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The Three Biggest Questions before Reds Opening Day

It’s almost here!  Reds Opening Day – Cincinnati’s favorite unofficial holiday – is less than half a day away.  Let’s play ball.

The vibes around the Reds have changed significantly from this same time last year.  Back then, we were griping about Phil Castellini and his…shall we say, less than appropriate comments.  We were complaining about the loss of so many star players and general payroll minimization.  Collectively, we were bracing ourselves for the worst.  Miraculously, the worst didn’t happen – instead, we got some of the most entertaining baseball to hit Cincinnati in years.

2023 gave us a twelve-game winning streak in June.  It gave us Elly De La Cruz and his spectacular talent.  It gave us Matt McLain and his unshakeable steadiness.  It gave us the emergence of Spencer Steer and Will Benson.  It even gave us an incredible turnaround by a bullpen that went from unmitigated disaster to robust strength.  It didn’t end with a playoff appearance (though the Reds finished a meager two games out), but by blowing preseason expectations out of the water, the Reds set themselves up for a massive leap in 2024.

Tomorrow, we finally get to see the fruits of the Reds' offseason labor.  From numerous offseason additions to the development of prized prospects, Opening Day won’t tell us everything about the future of the 2024 Cincinnati Reds, but it’ll be a nice sneak peek at what’s to come – and just maybe, we’ll get some answers to some burning questions.

Make no mistake – there’s a lot to get excited about.  But by that same token, this Spring Training hasn’t exactly been a fountain of positivity for the young Redlegs.  Injuries are already taking their toll, and an untimely PED suspension of Noelvi Marté has already derailed some of the Reds plans.  There’s plenty of depth to absorb those losses (at least in the short-term), but if players like De La Cruz or Christian Encarnacion-Strand can’t take the next step, the Reds could find themselves stuck in neutral instead of accelerating into top gear.

With all of that said, let’s dig into the Three Biggest Questions before Reds Opening Day!

Is Frankie Montas back to his 2021 form?

After back-to-back seasons as the Reds Opening Day starter, fireballer Hunter Greene will take a backseat to eight-year veteran Frankie Montas, who signed with the Reds as a free agent on a one-year prove-it deal.  Montas is, by far, the most intriguing addition of their entire offseason.  That the Reds made him their Opening Day starter in fascinating for a couple reasons:

  1. He’s clearly earned enough trust from manager David Bell and pitching coach Derek Johnson to get the first call over Greene.  Whether this is a sign that Montas is back to being a top-end starter or a massive indictment on Greene remains to be seen.

  2. He hasn’t quite excelled during Spring Training (11 earned runs in 16.2 innings).  Now, overreacting to Spring Training stats is never a good idea, but it certainly suggests that the Reds feel pretty good about his process and aren’t sweating the results.  Hopefully we can say the same about Greene, who hasn’t impressed in Spring either (12 earned runs in 15 innings).

Still, when he’s been at his best, Montas has been an absolute horse, making 27 or more starts in his two most recent healthy-ish seasons.  That’s the kind of consistency the Reds sorely, sorely missed from their rotation last year.  Montas doesn’t have to be unhittable to be a monster addition for this Reds club – just being a reliable, innings-eating presence will do wonders.

Fortunately, despite his relatively rough Spring, Montas looked sharp in his most recent outing, going five innings and allowing just two runs while striking out six.  Hopefully, this is a sign that whatever kinks Montas had to sort out have been identified and resolved.  If he’s back to being a high-level starter, the ripple effect on the Reds rotation will be tremendous.

Greene hasn’t quite put his prodigious talent together, but he has all the tools to be one of the best pitchers in baseball.  Montas getting the ball first can take some pressure off Greene, while also giving the Reds some much-needed time to develop the rest of their rotation.  Andrew Abbott was a sensation when he was first called up, but counting on him to repeat that performance feels like a bit of a stretch.  Nick Lodolo still has tons of potential, but he needs to be eased in slowly after already racking up a significant injury history.  Even pitchers like Conor Phillips and Lyon Richardson have an opportunity for some more seasoning in the minors.

It’s hyperbolic to say that the Reds success in 2024 hinges on a successful season by Montas, but it sure would go a long way.  The Reds haven’t had a frontline starter since Luis Castillo was shipped out of town.  If Montas is back and Greene takes a step, they could have two.  And if the Arizona Diamondbacks taught us anything last year, having two frontline starters can go a long, long way – even all the way to the World Series.

Who steps up in Matt McLain’s absence?

Probably the most painful development of Spring Training was the injury to Matt McLain, which has now led to shoulder surgery after speculation that he might avoid it.  His status for the 2024 season is now up in the air – and that’s bleak news for a Reds lineup that was counting on his consistency.  Throw in the exasperating suspension of third baseman and Reds top prospect Marté, and cracks are already starting to show for the Reds lineup this year.

McLain wasn’t even on the Reds roster for Opening Day last year, but as soon as he got the call-up, McLain started hitting like a 10-year vet while bringing valuable defensive versatility as a sure-handed shortstop and second baseman.  No Reds hitter last year provided a more steadying presence than the 24-year-old McLain.  His absence is a major blow to the Reds postseason hopes.  Fortunately, the Reds have plenty of depth – even more so now after Santiago Espinal was acquired from the Blue Jays – but whether that depth can adequately replace McLain is another story.

After an entire offseason of trade speculation, Jonathan India returns for his fourth season in Cincinnati and will likely man second base after preparing for a utility role in Spring.  While India’s future fit in Cincinnati is murky (with De La Cruz appearing to be the shortstop of the future and McLain likely the second baseman of the future), at least for 2024, India should have a defined role.  He still hits well for a second baseman, and while his defensive abilities may leave much to be desired, he still provides a spark for the Reds at the top of the lineup.  The Reds struggled to score when India was sidelined, and if he can stay healthy, he should at least mitigate the loss of McLain.

Another player who should be expected to step up in McLain’s absence is Spencer Steer.  Steer spent much of the 2023 season filling in wherever needed (in a role not too dissimilar to the one India was expected to fill in 2024), giving the Reds a boost no matter where he lined up defensively.  He spent time at five different positions last year and will likely be asked to do the same this year, especially now with India likely to remain the primary second baseman.  Along with McLain, maybe no Reds hitter was more consistent than Steer, and the Reds will need a repeat performance to avoid offensive regression.

Espinal is also an intriguing candidate to get some reps as McLain recovers.  The 29-year-old utility infielder was an All-Star just two years ago, and while he’s more known for his fielding than his hitting, he’s been plenty useful in the lineup in the past.  He also provides some juice as a pinch-runner, which pairs nicely with the Reds gung-ho attitude on the basepaths.  It’s probably foolish to expect Espinal to return to his All-Star form, but he can give the Reds some timely hitting paired with strong defense at multiple positions.  Given the Reds options right now, they’ll take it.

Of course, one player on the Reds will have an outsized impact on their ability to adequately replace McLain – and their ability to really make a postseason push – is De La Cruz.  Armed with uber-athleticism, tremendous bat speed and a knack for highlight-reel plays, De La Cruz has MVP-caliber potential if he can put everything together.  But that’s a big if.

Putting aside his highlight-reel (which is admittedly impossible to ignore), De La Cruz wasn’t actually that great in 2023.  He hit the cover off the ball when he made contact, but that became rarer and rarer as the season dragged on.  He has a penchant for chasing breaking balls outside of the zone, and Spring Training hasn’t exactly been an indictment on his improvement in that regard.  He’s still an incredible player, and the Reds won’t give up on him any time soon, but if he can’t take a step forward in 2024, McLain’s absence will loom ever greater.

Can the Reds offseason additions take them over the top?

It’s been way, way too long since the Reds were relevant players in the postseason.  The Reds haven’t advanced in the playoffs since 1995 – that’s over two decades ago!  The internet wasn’t even ubiquitous then!  Hunter Greene wasn’t even alive!

It’s safe to say, Reds fans are hungry for a winner.  Heck, we’d even take an NLCS appearance at this point – at least that would mean we had a shot at a World Series.  The Reds haven’t even sniffed that kind of success in over thirty years.

Going into the offseason, the Reds were flush with cash after tearing the team down to the studs, and yet they mostly refrained from inking any of the top free agents, instead opting to go bargain-hunting.  Montas offers the most upside, but he has plenty of red flags.  Jeimer Candelario is a useful switch-hitter and another infielder who can help replace the loss of McLain, but most projections expect a drop-off from his excellent 2023 season as he turns 30.  Nick Martínez’s impressive Spring gave him the nod as the Reds third starter in the rotation, but he was far better out of the bullpen last year with the Padres.  Reliever Emilio Pagán is coming off a career-year and adds another strong left-handed option out of the Reds bullpen, but his penchant for allowing home runs is a scary proposition for the bandbox that is Great American Ballpark.

In summary, all of the Reds additions come with a major flaw.  That wouldn’t be too big of a concern for a team with a lot of established contributors, but of course, the Reds are not that team.  They’re relying on a lot of progression from young stars and prospects.  They need their free agent additions to make up for deficiencies, but that’s far from guaranteed.

Most concerningly, the rest of the National League Central wasn’t too inclined to secede the division to the upstarts in Cincinnati.  The Brewers still look formidable despite the loss of Corbin Burnes, and with former Red Sonny Gray now in the fold, expecting the Cardinals to have a repeat of their debacle of a season in 2023 seems like a foolish bet to make.  Even the Cubs weren’t content to rest on their laurels, re-signing Cody Bellinger while adding Japanese lefthander Shota Imanaga to replace the departed Marcus Stroman.  The NL Central is no cakewalk – and the Reds will need to be even better than they were last year to make noise.

So, did the Reds do enough?  It’s impossible to say.  In a vacuum, each addition makes sense: Montas and Martínez help stabilize the rotation, Candelario bolsters the lineup, and Pagán gives the Reds a bounty of options in the back end.  But as a whole, this group leaves something to be desired.  After a pleasantly surprising season in which the Reds exceeded all expectations, it would have been nice to see the Reds look to 2024 with a little more urgency.  Instead, they opted for the safe route.  You can’t say it’s not sensible, but you can’t say the Reds are a lock to contend either.

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