The 2023 baseball season was a lot of things for the Cincinnati Reds. It was exhilarating, disappointing, contradicting, frustrating and mesmerizing all at once. A team with a projected 65.5 win total outperformed preseason expectations by sixteen games yet fell short of a playoff appearance by just a couple games. A team that was expected to be led by an up-and-coming starting rotation was instead carried by a group of up-and-coming hitters and a much-maligned bullpen at last found its footing.
Now, the real test begins – going from awful to mediocre is a leap, sure, but the leap from mediocre to great is even bigger, and it’s the challenge facing the Reds now that they’ve successfully rebuilt their roster after the 2022 teardown. It's remarkable how different the roster today looks than the one we were subjected to last year. The following position players made 78 or more appearances for the Reds in 2022: Kyle Farmer, Brandon Drury, Tommy Pham, Aristides Aquino, Mike Moustakas, Donovan Solano, and Matt Reynolds. None played for the Reds in 2023.
The theme of the 2022 season was about rebuilding their minor leagues, and rebuild the Reds front office did. Several, high-profile trades were made, including shipping Jesse Winker, Eugenio Suarez and Luis Castillo to the Seattle Mariners and Tyler Mahle and Kyle Farmer to the Minnesota Twins. While not every trade was a home run, the Reds did get some important pieces back, and more importantly, they replenished a long-depleted farm system.
Noelvi Marte, Brandon Williamson, Jake Fraley, Spencer Steer, Christian Encarnacion-Strand…these five players alone made up some of the most important players for the Reds during the 2023 season – and all five were acquired by the Reds via trades in 2022. And that doesn’t even include top prospects like Edwin Arroyo, Chase Petty and Victor Acosta who are still in the minors! The amount of talent brought into the Reds organization last year was unprecedented, and so was the quick payoff.
But not all of the credit for the 2023 turnaround goes to trades – the player development program has to be given its props too. The 2023 rookie class for the Reds will almost certainly go down as the greatest in franchise history (and based on their first-year production alone, this might already be true). From the steadiness of Matt McLain to the gutsiness of Andrew Abbott, to the jaw-dropping, can’t-look-away awesomeness of Elly De La Cruz, the Reds are in good hands for the foreseeable future. But productive rookies don’t always turn into productive veterans, and the Reds have to be willing to spend money this offseason to address holes – otherwise, they're sitting out the playoffs again next year.
Case in point: the 2023 trade deadline. The day the deadline rolled around, the Reds were clinging to a 1.5 game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central. While the team did add veteran reliever Sam Moll (who was excellent, by the way), for the most part, the front office was content to stand pat. A rotation that was desperate for someone to eat innings was left unattended. A bullpen that was overworked was barely touched. A young and inexperienced lineup received no reinforcement. It was a gamble on the potential of the young guns – and in 2023, at least, that gamble didn’t pay off.
Still, hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. It’s easy to look back on the Reds falling a game or two short of a playoff appearance and make the case that they should have done more at the deadline, and that’s fair. But it’s also fair to point out – with hindsight – that the players traded at the deadline, for the most part, sucked. Only Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, two players who had to waive their no-trade clauses to be traded from the sinking New York Mets, performed up to their pre-trade level, and there was no way either of them was going to play for the Reds in 2023. The rest of the trade pool was discouraging.
Lucas Giolito was so bad after being acquired by the Los Angeles Angels that he was eventually cut in an unprecedented salary-dumping move by the Angels front office. Michael Lorenzen looked like a stud when he arrived in Philadelphia – and even threw a no-hitter in his second start – but he ended up booted off the Phillies playoff roster. Aaron Civale, who was acquired by the Tampa Bay Rays, also regressed significantly from his early-season stats with the Guardians (although at least he made the Rays playoff roster). Arguably the only pitcher who significantly outperformed his earlier statistics was former St. Louis Cardinals and current Texas Rangers Jordan Montgomery, but let’s be clear: the Cardinals aren’t in the business of helping their division rivals make a playoff push. Montgomery landing in Cincinnati had about as much of a chance as Jerry Springer getting another term as mayor.
More importantly, these trades don’t happen in a vacuum. Season-changing players come at a steep price. The Rays had to give up a slugging first base prospect for Civale; would you be happy seeing Encarnacion-Strand in Cleveland for a 5.36 ERA in 10 starts? It took the Phillies’ #5 prospect to pry Lorenzen from the Detroit Tigers; would you be happy sending Connor Phillips for a 5.51 ERA in 11 appearances from Lorenzen? Would you be happy trading anyone for Giolito?
Still, just because the Reds made the right move in making little-to-no moves at the 2023 deadline does not mean they should stand pat in the offseason. This roster is supremely talented, sure, and there’s more talent that hasn’t even broken into the majors yet, but there are holes on this roster that rookies just can’t fill. This is the offseason where bloated contracts come off the books – this is the time to up the ante.
Right now, as the Reds are currently constructed, this team has three glaring needs: a reliable, veteran starting pitcher to eat innings, a power bat in the middle of the lineup, and another quality bullpen arm. They don’t have to be stars, but if the Reds can fill those voids, they could be in for a very special season in 2024.
The starting pitching need is obvious. It’s ironic, considering the starting pitching was expected to be the “strength” of this roster heading into the season, but the Reds rotation needs a plenty of TLC. Hunter Greene has moments where he’s as dominant as any pitcher in baseball, but he’s far too inconsistent to be relied upon as a true ace. Graham Ashcraft has similar vibes. Nick Lodolo can’t say healthy. Williamson and Abbott were heroes during the regular season, but counting on them to repeat their impressive rookie performances isn’t exactly the wisest course of action. Who else are the Reds going to turn to, Ben Lively again?
No, a veteran is needed – and fortuitously, the free agent market will be flush with veteran pitchers. Blake Snell and Aaron Nola are the headliners, though they both may end up priced out of the Reds range. Maybe a reunion with one of Lorenzen, Sonny Gray, Johnny Cueto, Alex Wood, Wade Miley or Tyler Mahle is in order. Even someone like Eduardo Rodriguez, who famously turned down a trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers at the deadline, might make a lot of sense for the Reds – and hey, Cincinnati is definitely not LA!
The Reds also should not rule out the trade market. I was banging the table all year for the Reds to make a blockbuster trade for Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Dylan Cease, but in the end, he wasn’t traded at the deadline. Clearly, the White Sox view Cease as a player to build around, but the Reds shouldn’t take them at their word. Maybe an offer including Jonathan India, Connor Phillips and Edwin Arroyo would be enough to get their attention. Just a thought…
As for a power bat, this is where things get a little tricky. The best bat on the market is Shohei Ohtani, and while I do think he’d look fantastic in a Reds uniform, expecting the Reds to be in the $500 million market for the Japanese Babe Ruth is about as pie in the sky as it gets. Fortunately, there are other, wayyyy less expensive options.
Among the options that could be in play, four stand out: Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy, Rhys Hoskins, and Joc Pedersen. Bellinger had, by far, the best season of the four, and is one of the better pure hitters in the sport. However, he’s not exactly a “power” hitter, and nearly playing himself out of the league in Los Angeles and experiencing an almost-unheard-of bounce back in Chicago, Bellinger is going to want to get paid. Given his up-and-down career and the amount of money he’s likely to command, we shouldn’t be surprised if the Reds don’t give him much of a look.
The other three, though, might be perfect fits. Muncy is one of the MLB’s top “three true outcomes” players. He either walks, hits a home run, or strikes out. Nothing more, nothing less. And while the Reds were at their best in 2023 when they were putting the ball in play, turning the lineup over and being opportunistic on the basepaths, having a player who can help the offense by generating cheap runs with one swing would be of tremendous value. Sometimes, great pitching is just too hard to overcome, and you need someone to just deposit one in the seats. Hoskins and Pederson both fit this mold too.
Finally, the bullpen should also be addressed, although this is less urgent than the other needs. After two straight seasons of bullpen misery, the Reds actually fielded a quite competent bullpen in 2023, but that shouldn’t be taken as an excuse to do nothing. Bullpens are notoriously fickle. Sure, Alexis Díaz might be a special player, but how good do you feel about Ian Gibaut reproducing his outstanding, out-of-nowhere season? Yeah, neither do I. Fortunately, though, there’s a good amount of quality relievers on the market who could be added for a reasonable price.
Besides their activity on the free agent and trade markets, the biggest decision the Reds will make in the offseason is whether or not to bring back franchise legend Joey Votto for one last hurrah. One thing is clear: Votto will not return on the $20 million club-option the Reds have for his services in 2023. Instead, they’ll likely buy him out for $7 million, giving them an additional $13 million to work with.
But Votto is an outstanding human being. He’s a leader in the clubhouse, a fan and teammate favorite, and an excellent ambassador for the sport. If he wants to play again in 2024, the Reds owe it to him to retire as a Red. He’s earned that – and to be fair, he wasn’t all that bad in 2023 anyway.
More importantly, though, Votto is basically another coach in the dugout. The young players on the team look up to him, but he can also relate to them. Once he returned from his early-season injury, Votto was inserted into the team without a hitch. If anything, the positive vibes around the Reds only grew. Few players in baseball history have been more dedicated to their craft than Votto, and there isn’t a better mentor.
The MLB veteran minimum is $563,000…so if that’s the low-end, would Joey take $3 mil? Including his buy-out, that’s a $10 million payday for a 40-year-old on his last legs. Basically, he’s getting a 50% pay cut to return. That seems reasonable for all sides, and it’s a move the Reds should make.
If the Reds can find a way to make all of these moves – bringing in a veteran starting pitcher, a power hitter and a dependable reliever – then the Reds will put themselves squarely in the World Series conversation in 2024. No team in the National League has as much young, controllable talent as the Reds. I mean, the Reds potentially graduated five future All-Stars from their minor league system this year. That’s absurd and unprecedented. But 2023 was just the beginning. If the Reds have designs on making a deep playoff run (and by God, they should be) then they can’t stand pat like they did at the deadline. The time for patience and rebuilding is over – next year, it’s World Series or bust.