2023 MLB Season Preview: Cincinnati Reds


2022 Record: 62-100 (.383 win%, 4th in Division)

2023 Payroll: $70,624,500 (26th)

2023 Projected Lineup:

1. 2B Jonathan India, .252 AVG/.337 OBP/.406 SLG, 2.6 fWAR

2. DH Joey Votto, .231 AVG/.331 OBP/.402 SLG, 0.5 fWAR

3. 1B Wil Myers, .246 AVG/.317 OBP/.424 SLG, 1.0 fWAR

4. C Tyler Stephenson, .257 AVG/.327 OBP/.406 SLG, 1.5 fWAR

5. RF Jake Fraley, .238 AVG/.330 OBP/.415 SLG, 0.6 fWAR

6. LF TJ Friedl, .244 AVG/.320 OBP/.403 SLG, 0.7 fWAR

7. SS Kevin Newman, .266 AVG/.309 OBP/.373 SLG, 1.2 fWAR

8. CF Will Benson, .210 AVG/.317 OBP/.378 SLG, 0.5 fWAR

9. 3B Spencer Steer, .232 AVG/.307 OBP/.404 SLG, 0.9 fWAR

10. UTL Nick Senzel, .251 AVG/.312 OBP/.378 SLG, 0.8 fWAR

2023 Projected Starting Rotation:

1. Hunter Greene, 168.0 IP/3.98 ERA/1.21 WHIP, 3.2 fWAR

2. Nick Lodolo, 176.0 IP/3.67 ERA/1.21 WHIP, 3.7 fWAR

3. Graham Ashcraft, 159.0 IP/4.50 ERA/1.42 WHIP, 1.8 fWAR

4. Connor Overton, 78.0 IP/4.93 ERA/1.41 WHIP, 0.3 fWAR

5. Luis Cessa, 105.0 IP/5.04 ERA/1.48 WHIP, 0.4 fWAR

2023 Projected Top 4 Relievers:

1. Alexis Diaz, 68.0 IP/4.17 ERA/4.17 WHIP, 1.34 fWAR

2. Reiver Sanmartin, 62.0 IP/3.99 ERA/1.35 WHIP, 0.3 fWAR

3. Ian Gibaut, 60.0 IP/4.32 ERA/1.39 WHIP, 0.2 fWAR

4. Buck Farmer, 61.0 IP/4.39 ERA/1.82 WHIP, 0.3 fWAR

What Does Baseball Mean to Cincinnati?

Where are we going to go? At any point in baseball history prior to April 12th 2022, when Reds president and CEO Phil Castellini had his infamous interview, the question of what baseball means to Cincinnati was exceptionally straightforward. Ever since the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings went 57-0 as the world’s first professional baseball team, Cincinnati has been not just a baseball town, but the baseball town. 

Due to their old age, the Reds have the privilege of playing at home every Opening Day, and over 100,000 fans flood downtown every year for a parade to celebrate the occasion. Local legend Barry Larkin, who grew up watching the greatest non-Yankees dynasty of all time, went on to win a title of his own for the Reds and now works as the team’s color commentator. 

In 2019, packed crowds watched an intriguing but otherwise mediocre Reds team honor the 150th anniversary of that 1869 club every home Sunday when they would wear a gorgeous new throwback uniform every week. This is a city that loves the sport. So, when Castellini threatened to move the team if fans wouldn’t stop being rightfully annoyed at his penny pinching, it not only struck a nerve, but it also led to some deep reflection. 

The Bengals had just made a miraculous run to the Super Bowl, and for quite literally the first time ever, were the talk of the town. The Reds, on the other hand, had just been dismantled and sold for parts the second they showed hope of coming out of their long rebuild. What was keeping fans watching Reds games? It turns out not much. 

Attendance dropped from 17th to 24th from 2021 to 2022. And while Cincinnati is a baseball town at its core, I advise ownership to take a lesson from 150 years ago about how fans won’t tolerate losing. When that undefeated team finally lost a single game in 1870, attendance cratered to the point that the team had to disband. Although it sounds like that may be just what Castellini wants.

2022 Offseason Recap:

As expected, it was a quiet offseason in Cincinnati. Unlike last year, there were no big pieces to trade away, although they did let Mike Moustakas walk after compiling -0.5 fWAR over three dismal seasons. They did, however, bring in some interesting names to fill out the roster. Wil Myers comes in as this year’s Tommy Pham, though Myers should play some first and hopefully slap fewer opponents. 

The Reds also brought in Kevin Newman to take the majority of reps at shortstop before some of the prospects start to creep up. Curt Casali and Luke Maile were brought in to back up Tyler Stephenson, and fringe guys such as Will Benson, Henry Ramos, and Jason Vosler were brought in to round out the roster. 

There were fewer changes to the pitching staff. Luke Weaver was signed to compete for the fifth rotation spot, but he will begin the season on the IL. 

2023 Regular Season Preview:

In 2022, the Reds lost 100 games for the second time ever and the first time since 1982. Like in 1982, the 100-loss season immediately followed a playoffs near miss and mass exodus of talent. Just eight years later, they were World Champions. So what went wrong last year, and how can we envision the Reds getting back to the World Series eight years from now? 

Last season, the Reds began the season 3-22 and finished the season 6-20. In between, they went a respectable 53-58. I’m not sure how many 100-loss teams have had not one but two winning months, but I imagine the list isn’t very long after the 2022 Reds. There aren’t a lot of things I can say for certain about this year’s Reds team, but I can guarantee they won’t start 3-22. 

For one, it requires a nearly impossible mix of injuries, bad luck, and bad baseball. And second, they don’t have an early west coast road trip to dig a hole in. Last year’s Reds played mid-April games in Los Angeles and San Diego which created a tailspin that lasted until they mercifully got to play the Pirates on May 7th. 

So what about this year’s team? The Reds are beginning Year Two of a rebuild they hope will be a quick one. At this stage of a rebuild, it’s all about figuring out which players will be on the next competitive ballclub and finding little victories when you can take them. 

Reds fans will remember the joy of watching Derek Dietrich’s antics on a 75-win team, or the excitement of watching Luis Castillo break out on a 68-win team. So, while this year’s team isn’t going to be a competitive one, there will definitely be things to watch and young players to keep an eye on. 

Let’s start, however, with someone who’s very much not new in town. Joey Votto is one of just seven players remaining from the 2020 Reds playoff team, and if you go back to 2018 it’s just him. But at 39, Votto may not have more than one or two more years left with the team. 

After a surprise 2021 season in which he slugged .563, Votto struggled through an injury-filled 2022 to a career worst 92 wRC+ and -0.9 WAR. Ever the perfectionist, Votto was working on his approach this offseason in between his Monday night games at Toronto’s Annex Chess Club. He’s going to begin the year on the IL, but it shouldn’t be long before he’s back in a Reds uniform. If this truly is the final ride, and I hope with all my might that it’s not, he’s going to make it a better year than last year.

Second baseman Jonathan India is another player who disappointed in an injury-plagued 2022. Following a Rookie of the Year campaign in 2021, India saw his OBP dip nearly 50 points and his slugging drop 81 points. Not much of a power hitter to begin with, his average exit velocity and hard hit rate were in the third and fifth percentiles league wide last year thanks to two different leg injuries, and his walk rate dropped tremendously as well. 

With his advanced fielding metrics being subpar, there have been talks of India moving to the outfield to make room for the upcoming crop of infield talent. Though that hasn’t happened in Spring Training, I would imagine he gets some looks there over the next 1-2 years. 10 pounds slimmer and hopefully a lot healthier, I’d expect a bounceback this year, even if 2021 was his peak. 

Tyler Stephenson is yet another bat who had a great 2021 but struggled with injuries last year. Unlike India, however, Stephenson took a step forward at the plate when he was healthy. He posted a .372 OBP in his sophomore season with a 134 wRC+ as well as his first career stolen base. 

He was the team’s second most valuable hitter by fWAR despite playing in just 50 games. But some of the underlying numbers paint a less promising picture, as his K rate jumped substantially while his walk rate dropped. Additionally, his .319 batting average was buoyed by an unsustainable .409 BABIP. 

I’m willing, however, to chalk a lot of that up to the struggles of playing through injuries. With Stephenson’s load at catcher greatly diminished in 2023, expect him to put together similar numbers to last year, but this time with better peripherals.

Third base is Spencer Steer’s job to lose. The 25-year-old is being tabbed around the league as a breakout candidate after being acquired in the Tyler Mahle trade at last year’s deadline. Though his first stint in the majors produced an underwhelming .211 batting average, he walked at a 10.2% clip and had two 100+ MPH batted balls in his September debut including a home run to straightaway center. 

Kevin Newman is the de facto shortstop to start the season, but that certainly doesn’t mean he will be at the end of the season. He played a majority of his games at second for the Pirates last year, but he’s handled short in the past. Since a 2019 rookie season in which he hit 12 homers with a .353 OBP, he has slashed .240/.283/.323 with just eight longballs. He’s here because Kyle Farmer is in Minnesota, Elly de la Cruz is in the minors, and Jose Barrero has a career wRC+ of 14. 

Speaking of Barrero, he’s been playing a lot of center field in the spring and actually looked solid. Reds fans complained about the move, citing the team’s poor track record of moving infielders to the outfield. However, this track record they speak of is literally just Nick Senzel, and I’m not going to buy that this experiment has failed before it’s even begun. Especially since it’s a last ditch effort to find playing time for a failed prospect. Which brings me to…

Nick Senzel. Oh boy. Senzel begins the season on the Injured List to the surprise of nobody. The former number two overall pick, Senzel was one of the league’s top prospects when he debuted to much fanfare in 2019. The buzz wore off quickly however, as his career has seemingly been plagued by one injury after another. 

When Nick has been healthy, he boasts a career wRC+ of just 74 and has been worth -0.6 wins according to Fangraphs. I thought he may have been a candidate to be non-tendered this offseason, but Senzel will be back for what surely is a make or break season in 2023.

The team’s biggest acquisition this offseason was Wil Myers. Another former top prospect, Myers won Rookie of the Year with Tampa Bay in 2013 and has since settled in as a slightly above average hitter who can show flashes of greatness. In the shortened 2020 season, he slugged .606 and earned MVP votes. He pairs his slightly above average bat with a well above average glove. 

Over the past three seasons, he ranks ninth out of 47 qualified right fielders in Outs Above Average, just behind Jason Heyward. Old friend Nick Castellanos is a distant last. Expect Myers to get a lot of time at first base as well when Joey Votto is DHing. His strikeout rate has risen each of the past three years, but he has the pop to hit 20+ home runs at Great American Ballpark. That is, if he’s not gone by the trade deadline.

Jake Fraley is going to start in left field for the Reds following a surprisingly solid 2022. Acquired in the deal that sent Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suarez to Seattle, Fraley has been a direct replacement for Winker in left, and he’s actually been quite a bit better. In 68 games, he hit 12 home runs with a 121 wRC+, compared to Winker who hit 14 home runs in exactly twice as many games with a 108 wRC+. 

Fraley doesn’t quite have the plate discipline of his predecessor, but his 10.5% walk rate was still one of the better numbers on the team. After returning from an injury in late July, Fraley slashed .295/.377/.526. He’s a name to keep an eye on in a surprisingly deep outfield.

TJ Friedl played 15 or more games at all three outfield positions in 2022, and the Reds plan on playing him all over again this year. The former undrafted free agent was a league average hitter as a rookie last season despite a low .251 BABIP. The 27-year-old boasts 73rd percentile sprint speed and should see a BABIP increase in 2023, which would lead to all around improved stats considering how often he puts the ball in play. 

Friedl rarely strikes out, and he put up a 139 wRC+ after getting promoted back to Cincinnati for a fifth and final time in mid-August, hitting all 8 of his home runs during that time. It’s no wonder he’s another player tabbed for a breakout.

Will Benson and Stuart Fairchild are expected to get the remainder of playing time in the outfield. Benson, acquired in an offseason trade with Cleveland, stole 6 bases in camp including a steal of home towards the beginning of Spring Training. He’s only 24, and he’s played himself into a starting role until Senzel comes back. 

Fairchild had a 146 wRC+ in 99 plate appearances with last year’s Reds. Though a high BABIP and K rate suggest this may have been sample size nonsense, he hits the ball hard for a little guy and at the very least is worth another look.

The likely next prospect to break down the door of the majors and make an impact with the big club this year is Christian Encarnacion-Strand. Acquired alongside Steer in the Mahle trade, CES absolutely raked this spring to the tune of a 1.748 OPS. If Steer stumbles out of the gate, look for Encarnacion-Strand to take over the starting third base job.

Moving on to the pitching staff, the top of the Reds rotation looks surprisingly solid. They’re led by Nick Lodolo, a 25-year-old former #7 overall pick who shined as a rookie. In 103.1 innings he put up a 3.66 ERA with a staggering 11.41 K/9. But he really came into his own down the stretch. 

In six September starts, Lodolo put up a 2.48 ERA and equivalent 2.48 BB/9. Those numbers were 4.30 and 3.90 respectively going into the last month. All through the minors, Lodolo displayed excellent control, so I expect the walk rate to continue to fall as he gets more comfortable in the majors.

Hunter Greene has the highest ceiling of any player on the Reds. A former #2 overall draft pick, you may remember that he was actually drafted as a two-way player before converting fully to pitcher following his first minor league season. Greene’s struggles were more pronounced than Lodolo’s upon debuting in the bigs last year. 

Though his 103 MPH fastball generated a lot of swings and misses, he had a tendency to leave it over the plate and allow a lot of hard contact. You would see a lot of games early in the season where Greene would strike out 8 but allow a pair of home runs. There was talk of moving him to the bullpen, at least in a temporary role. 

But that all changed midseason, when Greene took a little gas off his fastball and worked on his command. And when he felt comfortable, he added some of that heat back and became unstoppable. Hunter Greene could be a bonafide ace by the end of the season. 

The rest of the rotation shapes up interestingly. Graham Ashcaft is the third head of last year’s rookie SP cerberus. The least hyped of the three, he put up a 4.21 FIP last year but didn’t strike many guys out. 

Up next is Luis Cessa, a converted reliever. Prior to last season, Cessa hadn’t started a single game since 2018 when he was with the Yankees save for an appearance as an opener in April 2022. But with the Reds rotation depth taking a serious hit following trades of Castillo and Mahle, they decided to give him a shot. The Reds slowly stretched out Cessa over 10 starts in August and September. 

Though his first start went poorly, he gave up 2 runs in a 2 inning appearance, he stuck with it and went at least 5 innings in 6 of his final 7 starts. Following that first start, he put up a 3.51 ERA in the rotation and actually pitched better the second time through the order than the first. 

Connor Overton put together a season reminiscent of a dead ball era great like Three Finger Brown, posting an ERA below 2.75 despite striking out fewer than four batters per nine. He was the first primary starter to do so in 30 or more innings since Salomon Torres in 2002. Torres didn’t stick as a starter, but he became an ace reliever for the Pirates in the coming years. Is this sustainable in 2023? Probably not. Overton has a 91 mph fastball and allows fairly hard contact while walking 3 batters per 9 innings. But either way, he’s got a spot in the rotation to begin the season.

At the back of the bullpen is new closer Alexis Diaz, who came out of nowhere to take the job last season. A surprise inclusion on the Opening Day Roster in 2022 after previously not pitching above AA, Diaz was able to step out of his brother Edwin’s shadow and make his own name as an elite closer. 

His 1.84 ERA ranked 8th among relievers with at least 60 innings pitched. There is cause for concern with the 4.66 BB/9 and miniscule .178 BABIP allowed. But the Reds are confident that the 26-year-old can be a relief ace for years to come.

The rest of the bullpen is filled with a mix of new and old faces. The next man up is Reiver Sanmartin, who had quite the journey last year. Following two impressive starts down the stretch in 2021, he began last season in the rotation before getting rocked to the tune of a 19.85 ERA in four starts. 

After a particularly bad outing in which he allowed 6 runs and couldn’t finish the first inning, Sanmartin was sent down to the minors, never to be seen again. Except, he did come back a month later in the bullpen. Under his new moniker of Reliever Sanmartin, he put together a 2.96 ERA and cut his walk rate in half.

Ian Gibaut and Buck Farmer quietly put together great seasons last year, and they should be key members of the bullpen going forward. Joel Kuhnel’s 6.36 ERA doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence, but his peripherals look solid enough to warrant another chance. Fernando Cruz, Derek Law, and Alex Young figure to make up the last spots on the active roster, at least until Lucas Sims and Tony Santillan return from injury.

The last name I want to mention is Tejay Antone. Antone burst onto the scene in 2020 with a sinker-slider combo and a big beautiful curveball. In 2021, he threw his curveball a third of the time and was downright dominant, putting up a 2.14 ERA in a fireman role at the back of the Reds bullpen. But then, disaster struck. In June, he went on the IL with forearm discomfort. 

After recovering for two months, he came back for a game against the Brewers on August 24th. Instantly something was wrong. He walked the first batter he faced on 7 pitches and then left the game. It was that same forearm. This time, he opted for Tommy John surgery, and he’s been out ever since. After a setback this offseason, it looks like he could be out until the All Star Break. If Antone’s arm holds up, he could be an incredibly valuable piece in this lackluster bullpen. But that’s a big if.

Player to Watch #1: SP Hunter Greene

Is Hunter Greene really the best player on the Reds? He is, after all, projected by Steamer to put up the second highest WAR on the team. He finished the 2022 season even stronger than Nick Lodolo did. In his final six starts, Greene had a 1.02 ERA, striking out just shy of 13 batters per 9. 

Most importantly, he gave up just one home run in 35.1 innings. That comes out to a staggering 1.70 FIP. It feels like he’s got the formula down, and at only 23 years old, Hunter Greene could be the next face of the Reds.

Player to Watch #2: SS Elly De La Cruz

The Reds future hopes are centered around De La Cruz, Fangraphs’ number 6 prospect. The 6’5” shortstop topped out in AA last year and had a 150 wRC+ across two levels. Due to his huge build, flashy tools, and questionable approach, he is seen as baseball’s ultimate high ceiling low floor prospect. Keep an eye on Pirates shortstop Oneil Cruz, whose similar body type and game make him somewhat of a proof of concept for Elly.

Player to Watch #3: SP Graham Ashcraft

Ashcraft has one of the most unusual makeups of any pitcher in the league. Despite a fastball that regularly touches 100, he struck out just 6.1 batters per 9 innings last year. Instead, he allowed just 11 home runs in 105 innings and did most of his business as  groundball pitcher. In fact, only seven major league pitchers had a higher ground ball rate. 

Though he had moderate success, it simply wasn’t the best use of his talents. This spring, Ashcraft tweaked his slider, and the results have been staggering. In 17.1 Arizona innings, he struck out 25 batters while walking only two. Sure, it’s just Spring Training, but this change could have unlocked another level in Ashcraft’s game.

Position Group to Watch: Catchers

The Reds used seven catchers in 2022. Here they are in order of plate appearances:

Tyler Stephenson: 183 PA, 134 wRC+

Aramis Garcia: 115 PA, 36 wRC+

Austin Romine: 99 PA, 11 wRC+

Michael Papierski: 93 PA, 25 wRC+

Chuckie Robinson: 60 PA, -1 wRC+

Mark Kolozsvary: 21 PA, 81 wRC+

Chris Okey: 13 PA, 11 wRC+

As you can see, it was a grim bunch. When Tyler Stephenson was down with injury, the Reds were putting a black hole in the lineup at the catcher position. In 2023, they plan to address this in a unique way. First and foremost, they will be moving Stephenson around in an attempt to keep him on the field. They plan to use him behind the plate in about 65 games this year, with his remaining time split between DH and first base, two positions that have their own question marks this year. 

The two players (and hopefully it’s just them) who will be taking the rest of the games at catcher are Curt Casali and Luke Maile, both of whom were signed this offseason. Casali is an old fan favorite, having posted a 115 wRC+ or higher in two of his three seasons in Cincinnati from 2018-2020. 

Maile is more of a defense-first catcher, although he does walk at a reasonably high clip. Having three MLB-caliber catchers on the roster should prevent the disaster we saw last year, even if Stephenson struggles again to stay healthy.

2023 Record Prediction: 70-92

It’s year two of a rebuild. It’s all about finding little victories. The Reds rotation is a strength and should be able to keep them in a lot of games, even when the bats are quiet. Key bats such as Jonathan India and Tyler Stephenson should contribute more than they did last year. The rest of the lineup doesn’t have a lot of good names, but it does have a lot of interesting names. 

Some of these players are going to have breakout seasons, some are going to regress, and some names I didn’t mention will give us memorable moments. There’s a lot up in the air even with the Opening Day lineup. But one of the lone joys of watching a rebuilding team is the feeling that you’re watching something great come together, even if it never actually does. It’s not going to be good, but it’s not going to be as bad as last year.

Categories: 2023 Season Preview, Articles, Season Analysis

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