Kids are back in school, the leaves are falling all around us, and temperatures are dipping at a similar pace. Communities gather under the lights at high school football games each Friday. Big league baseball teams are preparing for playoff excitement and glory. Autumn is here.
For fans of the Cincinnati Reds, however, the long, hard winter is upon us. The team looks likely to lose 100 games for only the second time in franchise history, and the future is hazier than it’s been in a generation. The Reds will finish the season with the lowest attendance numbers in the history of Great American Ball Park.
Last week, in my season review, I observed that there are reasons to be optimistic if you so choose. The Reds have a good (though small) young core at the big league level. Among everyday players, Jonathan India and Tyler Stephenson have bright futures, while the dazzling triumvirate of Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo, and Graham Ashcraft seem destined to be the heart of the starting rotation for the foreseeable future. Add in uber-talented Alexis Diaz at the back of the bullpen, and you have something to work with.
I also noted that the Reds have a boatload of minor league talent on the horizon. There is a clear path to Cincinnati being able to field a winning franchise within the couple of years. The question is how do we get from here (triple digit losses, one of the worst teams in franchise history) to there?
It’s pretty simple, actually. Let’s begin with a timeline. When can we reasonably expect the Reds to field a competitive team again? Well, I have some bad news for you: The Reds will not be a good baseball team in 2023. This season’s fire sale was so well-executed that nearly every valuable asset in the organization was sent packing, and the ghost of Bob Howsam himself couldn’t engineer a roster recovery sufficient to field a competitive team as soon as next year.
On the other hand, it isn’t a stretch to imagine a decent, competitive team in 2024. In fact, if the Reds are serious about putting a consistent winner on the field in the future,* they should be aiming for 2024 to begin the renaissance on the big league level. [*In yet another example of my lack of professionalism, it took me 10 full minutes to write this sentence between guffaws at the idea of the Reds being serious about winning. If the Castellinis were serious about putting a consistent winner on the field, they’d sell the team immediately to an ownership group that actually cared. But I digress.]
In fact, Cincinnati management should be aiming steadily at 2024. That young core I mentioned above will be under team control for just a few more years—so if the Reds want to take advantage of that window while they’re young, good, and cheap, it needs to be sooner rather than later. Wait too long, and that core won’t be around to help the next good Reds team.
By Opening Day 2024, however, Stephenson, Greene, Lodolo, and company will be entering their prime years. Big-time prospects such as Elly De La Cruz and Noelvi Marte will (hopefully) be ready for full-time duty in the big leagues. The Reds will still have a number of holes around the diamond, but in theory it should be simple to fill those holes because the front office will have a ton of money to spend.
No, seriously! Did you know the Reds only have two players under contract for next year? That’s Joey “the GOAT” Votto and Mike Moustakas, who are owed $43 million between them. Everyone else is either arbitration-eligible or not yet eligible. As for 2024? Not a single player in the Reds organization is currently under contract for that season.
So what does that mean? Seriously financial flexibility, if the Castellinis decide to exercise it. [Sorry, guffawing again.] And I’m not even talking about spending like the Dodgers, Yankees, Mets, and Phillies. I’m just suggesting that the Reds could return to their spending levels of years previous, when the payroll topped $100 million, if you can believe it. If the Castellinis would budget something close to the big league average (approximately $115 million this year), even better.
So here’s a plan for Reds management; Bob and/or Phil Castellini can give me a call if they want more specifics. First, the Reds need to resolve that 2022 will be the absolute bottom of the barrel. They can’t just punt on 2023 like they did on this year’s club. Yes, the team will likely be bad, but management doesn’t have to concede that they’ll lose 95-plus games again. It seems like such a strange thing to say that a professional sports franchise should actually try to win as many games as possible, but here we are.
Next, go find a starting pitcher, preferably a veteran, to join the kids in the rotation. Here, I mean that the Reds need to spend real money on a real pitcher; it can be a one-year contract, but they shouldn’t make a desperate play for a Mike Minor-type. The development of Greene, Lodolo, and Ashcraft will be paramount to the Reds being good over the next few years. Acquire a veteran starter to show them the ropes.
With that accomplished, it’s time to spend more of that money that was saved to patch together an outfield. As of now, the Reds don’t really have anyone on the roster you would trust as a full-time big league outfielder. Maybe Jake Fraley can platoon with someone to be decent? Can Nick Senzel and TJ Friedl be a two-headed, defense-first centerfield combo? Hoping that these guys become something they’re not is a doomed strategy.
Mets outfielder Michael Conforto is exactly the type of player I’m talking about. He’ll be 29 and a free agent. Would he accept a three- or four-year deal to help shepherd the Reds into the next competitive window? I don’t know, but it makes sense from Cincinnati’s standpoint. Sign him (or someone like him) plus a platoon partner for Fraley, and now we’re inching closer to an average outfield.
With Votto (hopefully) returning to something close to normal, with Lucas Sims and Tejay Antone taking their rightful places in the bullpen, and with expected improvement from the young core, you’re looking at a team that can be much improved. Maybe it’s an 88-loss team instead of a 100-loss team, but that’s something, right?
Of course, 88 losses is no one’s idea of a good team. But the Reds will have roster flexibility as they determine which of the prospects are going to pan out and where they’ll play around the diamond in 2024. And they’ll have even more financial flexibility once the Votto/Moustakas contracts come off the books, which they can use to fill the remaining holes.
The Reds will also have demonstrated to the fan base that they’re actually trying to improve the product on the field. Then they can spend the winter of 2023-24 bringing in free agents and trading away some of the prospect capital they’ve accumulated to put the finishing touches on a team that could legitimately be competitive in 2024. And, who knows, maybe even a championship contender the following season. [I know, I know, guffaw.]
Of course, let’s be honest: Without question, you should not trust that Reds management will execute this plan or any plan at all. When have the Castellini-owned Reds ever stuck to a plan and put a consistently good team on the field? Certainly not in the last decade.
Then again, hope springs eternal here in the Queen City. With a little luck and an intentional strategy from Cincinnati management, the ol’ Redlegs could be back sooner than expected. Just look down the riverfront to the Bengals for an example. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll be able to put the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad season of 2022 behind us permanently.
Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, The Riverfront. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available in bookstores and online.