Reds Spring Training Storylines to Watch: Kids, Aliens, and Will Bensons

From promising new talent to lingering questions about the vets, there may not be a lot of Cincinnati wins in store this season. But it’s sure to be interesting.
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The long, hard winter is finally over. Spring has sprung, which means that, in Arizona and Florida, actual baseball is being played. Balls are popping into catcher’s mitts, bats are swinging through the air, and there is plenty of chatter on the infield. It’s the most wonderful time of the year … or something like that.

For long-suffering Reds fans, well, it’s complicated. We can’t sugarcoat it: The 2023 version of our favorite team just isn’t going to be very good. After losing 100 games for only the second time in franchise history, Cincinnati’s front office did little to improve the roster over the off-season. Another calendar year of aligning the payroll to resources is ahead. Feel free to go ahead and cancel those plans for a postseason parade.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be interested in the 2023 Reds. As I noted in last year’s season review, the Reds have a good (albeit small) core of young potential stars on the big league roster. Many organizations would love to have a youthful pitching triumvirate like Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo, and Graham Ashcraft. Second baseman Jonathan India is only 26 years old and just one year removed from winning the Rookie of the Year award, while Tyler Stephenson has the talent to be one of the best catchers on the planet.

Things are more unsettled pretty much everywhere else on the roster, but there are plenty of good storylines in Reds camp. I mean, I suppose some fans might like to be monitoring position battles on a team that is preparing for a run at the pennant. To each his own, right? But we’re Reds fans, and we have to dig a little deeper. Here’s what I’m watching:

The kids! 

The upside of last year’s fire sale is that the Cincinnati minor league system, ranked among the five best in baseball by some, has been restocked with a number of intriguing prospects. At the top of that list is shortstop Elly De La Cruz, who hit .304/.359/.586 with 28 homers and 47 stolen bases at two levels of the minors last season. The Athletic’s Keith Law says that De La Cruz could end up being the best player in baseball.

If that’s not enough to get you excited, there are more kids to watch this spring. Shortstop Noelvi Marte came over from Seattle in the Luis Castillo deal at the last trade deadline, and he’ll be knocking on the door sooner rather than later. Christian Encarnacion-Strand is a 23-year old who could roll out of bed at 2:00 in the morning and hit .300. More on the pitching prospects in a moment.

Most baseball prospects don’t pan out, obviously, which is why it’s dangerous to expect too much. None of the aforementioned players are likely to be on the Opening Day roster. But these guys are certainly talented, and watching their development this spring will be fun.

Who will be the shortstop? 

Just one year ago, Jose Barrero was rated the No. 33 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America. Yet, in 298 at-bats at the big league level, he’s posted a paltry .170/.215/.223 slash line, and he didn’t hit much better during his time at Triple-A last year. Barrero is why you shouldn’t bet on any prospect until they perform in the majors.

On the other hand, he’s only 25 years old, still has some of that prospect luster, and can certainly handle the job defensively. He’s the presumptive favorite to be the Opening Day starter, but Barrero will have to impress this spring. Otherwise, veteran Kevin Newman, obtained in an off-season trade with Pittsburgh, is a reasonable facsimile of Kyle Farmer and will likely inherit the job by default.

That is, unless one of the kids grabs the brass ring! The most tantalizing scenario involves De La Cruz playing so well that he forces Cincinnati’s hand. Can you imagine the hype if he’s the starting shortstop on Opening Day? But 2021 first round draft pick Matt McLain, who blasted a long walkoff home run in the Reds’ first spring training game, has certainly inserted himself into the conversation and might be an option if neither Barrero or De La Cruz show that they’re ready right now.

Whatever happens, this is the most interesting position battle in Reds camp.

Who will fill out the starting rotation?

Greene, Lodolo, and Ashcraft will all be in the rotation if healthy. The inside track for one of the final rotation spots would likely have belonged to Luis Cessa, who was perfectly cromulent in 10 starts late last season (1-3, 4.30 ERA). He’ll be pitching for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic, however, so don’t pencil him into the Opening Day rotation just yet.

Free agent signing Luke Weaver, fresh off three seasons with Arizona and Kansas City in which he posted a combined 5.58 ERA, is presumably next in line. He hasn’t thrown more than 66 innings in any season since 2018, of course, so don’t bet the ranch on him.

The best-case scenario involves—yes, I’m going to say it again—the kids! Six-foot-six lefthander Brandon Williamson, acquired in last spring’s trade with Seattle, had an up-and-down season at two levels of the minor leagues last year, but his velocity is up and he could help fill a void if he continues to impress this spring. Another option might be Levi Stoudt, who came to Cincinnati along with Marte in the Castillo trade. A 25-year-old righthander, Stoudt pitched well in Triple-A last year and was added to the 40-man roster over the winter. Keep an eye on him.

Meet Will Benson

I am irrationally excited about Will Benson, a former first-round pick of the Guardians who was acquired in a little-noticed off-season trade. Benson is 6-foot-5, has big-time power, and just might be the fastest player in Reds camp. He plays all three outfield positions and has looked pretty good in center field so far this spring.

During his minor league career, Benson has struggled to make consistent contact. He made real progress last year, however, as Matt Wilkes has noted:

Benson made some positive changes in 2022, however, posting a career-low 22.7% strikeout rate and cutting his swinging-strike rate (percentage of whiffs on all pitches) to 8.7% when it had previously never been below 14.1% at any level. He did that while maintaining strong power (17 HR, .244 ISO) and walk (18.7 BB%) numbers in Triple-A Columbus. Benson’s .278 batting average and .426 on-base percentage were also personal bests, and he had the highest wRC+ (153) among all Triple-A hitters last season (min. 400 PA). He also has some wheels, boasting 86 career steals in the minors and a 79.6% success rate.

With the Reds having a dearth of quality outfielders, the timing just may be right for Benson to grab a spot.

Will this be Joey Votto’s last hurrah?

Votto is still recovering from August surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder, and he’s entering what could be his final year in a Cincinnati Reds uniform. (The Reds hold a $20 million team option for next year, or they can buy him out for $7 million.) Can he rebound to be the player he was just two years ago?

I choose to believe that Votto will return to form, mostly because I’ve decided never to doubt him again. He has consistently confounded expectations his entire career. I predict that Votto will bounce back, make another All-Star team, and force the Reds to pick up his option for next year. Feel free to disagree, but it’s certainly more likely than Votto’s prediction of an alien invasion followed by a Reds World Series championship.

Kids and aliens and Will Bensons. There may not be a lot of victories in store for the 2023 Reds, but it’ll definitely be interesting. Stay tuned.

Chad Dotson helms Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, The Riverfront. His newsletter about Cincinnati sports can be found at chaddotson.com. He’s @dotsonc on Twitter.

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