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The Three Biggest Questions Heading into Spring Training

Don’t look now, but Spring Training is just seventeen days away.  As Yoda might say, “Fly, the time does.”  In less than three weeks, we’ll get our first look at the 2024 Cincinnati Reds.  Is it time to get excited?  Should we start making World Series plans?  Am I insane for even suggesting this?

What a difference a year makes.  Around this time last year, we were bracing for the Reds to be the worst team in the league.  But add an overachiever here, a prodigy over there, maybe a few glue guys to go along and bam, you’ve got yourself a burgeoning contender!  That’s where the Reds find themselves today – but getting the right players is the easy part; getting them to win is trickier.

Last year, this motley crew of rookie and castoffs cobbled together 82 wins.  For a team with no expectations, that was an unmitigated success.  For the 2024 Reds?  That’s a disappointment.  It’s not quite World-Series-or-bust, but it’s darn close.  At least advance in the playoffs – after all, it’s only been 29 years.  It won’t make up for nearly three decades of incompetence, but it’s a start.

So, with the season barreling toward us, what is the state of the Cincinnati Reds?  Is a World Series really in our future?  Or are we facing another humiliating descent to the bottom of the standings?  Should we get excited about the young stars on the roster?  Or are we about to get burned again?  Good news!  I have the answers.

Who Starts on Opening Day?

For a team as young and unproven as the Reds, just about any spot on the diamond is up for grabs, save for a couple.  Jonathan India returns and will lock down second base (mostly because he can’t play anywhere else), while Tyler Stephenson will get the start at catcher.  Incredibly, these two were considered foundational building-blocks just two years ago.  Today, they're at the bottom of the totem pole – and that's really more of a credit to the other guys on the roster than any detriment to India or Stephenson.

That’s because guys like Matt McLain, Spencer Steer, Christian Encarnacion-Strand, Noelvi Marte and, of course, Elly De La Cruz at times looked like an incubating Big Red Machine.  Even role players like Nick Senzel, Will Benson, Jake Fraley and especially T.J. Friedl make their presence felt.  Two years ago, the cupboard was all but bare.  Today, it’s overflowing with potential stars.

Beyond India and Stephenson, there are three more locks for starting spots: Candelario, the big offseason addition, will probably settle in at first base; McLain, the Reds most reliable hitter in 2023 will likely man shortstop; and Steer, a jack-of-all-trades glue guy capable of playing anywhere, will probably play most days in left field.  Noticeably absent?  De La Cruz, Encarnacion-Strand, and Marte.

De La Cruz will probably get the benefit of the doubt after cooling off significantly last year, as his prodigious talent warrants opportunities.  Still, if he struggles in Spring Training, we shouldn’t be shocked if the Reds opt to give him time to season a little more in AAA.  The same goes for Encarnacion-Strand and Marte.  CES, in particular, looked extremely competent toward the end of the season, and of the three probably showed the most consistency.  But again, if either shows signs of struggling in the spring, the Reds may elect for a patient approach.

How the outfield shakes out is anyone’s guess too.  Steer probably fits best in left field, though he can (and probably will) play elsewhere.  Friedl was excellent in center last year, but if the Reds choose to give Elly a look there, Friedl could be the odd-man-out.  Same goes for Fraley, who will have to fend off Will Benson and Nick Senzel to keep his everyday job.  At this point, Steer, Friedl and Fraley seem like the correct answer, but this is a spot to keep an eye on during Spring Training.

The rotation is messy as well.  Hunter Greene started Opening Day last year, and he probably has the inside track this year too, but he has plenty of competition.  Andrew Abbott was a beast for the Reds after his call-up, and he’s already put together a more impressive resumé in his short career than Greene.  Frankie Montas, meanwhile, was getting Cy Young consideration just two years ago.  If he’s all the way back from the injuries that sabotaged his 2023 season, the Reds could have another ace on their hands.  Frankly, you could make the Opening Day case for almost any starter on the Reds roster, but I’ll give the edge to Greene because he has the prior experience.

Projected Starting Lineup:

2B Jonathan India

SS Matt McLain

1B Jeimer Candelario

RF Jake Fraley

3B Elly De La Cruz

DH Christian Encarnacion-Strand

LF Spencer Steer

C Tyler Stephenson

CF T.J. Friedl

SP Hunter Greene

How Does the Rotation Shake Out?

Probably no position group will have a larger effect on the end result of the Reds season than the starting pitchers.  Going into last season, the starting pitchers were expected to be the Reds strength.  Granted, the Reds were expected to be awful, so that isn’t saying much, but even that small bit of backhanded praise means the 2023 rotation was a bit of a disappointment.

What was once considered to be the Reds potential trump card turned into a daily headache.  Between injuries and quick exits, the Reds rotation was consistently putting the Reds behind the eight-ball in 2023.  Fortunately, new additions should, at the very least, stabilize the situation.

Montas, as I mentioned before, was one of the better pitchers in baseball just a couple years ago, and if he’s back to form he will be a massive addition to a team in desperate need for reliable innings.  The same goes for Nick Martínez, though whether he starts or begins the year as the Reds primary long-reliever is still to be determined.  Either way, Martínez is another competent arm that gives the Reds reliability, something that was in major short-supply from their rotation last year.

But as far as rotation locks, there really are only three: Montas, Greene, and Graham Ashcraft.  Nick Lodolo is also pretty close to a lock but given his injury history the Reds may opt to take a cautious approach.  Abbott is probably also a lock given his outstanding debut last year but struggles in Spring Training could cause the Reds to reevaluate.  This leaves Martínez in the bullpen as the emergency innings-eater, and second-half savior Brandon Williamson starting the year in AAA as the first man up.

Projected Starting Rotation:

Hunter Greene

Frankie Montas

Andrew Abbott

Graham Ashcraft

Nick Lodolo

Did the Reds do Enough to Contend?

Yes.  And no.  But mostly yes.  Let me explain: yes, the Reds did enough to contend.  Now, what exactly contend means can be up to interpretation.

Contend for a playoff spot?  Certainly.

Contend for a division title?  It’s definitely possible.

Contend for a World Series?  Ehhhhh…

For all the positive acquisitions the Reds made this offseason, there’s no getting around this hard truth: they have an uphill battle to reach, let alone win, the World Series.  And to be perfectly fair, it’s not 100% their fault (it’s like 65% their fault).

The biggest issue for the Reds is that they’re trying to win at an inherently unfair game.  It would be like trying to win at Monopoly but one player gets to start the game with Boardwalk and Park Place, and another gets to start with New York Avenue, Tennessee Avenue and St. James Place.  And what do the lowly Reds get to start with?  They get a train.  Not the whole set either – just B&O Railroad.

Baseball is a world of have’s and have-not’s, and sadly, we all know where the Reds reside.  But that doesn’t mean they can’t surprise.  Just look at the Arizona Diamondbacks – they aren’t too dissimilar to the Reds, and they wound up in the World Series.  Granted, they got their teeth kicked in by the Texas Rangers, but still – I’d give myself an atomic wedgie for five World Series games.

A quick rundown of the Reds offseason additions won’t raise too many eyebrows.  It’s not the most noteworthy haul, but it could be the difference between just missing out on the playoffs and a potentially deep run.  These additions don’t turn the Reds into a juggernaut, but they raise the floor of this team significantly.

The ceiling of the Reds, ultimately, will be determined by their young stars.  If Elly De La Cruz turns into 6’5’’ Ronald Acuña Jr. and Hunter Greene into new era Justin Verlander, the Reds will be in business.  If not, it could be another year of waiting until next year.

So, are the Reds contenders?  Once again, yes and no.  Yes, they have a shot if all of their offseason additions perform as expected and if all of their young players improve.  If a few players fall short though, there might not be enough star power on this roster to make up the difference.  But regardless, a playoff berth and a series win should be the bare minimum in 2024.

Can they do it?  Sure can.  Will they? Stay tuned…

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