By Hal McCoy
The 2023 regular season is over and once again the Cincinnati Reds are peering from the outside at post-season games.
But oh what a ride the Reds gave their fans before falling a half-step short.
Most prognosticators from New York to Los Angeles, including this one, predicted another 100 losses and another last place finish for baseball’s oldest professional franchise.
None of us knew that the Reds would eventually stuff their roster with a horde of promising rookies, all of whom performed beyond projected expectations.
Despite using 65 players and 40 pitchers, the Reds were relevant for 160 of the 162 games. They were not eliminated from a wild card berth until game 161.
When a team loses 80 games and comes that close, each and every defeat is monumental, none so much as the 13-12 loss late in the season to Pittsburgh when the Reds led 9-0 after three innings and led 9-1 entering the sixth inning.
It’s a defeat that should live in manager David Bell’s memory bank and in the minds of every player involved.
So now what? What will happen in the off-season? What do the Reds need to do to scramble into post-season play in 2024 and beyond?
The pitching rotation is young, young and younger. Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo, Andrew Abbott, Graham Ashcraft and Brandon Williamson all displayed that they have the right stuff.
Can they stay healthy? Greene, Abbott and Ashcraft all missed time with an injury assortment. And all showed signs of exhaustion down the stretch.
What the Reds need is at least one accomplished veteran pitcher to act as mentor to the young staff, to show the path to success. And wouldn’t Sonny Gray look good back in a Reds uniform?
To do that means investing large dollars in the free agent market. And that money should be available. Joey Votto’s $25 million salary is coming off the books, as is the $17 million they paid Mike Moustakas last year to play for another team.
The 2023 payroll was approximately $83 million, so $42 million can be subtracted with Votto and Moustakas coming off the books. That leaves the amount at $41 million.
The club has indicated that it might up the ante to $100 million for 2024, giving it $59 million to work with. Free agent money?
The all-rookie infield should be set for next season — Christian Encarnacion-Strand at first, Matt McLain at second, Elly De La Cruz at shortstop and Noelvi Marte at third.
That leaves first baseman Votto out and second baseman Jonathan India out. The club will not pick up Votto’s $20 million option. Most likely they’ll pay him his $7 million buyout, a nice parting gift.
If it were a matter of the heart decision, the Reds would bring back the team’s most popular and charismatic player, a fan favorite.
But baseball is a business and the Votto decision is a business decision. He is 40 years old and on the down-swing in production. To be blunt, there is no room for him.
It is the same for India, another fan favorite, a down-and-dirty player who gives his all at all times and a clubhouse leader.
But McLain clearly outplayed him and is the team’s second baseman. Like Votto, India is the odd man out. If the club so desires, it could trade him in a deal that could capture a starting pitcher or a relief pitcher.
And the bullpen could use some upgrading after an up and down season where it had stretches of greatness and stretches of awfulness.
Two of the outfield spots should be covered by two of the most underrated players in the league in rookie Spencer Steer and TJ Friedl.
They are cut from the same patch of cloth. Steer played third base, first base, second base, left field and right field and played them all adroitly.
He led the team in most offensive categories and should be a high consideration for Rookie of the Year. That award, most likely, will be go Arizona’s Corbin Carroll, and rightfully so.
But Steer is never mentione as even in the top five, even behind McLain and De La Cruz.
Put him in left field and forget about it. And there is nothng Friedl can’t do on a baseball field. He had 17 bunt hits, tops in the majors, he hits for power, he hits doubles and triples, he steals bases and he steals home run and base hits on defense. He is the team’s center fielder.
That leaves right field? Will Benson? Jake Fraley? Somebody else? Benson began the season terribly and was sent back to Class AAA Louisville. He returned as a different player, all on a positive note. But he slumped in September.
Fraley, an accomplished clutch hitter, missed a large portion of the season with injuries.
While both Benson and Fraley are acceptable, the team could upgrade in right field with a trade or a free agent signing. Wouldn’t Cody Bellinger look good in a Reds uniform, even those horrid black ones? But he probably is out of the Reds’ price range and would be outbid by his present team, the Cubs, or the Yankees, Mets or Padres.
The expectations for 2024 are high, but as in life, nothing is guaranteed. Tweaks are necessary and general manager Nick Krall has shown the ability to make them. Now it depends upon how much latitude CEO Bob Castellini gives Kral with the team’s checkbook.