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Great-ish Expectations

Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by R.J. Oriez, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s hard to believe it’s already March, isn’t it? It was barely a month ago that the Cincinnati Bengals fell to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game. As of today, the NBA is already through 75% of their season. March Madness starts in two weeks. Where did the time go?

For many Americans, football season never ends. Free agency, the draft, whatever wacky thing Aaron Rodgers is into these days…the NFL media cycle is constant. In Cincinnati, though, this is the time of year we turn our attention to our baseball team, the Cincinnati Reds. Now, they haven’t exactly endeared themselves to locals - at least, as of late. But hope springs eternal during spring training. It’s a time for fresh starts. For wiping the proverbial slate clean - well, in theory anyway.

If you, like many others, are finding it a tad difficult drumming up the required enthusiasm for an entire 162-game baseball season, it’s okay. Me too. Like you, I just can’t get 3 - 22 out of my head. If the Reds get off to another 3 - 22 start, just throw me into the Ohio River with a cinderblock tied to my ankles, because I’d rather take a nap with the fishes than lose my mind trying to conjure up impossible scenarios for how the Reds could still make the playoffs.

Last year’s Reds team was terrible. A dumpster fire. A sorry excuse for a sports team. I could spend the next three paragraphs coming up with unique ways to describe how pitiful they were in 2022, but I’ll leave it at that. Enough was said last year. This year is about hope…hopefully.

This is the problem: I’ve been snakebit. Being from Cincinnati, I’m used to this. I’ve seen the pre-season hype. Not just for the Reds, but for the Bengals, for the Bearcats, for the Musketeers, even for FC Cincinnati. The hype very, very rarely comes to fruition. In fact, this past year’s Bengals team might be the best example of a Cincinnati team actually meeting massive pre-season expectations - excluding the 70’s Big Red Machine, of course. The predominant narrative of Cincinnati’s sports history is one of disappointment and frustration.

Focus, Ian, focus. Hope, that’s what we’re here to talk about - not all the times Cincinnati fans have been let down, but about the thrilling wins to come. Yeah! Okay! I’m starting to get that jazzed up feeling! Why couldn’t the Reds win the World Series this year?

Okay, there’s like, fifty reasons they won’t win the World Series. Maybe this isn’t the right time to be setting the bar so high. It would be nice, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not in the mood to be let down in 2023. 2022 gave me plenty of let down - this year I want let up. Wait, not let up…I want let go? Let off? Let through?

Sorry - what I was attempting (before I derailed myself) to express was that I’d like some positivity this year. I don’t need to see the Reds win the World Series this year to be happy. Heck, they could miss the playoffs and I might still feel good about this team. That’s because the most important sign of progress won’t come from wins and losses, it will come from the growth and development of their young players.

Youth is the order of the day for the 2023 Reds. Everywhere you look, there’s a twenty-something filling an important role. Whether it’s Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo, Graham Ashcraft, Jonathan India, Tyler Stephenson, Alexis Diaz, or Elly de la Cruz, young players form the backbone of this team - and that’s something that couldn’t be said until this year.

So, what should expectations be? If the World Series might be too “pie-in-the-sky,” what would a more reasonable outlook be? There are a few developments that stand out to me:

Can Hunter Greene or Nick Lodolo (or both) pitch at a borderline-All-Star level?

The Reds future depends on their two young stud pitchers. You know it, I know it, the entire Reds organization knows it. Their potential is sky high. If they can both harness their fantastic gifts, there’s no reason the Reds couldn’t surprise. A deep playoff run might be a little rich at this point, but could they make a run at a wild card spot? If Greene and Lodolo are for real, then why not?

Can Tyler Stephenson and Jonathan India both play at least 140 games?

When it comes to a Reds popularity contest, Stephenson and India both rank highly. When it comes to suiting up on a regular basis, they don’t. It may seem hard to fathom, but Stephenson and India are already facing make-or-break time. They’re both supremely talented, but all that talent means nothing when they’re not on the field. If either are going to be around for the next competitive Reds team, they need to start showing it - starting this year.

Can Alexis Diaz bring some of his brother Edwin’s magic from New York over to Cincinnati?

Edwin Diaz was a phenomenon in 2022. His electric pitching style meshed perfectly with the bright lights of New York - not to mention the absolute banger of a walk-up song that became his hallmark as a closer. Can his younger brother Alexis borrow some of that swag?

Hopefully yes. The younger Diaz was also excellent for the Reds in 2022, putting up a 1.84 ERA in 59 appearances. He is in line for full-time closer duties, though the value of a closer on a sub-.500 team isn’t much. Still, if the Reds can improve even a little from the previous year, Diaz could be a big reason the Reds make a surprise push for the playoffs.

Can Phil Castellini keep his foot out of his mouth?

So far, so good. We don’t need to rehash Phil’s less than tactful remarks during last year’s spring training. We’re keeping it positive right now. And to his credit, he’s been saying (mostly) the right things ever since. Still, the Reds haven't completely put out the fires Phil lit - and Reds fans will be more than happy to reignite the firestorm if given the slightest provocation.

Basically, what I’m looking for this season is improvement across the board. If that means playoffs, splendid. But at this point, I’d settle for having meaningful baseball games in August and September.

What’s most important, though, is how the young players perform. Can Greene and Lodolo (or even Graham Ashcraft) turn into stars? Can India and Stephenson just stay healthy? Can somebody seize one of the open outfield spots? And will somebody please just give Joey Votto his own television show already? Banish all those unsavory thoughts about last year’s Reds team. Spring training is here and it’s 70℉ on March 1. What could go wrong?

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