The Reds Are Certainly Living in Interesting Times

We’re about to see a young team grow up before our eyes this season. Enjoy the ride!
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Attempting to predict the outcome of sporting events in America is a fool’s game. Need evidence? Take a quick glance at your March Madness bracket and let me know how you’re doing. I’m guessing there’s a lot of red ink on that sheet. You probably even picked Auburn to go to the Final Four. What were you thinking?

While predicting sports may be difficult for you, the common fan, you should be aware that I, the brilliant pundit, have no such limitations. A year ago, with the Reds limping toward Opening Day, struggling to sell tickets on the heels of a disastrous 100-loss season, most observers predicted that the Reds would win somewhere between 64 and 70 games in 2023. Even the moneyline experts in Vegas set Cincinnati’s over/under for wins at 65.5. No one could have predicted that the Reds would surprise the baseball world and avoid a losing record, right?

You can guess where this is going. One year ago this week, I made the fearless prediction that Cincinnati would go 81-81. I missed the mark, but just barely; the Reds actually finished 82-80.

All this is to say that you should trust my predictions more than anyone else’s on this planet, and if you’re willing to follow me to the end of this column, you’ll find my prediction for the upcoming Reds season. But don’t skip ahead! (As always, however, remember: This is not a competition. It’s only an exhibition. Please, no wagering. Someone should mention this to Shohei Ohtani and/or his friends.)

Most outlets that market in baseball opinion and analysis appear to be sleeping on the Redlegs once again in 2024. FanGraphs sees the Reds finishing in fourth place with a 79-83 record (though, notably, only four games behind first-place St. Louis). Baseball Prospectus’ prediction is almost exactly the same, though they see the Reds finishing six games back of first. Both give Cincinnati a roughly 23 percent chance of qualifying for the playoffs. Vegas, meanwhile, sets the Reds over-under at 81.5 wins.

Why are the computer projection systems (not to mention the sports bettors) so bearish on this young, exciting squad? It’s mostly math. Both FanGraphs (using a combination of their Steamer and ZiPS systems) and BP’s PECOTA system rely on mathematical models that take into account past baseball history to predict future results. These models are generally pretty good, if you understand their limitations. One limitation is that they often have difficulty projecting the performance of young players. Because young players are mercurial, you see. And you may have noticed: The Cincinnati Reds have more than their fair share of kiddos on the roster.

On the other hand, the computers see what the rest of us can see with our eyes. This Reds club has some pretty identifiable flaws. Cincinnati desperately needs a right-handed bat in the outfield, and they don’t even really have a center fielder on the roster now that TJ Friedl is out of action for an extended period with a broken wrist. On the infield, Cincinnati had been bragging about their depth, but that took a huge hit with Noelvi Marte’s PED-related suspension and Matt McLain’s ongoing shoulder troubles that may require surgery to fix.

Last year, the Reds offense ranked fifth in the National League in runs scored. Hopes for improvement were tied to presumed development of the kids who were the centerpiece of the summer surge, but two of those youngsters are now MIA, along with last year’s most productive player, Friedl. With Reds President of Baseball Ops Nick Krall adding just one player to the mix over the winter—Jeimer Candelario, a perfectly cromulent corner infielder—can we expect the offense to improve substantially?

Perhaps not, but ranking fifth in the league in runs scored again is a good place to start. The pitching side of the ledger is where Cincinnati stands to make the most gains. Last year’s pitching staff posted the third-worst ERA in the NL (4.83), and the starting rotation (5.43 ERA) was the biggest reason the Reds failed to make the playoffs yet again. Cincinnati gave 49 starts to players named Luke Weaver, Ben Lively, Luis Cessa, Connor Overton, Carson Spiers, Levi Stoudt, and Derek Law. That’s nearly a third of their games with starting pitchers who will likely never start another game in the big leagues (unless I’ve missed some crazy developments in other teams’ spring camps).

While management didn’t go out and acquire any big names—because Reds management almost never goes out and acquires any big names, historically—they did make strides in improving depth both in the rotation and the bullpen. They signed Frankie Montas, who was brilliant with the Athletics in 2022 before battling shoulder issues the last two seasons. He’ll be the Opening Day starter. (Let’s ignore for a moment whether depending on a 31-year old with a history of shoulder injuries is a good bet.) They also added Nick Martinez, who has been pretty good with San Diego over the last couple of years, mostly out of the pen, and will get an opportunity to be a starter. Combine those with Cincinnati’s young core (Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo, Graham Ashcraft, Andrew Abbott, Brandon Williamson, Connor Phillips) and you have a rotation with actual depth.

In the bullpen, Cincinnati gambled a bit by adding Emilio Pagan, a fly ball pitcher who performed well in relief for Minnesota last season. They also added Brent Suter, a local guy who’s been a reliable lefty for Milwaukee and Colorado in his career.

But, of course, injuries will tell the tale with the pitching, as it always does. Lodolo will not be ready to start the season, thanks to “left tibia discomfort,” and Williamson will begin the season on the IL (shoulder). Among relievers, lefty Sam Moll is experiencing problems with his throwing shoulder, while Alex Young (back) and Ian Gibault (forearm strain) are behind schedule as well.

Enough pieces remain in place for the Reds to make a serious run at the NL Central, especially since no team looks good enough to run away with the division. Could the club have been stronger if ownership/management cared to really try to improve the roster? Sure. That’s been the story for nearly my entire adult life. No one should be surprised. I won’t be fooled again, anyway.

But it’s a pretty darn interesting team as is. And since last year showed us that the Reds can surprise even the most jaded of fans, I’m ready to make my predictions. Elly De La Cruz will be the starting shortstop for the National League in the All-Star Game. Tyler Stephenson will bounce back and be one of the better hitting catchers in the league. Jonathan India will remind everyone that he’s more than just a glorious head of hair. Will Benson will hit a walkoff homer in the first week of the season to kick the team into overdrive.

As for the pitchers, Hunter Greene will stay healthy and establish himself as the ace of the staff; he’s not starting on Opening Day, but he will be starting the first game of the NL Division Series. Lodolo will return and make fans forget that they doubted him. Montas won’t be a star, but he’ll be good enough to stabilize the rotation all season long.

And the Cincinnati Reds will win 95 games. You heard it here first. (Hey, it’s still spring. We can dream, right?)

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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