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What's the Reds Path to Contention?

Last year, an anonymous, lightly-regarded outfielder put together an out-of-nowhere MVP-caliber season for one of baseball’s most anonymous and lightly-regarded teams.  Corbin Caroll, the 2023 National League Rookie of the Year and All-Star put together a generational campaign for the Arizona Diamondbacks, becoming the first rookie in baseball history to slug 25 or more homers and swipe 50 or more bags.  Oh, and to put the cherry on top of an already-unbelievable year, Carroll helped the D-Backs reach the World Series (chef’s kiss).

But while Carroll was certainly the centerpiece of Arizona’s rise back to contender-status, he was far from the only contributor.  Zac Gallen and Merril Kelly formed one of baseball’s best one-two punches at the top of their rotation, and a host of position players – some homegrown, some arrived from elsewhere – balled out, giving the Diamondbacks a sneaky dangerous lineup come playoff time.

But what really, above all else, gave the Diamondback their opportunity to reach the World Series?  Absolute perfect timing.

You see, even with so many players peaking at the right time, the Diamondbacks still needed a significant amount of luck to reach the Fall Classic.  Their lineup, despite the awesome performance by Carroll, was mediocre at best.  Their rotation outside of Gallen and Kelly was a rollercoaster and their bullpen wasn’t much to write home about either.  But the stars aligned with the Braves and the Dodgers both choking themselves to death and the plucky Diamondbacks and their 84 regular-season-wins squeaked past the Phillies in seven games for the pennant.

Let’s be honest with ourselves: as Reds fans, even if our wildest fantasies come true, expecting the Reds (currently 26th in the MLB with a $85 million payroll) to go toe-to-toe with the Braves or Dodgers (who are both over the $200 million payroll-threshold) on their best day is a stretch.  On their worst day though?  Even their “meh” day?  Oh yeah, the Reds can definitely do some damage.

But in order to do that, the Reds need to get to the playoffs.  And they need to avoid the injuries that spiraled them down the stretch last year.  And they need to be peaking at the right time.  And the Braves and Dodgers need to be spinning their wheels too.

If this sounds like I’m not giving the Reds much of a chance, you couldn’t be more wrong.  I think the Reds have a great shot to make a playoff run – but they also have a great shot of falling on their face.

2023 was definitely the “feel-good” year we deserved after an offseason of nothing but pure depression.  The Reds shipped out fan-favorite after fan-favorite, but instead of bottoming out, their young players stepped up and gave us a fabulously fun season.  But here’s the thing with young players: they’re inconsistent.  Take Elly De La Cruz for example.  In his first thirty games, he batted .325/.363/.524 with fifteen extra-base hits and an incredible sixteen steals.  In his next sixty-eight games, he batted .191/.272/.355 with twenty extra-base hits total.

Does this mean we should give up on De La Cruz?  Of course not.  Besides, if there’s any player in the Reds future with 25 homer/50 steal potential, it’s De La Cruz.  Carroll is obviously a tremendous player and will probably be a staple in National League All-Star Games for a decade or more to come, but Elly has all that and more in his 6’ 5’’ frame.  He’s a freak of nature with stratospheric power, road-runner wheels and a sound-barrier-breaking arm strength.  He has plenty of room for improvement, sure, but his ceiling is as high as any player in baseball – maybe ever.  And he’s far from the only young Red who saw major performance swings.

Christian Encarnacion-Strand was like Elly’s opposite.  He struggled early, batting .245/.308/.385 with five homers over his first forty-one appearances before breaking out over his last twenty-two, batting .317/.365/.646 with eight homers.  In his first nineteen games, Will Benson didn’t homer and was batting .174/.240/.217.  In his next thirty-six, he had seven homers and batted .340/.455/.680.  When it comes to young players, inconsistency is the name of the game.

The Diamondbacks are familiar with this too.  Ketel Marte was a massive part of their success last year, but he was coming off a disappointing 2022 campaign.  Lourdes Gurriel Jr. went from no-fanfare trade chip to All-Star after being acquired from Toronto.  Reclamation project Christian Walker went from being designated for assignment by the Orioles to back-to-back 30-homer-hitting and Gold-Glove-winning first baseman with Arizona.  The Diamondbacks got career years from much of their roster – and few of their players have the pure ability of some of the Reds stars.

So, what is the Reds path to contention in 2024?  First, it’s going to take some luck.  Hopefully the Cardinals stay in the NL Central basement and the Brewers take a step back after trading away Corbin Burnes.  It’s possible the Dodgers and Braves haven’t shook their playoff bugaboos.  But the National League is deep – the two National League Championship Series representatives (the Philles and D-Backs) haven’t gone anywhere, and teams like the Giants and Cubs are eyeing redemption after narrowly missing out on the postseason.  It’s a crowded field and the Reds are going to need some breaks.

Second, the Reds are going to have to find a way to stay healthy.  For all of their flaws, the Diamondbacks were a pretty healthy roster – especially heading into the World Series.  The Reds, in contrast, were a M.A.S.H. unit.  Nick Lodolo was lost early, Hunter Greene hit the DL in the middle of the year, and Jonathan India, Matt McLain, Jake Fraley missed significant time as well.  Their rotation, in particular, was decimated all season long, while the lineup suffered down the stretch.  The Reds can have as many of their young players break out as they want, but if they can’t stay healthy, it’s a moot point.

Third, they need someone from their lineup to take a Carroll-esqe leap, and they need two of their pitchers to become hammers in the rotation.  The obvious candidate in the lineup is De La Cruz, but don’t forget about McLain, who showed plenty of poise and maturity at the plate from Jump Street.  In the rotation, hope springs eternal for Greene and Lodolo, but Frankie Montas could be the signing of the year if he can regain his form from 2021, and Andrew Abbott had moments of pure brilliance as a rookie.  The Reds have plenty of options, but unless they show sharp improvement in key spots, they’ll struggle to keep up with the big spenders in the NL.

Lastly, the Reds need to find their stride as the postseason rolls around.  Like the Diamondbacks proved, even a regular-season lightweight can deliver a knockout against a behemoth like the Dodgers in a short series.  The D-Backs slugged four homers in the Wild Card series, nine home runs in the Divisional series, before cooling off for just five in the NLCS – and this is a team that was below MLB-average in SLG all year.  The Reds have far more explosive potential than the D-Backs, as evidenced by their twelve-game winning streak, but if they can put it together at the right time remains to be seen (staying healthy will go a long way).

If the Reds are going to make a run at the World Series this year, it’s because they managed to level up.  The talent is there.  The depth is there.  Getting through the National League Central will be a challenge, but if the Reds are up for the task, they will be battle-tested and proven as they enter the playoffs.  As we know, anything can happen in the playoffs – and with an exciting Reds team like this?  I like these odds.

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