero’s. They may both be untested at the big league level, but given their collective offensive and defensive upsides, aren’t they at least worth a look on a Reds team that’s struggling?

Impact Now

The Reds sat mired in a six-game losing streak before consecutive wins on Monday and Tuesday. They own the league’s most one-run loss games at seven. Their overall record has them squarely in last place in the NL Central. While they’ve eclipsed the three-win mark they were at this time last year, things certainly aren’t going the way many Reds faithful had hoped—especially given their promising start to 2023. Their attendance this year reflects that as they find themselves ranked 26th out of 30 MLB teams.

So, what’s keeping the Reds organization from making the move so many fans seem to want? Why aren’t they calling up De La Cruz or McLain to inject some life into a team that is currently floundering on both sides of the ball?

What is There to Lose

There have been many promising talents who haven’t lived up to their potential. Both Volpe and Neto could flame out spectacularly as the season progresses. But right now these top-tier prospects are producing.

They don’t just bring competent batting and fielding, they bring excitement with their gritty, hustle-first style of play. They provide a jolt of exuberance to their respective fan bases. If for no other reason than the youthful way they approach the game.

For the Reds—who’ve been graced with the label of the fifth-best farm system in all of baseball—it just makes sense to follow suit. Especially given the lack of depth they have at the six spot.

Both De La Cruz and McLain could be at the fore of a new wave of talented young Reds if only given the chance. Even if they do turn out to be busts, would they really be that much worse than the two players currently covering the shortstop position?

Main Photo: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

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