Before the season, I found myself deep into the annual “hope springs eternal” phase of baseball fandom. One lazy Sunday afternoon, I did what some desperately hopeful fans do in this age of fancy stats and advanced analytics: I scoured the computer projection systems for reasons to be optimistic about the 2023 Cincinnati Reds.
My favorite of the various projection systems is ZiPS, created by analyst Dan Szymborski. I won’t dive into the details (if you’re interested, here’s an excellent explanation), but his system attempts to forecast how players will perform in the upcoming season. And when perusing the Reds’ projections, one name stood out: Spencer Steer, who was projected to have the highest total WAR of any Reds position player. Now, I was as high on his ability as the next guy, and I was eager to see how he would fit into Cincinnati’s future plans. But the most productive everyday player?
Thus far this season, it hasn’t played out precisely as predicted (TJ Friedl continues to impress and currently leads the Reds in WAR) but Steer, perhaps the least-heralded of Cincinnati’s young stars, not only has been really good but also has quietly inserted himself into the race for National League Rookie of the Year.
Steer’s first big league game last September was anything but quiet. He reached base four times, homered for his first big league hit, then scored the winning run in a 3-2 victory over Colorado, as memorable a debut as you can get. Then on Opening Day this year, Steer—the starter at third base—hit Cincinnati’s first homer of the year and became the first player to don the illustrious viking helmet.
But while Friedl, Jonathan India, Jake Fraley, and even Nick Senzel have gotten most of the offensive headlines this season, Steer has gone about his business, posting a slash line of .284/.352/.485 while leading the Reds with seven home runs. He’s second only to Fraley in RBI (25), and his 14 doubles trails only India’s 15. Only Friedl has a higher OPS.
Recently, Steer has been on a tear, hitting .358/.411/.582 over his last 16 games while serving as Cincinnati’s everyday first baseman. For now, first base is Steer’s position, but few expect him to remain there. In the short term, the Reds hope Joey Votto will return to his rightful place on the right side of the infield. At Triple-A, Christian Encarnacion-Strand is pounding baseballs to the moon, and he may be the long-term solution at first base.
The Reds have some difficult decisions to make in the coming days. With Matt McLain already performing well at the big league level and top prospects Elly De La Cruz and Encarnacion-Strand on the verge of promotion very soon, there may not be enough positions for everyone. It’s a great problem to have, but where does Steer fit in?
Fortunately, he’ll present the Reds with plenty of options. He was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the third round in 2019 out of the University of Oregon, where he played mostly third base. And not only did he play third, he played it very well, being named to the Pac-12 All-Defensive team after his final season.
Before the draft, Baseball America projected (yes, another projection) Steer to be “a hit-over-power, utility-type player,” and he never appeared on anyone’s “Top 100 prospects” list at any time before reaching the big leagues. But as Aaron Gleeman notes in this terrific piece over at The Athletic, the Twins thought Steer could be more than just a utility guy.
“We loved his bat-to-ball skills and his ability to hit for average and to control the strike zone,” Twins player development director Alex Hassan said. “We felt there was room for improvement in his ability to drive the baseball.”
They drafted him in the third round, 90th overall, and went to work unlocking more power in a swing that had always been geared toward contact.
Though he only hit 12 home runs over his three seasons in college, Steer underwent a swing makeover in Minnesota’s system that was designed to add some pop to his arsenal. Once he returned from the lost pandemic season, after a year spent working diligently with Minnesota’s coaches (“one of the most coachable players we’ve had,” according to Hassan) Steer was a different hitter. He hit 24 home runs in 110 games in 2021, then followed that up with 23 homers last year in 106 games at Double-A and Triple-A. He came over to the Reds with Encarnacion-Strand last August in the Tyler Mahle trade.
Though Steer has been pressed into service as a first baseman this year, it’s a position he played only twice in the minors (and never in college). The fact that he’s been able to adjust so well to that position is a testament to his versatility and ability to adapt. During his minor league career, he played regularly all around the infield, seeing significant time at second base and shortstop in addition to third.
When Votto returns, the easy answer is to shift Steer back over to third base, right? It’s not that easy, as it turns out. Soon, the Reds will have four legit everyday players (India, Steer, McLain, and Elly De La Cruz) for the three non-Votto positions in the infield, and that’s without mentioning Senzel, who’s started 31 games at third this season. Someone will be the odd man out, and how the Reds navigate that decision will say a lot about how they view each of these players.
Will one of the players be traded, presumably for pitching? Will one or more be moved to the outfield or used primarily as a DH?
Whatever happens, Steer is demonstrating that he can and should be a significant piece of Cincinnati’s core going forward. He wasn’t a top prospect like some of the other stud prospects in the organization, but he’s worked his way into the conversation. In the future, maybe he’ll play all around the diamond on different days for the Reds, but he’s not a “utility player” like he was projected to be.
No, Spencer Steer is clearly an everyday player. And as the Reds decide where he fits into their plans, they should not limit themselves to the options around the infield and outfield. After all, as a 15 year-old, Steer’s fastball was clocked at 89 mph. I’m starting to believe this kid can and will excel at anything that’s asked of him.
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.