We are just over halfway through the MLB season and it’s safe to say that the Cincinnati Reds are one of the biggest surprises. After losing over 100 games in 2022, the Reds are entrenched in the NL Central title race. They could make the playoffs in 2023. Who cares that the NL Central is the second-weakest division in baseball?
After the teardown over the past few seasons, GM Nick Krall loaded up the farm system and fully leaned into the rebuild. 2022 sucked as a Reds fan. Nobody likes to lose even if you saw how special the three young pitchers could be.
The Reds window for the postseason is open, likely a year earlier than expected. There are plenty of factors in play, of course. The division is weak. Elly De La Cruz, Matt McLain, Spencer Steer, and Andrew Abbott look to be the real deal. Those City Connect Unis are sharp. Who knows what it could all be?
Regardless, in order to compete in 2023 and maximize their competitive window, there are a few things the Reds must do.
Move the Cincinnati Reds Must Make
Relax! Don’t Sell the Farm!
“Get the pitching!” “Luke Weaver shouldn’t be on a Major League rotation!” “Hunter Greene is a thrower, not a pitcher!” “I have no idea what I’m talking about but I’m loud and Facebook gives me a platform!”
Okay, three of those quotes are almost regular entrants on Reds Facebook, the last is embellished subtext. But the point is clear: if the Reds want to actually compete, they need to make a move for pitching.
Here’s the thing: they really don’t.
I can already hear your comments loading and your pitchforks sharpening, but hear me out.
The Cincinnati Reds have been on an absolute tear of late, including a ridiculous 12-game winning streak that could have been 14 games if not for two one-run games against, arguably, the best team in baseball. They’ve done that without the services of Green and Nick Lodolo. Graham Ashcraft hasn’t gotten back to form. Weaver still exists.
And yet, they’re in first place.
The argument is certainly valid that the Reds shouldn’t have to score 10+ runs in order to get the win. However, they’re still doing it.
The only way to pick up the pitching that would satiate the thirst in Reds country would be to ship off top-level prospect(s). You want a great pitcher with team control? Say goodbye to Christian Encarnacion-Strand and/or Noelvi Marte.
Should they make a move for a decent arm or two and give up mid-tier prospects? Sure! The farm is loaded enough that they can afford to ship off guys who they don’t expect to be stars. Maybe they can see if the Mets will take Kevin Newman or Jose Barrero for Max Scherzer. Well, maybe not.
Pick Up Joey Votto’s Option
Joey Votto deserves to retire a Red. He will wear the Reds cap in Cooperstown when finally inducted and Cincinnati should do right by him.
“But Votto isn’t his old self!”
I disagree. He still gets on base. He still bangs. He’s still a leader in the clubhouse.
The crux of it is this: Votto has only had, to date, 27 at-bats. He’s still getting on base 1/3rd of the time (literally, his on-base percentage is .333), and his OPS+ is 121, making him above league average. If your metric for how good a player is is their batting average, I have some news about the 1980s I’d like to share.
Batting average is not the end-all-be-all in today’s game and, frankly, it’s a bit out-dated. Votto gets on base and his power has returned.
If you are not convinced that Votto deserves to ride out this competitive window, I’m sorry you don’t like fun. Votto has given this team and city everything ever since he debuted on September 4th, 2007. He’s a former MVP who has received votes eight other times (and should have won in 2017 but I digress).
If there is even an inkling of a chance that the Cincinnati Reds can win it all, Votto should be with the team. The payroll in 2024 is laughably low, so picking up Votto’s $20MM team option is nothing.
Make Room for CES and Connor Phillips
Since the beginning of the 12-game winning streak, the Reds averaged 6.4 runs per game. Guys like De La Cruz, McLain, Steer, Jake Fraley, and TJ Friedl have been on fire of late. The lineup looks like it’s nearly perfect but there’s one thing missing: Christian Encarnacion-Strand.
Encarnacion-Strand had a strong Spring Training but he was not rewarded with an Opening Day roster spot. His response? He’s been absolutely destroying AAA.
To date, he’s slashing .323/.395/.628. His OPS is 1.023. Those numbers are thanks to 17 home runs and 50 RBI. While there is a concern that he does not walk much and tends to strike out a lot, he’s well worth the call-up.
It’s incredibly easy to say bring him up, figure out the lineup later. But he might be another piece that could make the Reds catch fire again. In terms of batters, two names stand out as potential options/cuts: Kevin Newman and Curt Casali. CES can do anything Newman does, honestly. And Casali, while he calls a good game behind the plate, is akin to having a pitcher in the batting lineup.
As for pitching, the Reds are playing musical chairs in the bullpen in an attempt to kill time and get players healthy. Connor Phillips is a very popular name to take a place in the Reds rotation after a start or two at AAA Louisville.
In 14 starts at AA Chattanooga, Phillips is 2-2 with a 3.34 ERA, 1.314, and a ridiculous 15.4 K/9. Of the 284 batters he faced, he struck out 111. When Weaver continues to Magikarp his way through every sub-5.0 IP outing, it may be time to give the youngster the call.
With Greene and Lodolo sidelined until August, the Reds DO need rotation help. Ashcraft will get back to form, I’m not worried about him. Abbott is doing things that would make Jesus himself do a double-take (his ERA+ is 395!!). Brandon Williamson has been looking like a rookie. Give Phillips a shot.
Who knows, maybe the Reds lineup will bail him out as they have with Weaver.
Get the Marketing for 2024 Ready
Whether or not the Reds win the NL Central in 2023, they’ll be the odds-on favorite to take the division moving forward. Their young core has already shown to be able to carry the team. If their starting pitching can just stay healthy, the Reds can be special moving forward.
So, thankfully, starting in 2024, Reds fans can expect more optimism from the front office instead of the usual “Where ya gonna go?” or PowerPoints about how 75% of the league doesn’t even try.
You know how you can get fans in seats on even the non-bobblehead nights? Extend those young guys. Take a page out of the Arizona Diamondbacks book and sign those young players now because they are only going to get more expensive.
Each of De La Cruz, McLain, Steer, and Abbott look like they could continue on a hot streak and contend for Rookie of the Year. You think that once they hit arbitration they are going to want a team-friendly deal? Nope!
The deal that the Reds got done with Hunter Greene was beautiful. Do it again. Sure, the Castellinis are not as liquid as the Steve Cohens of the world. However, he’s still obscenely rich and this team is only going to get more and more lucrative.
By locking down some or all of those stars, you guarantee that fans believe again. Fans will turn up in droves to support the local ballclub. If they know that Elly De La Cruz is going to be a Red for the foreseeable future, they’ll be there. They’ll buy merch. MLB will market your team. Are you tired of watching the Yankees, Dodgers, and Astros on national TV in primetime? Get those guys signed and keep winning. You won’t have to buy AppleTV+ or whatever to watch the Reds.
With how much fun the 2023 Reds have been, it’s only natural to expect that the 2024 and beyond teams will be even more so. Ramp up the marketing and start expecting to sell out each and every game at Great American Ballpark.
It’s a new dawn in Cincinnati. The Bengals are legitimate Super Bowl contenders. Don’t get left behind, Reds.
Main Image: Albert Cesare/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK