The Reds Need to Bring up the Kids

Three prospects are hitting well at Triple-A Louisville and can help at Cincinnati’s worst positions: first base and shortstop.
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The Great Cincinnati Roller Coaster Ride of 2023 continues! The Reds lost six games in a row in mid-April, then followed it up with an incredibly fun five-game winning streak. That streak ended in Oakland, and the ol’ Redlegs have lost five of seven since. They remain in fourth place, but still 3.5 games ahead of last place St. Louis. (That’s all that matters, if we’re being honest.)

Perhaps the biggest reason the Reds are six games under .500 is the dismal state of the offense. It was most evident during that recent six-game losing streak, when the Reds scored a total of six runs during the entire span. But it’s been a problem all season long, with the Reds among the worst in the majors in runs scored and runs per game.

The nerd stats paint a pretty bleak picture too. By OPS+, Cincinnati’s offense is the worst in the National League and second-worst in MLB. If you sort by wRC+, only the Colorado Rockies have a worse offense. We can slice the numbers a million different ways, but the stats all agree: The Reds are struggling at the plate.

If you watch this team every day, you know there’s plenty of blame to go around. The Reds have gotten above-average offensive production at only three spots so far this season: second base (Jonathan India), left field (Stuart Fairchild/Jake Fraley/TJ Friedl), and center field (Friedl/Nick Senzel). At every other position, including designated hitter, Cincinnati’s production has been dismal.

At two positions (first base and shortstop) the Reds have been worse than every other team in the NL. At first base, it’s almost understandable. Joey Votto is a franchise legend, but he’s still working his way back after shoulder surgery and hasn’t played a game yet. When he gets back, Cincinnati’s first base production will rise substantially. This is my guarantee to you, my loyal readers and devoted Reds fans. Never doubt Joey Votto.

In the meantime, however, it’s been ugly. In both WAR and wRC+, Cincinnati’s first basemen (primarily Jason Vosler, Spencer Steer, and Will Myers, with a dash of Tyler Stephenson, Curt Casali, and Matt Reynolds) have collectively been the worst in the NL and 28th overall in all of baseball. What I’m saying is this: Until Votto returns, the Reds have a giant gaping hole at first base.

The situation is even more dire over at shortstop. Only two players have manned short this season, Jose Barrero and Kevin Newman, and both have been abysmal with the bat. Barrero is hitting .226/.290/.333 (64 OPS+), while Newman has somehow been even worse (.225/.250/.313, 47 OPS+). Only the hapless Oakland Athletics shortstops have been more inept.

Unfortunately, there’s simply nothing the Reds can do to improve the offensive production at these positions. But wait … that’s not true at all! As it turns out, the Reds have some kids down on the farm who are banging on the door to the major leagues pretty loudly.

Let’s take Matt McLain, for instance. Cincinnati’s first round pick out of UCLA in 2021, he just won the International League’s Player of the Week award after hitting .440 (11-for-25) with four doubles, one triple, two home runs, 11 RBI, and five runs scored during the week. The highlight came last Thursday, when McLain hit for the cycle for the second time in his pro career.

Lest you think the 23-year-old McLain is just a one-week wonder, he’s been doing it all season long. He has the third-best OPS in the entire Triple-A International League, with a slash line of .333/.448/.667 with nine homers, 10 doubles, a triple, and 32 RBI. As Doug Gray notes, McLain has cut his strikeout rate from last season while hitting for more power, a “much higher average, and he’s walked a whole lot once again.” Did I mention that he’s been the primary shortstop for Louisville for most of the season?

And have you heard about this guy Christian Encarnacion-Strand? CES, as the kids call him, would likely have made the Reds’ Opening Day roster if not for a back injury, after he led the Reds in spring training with four home runs, hitting .577/.556/1.192 in the process.

Since finally making his Louisville debut, however, CES hasn’t missed a beat. He hit seven home runs in his first 10 games, including a three-homer game the same night that his teammate McLain hit for the cycle. Overall, after his first 13 games at Triple-A, Encarnacion-Strand is hitting .404/.433/.807. Did I mention that CES has played eight of those 13 games at first base?

At this point, I probably should mention Elly De La Cruz, Cincinnati’s top prospect and according to some the best prospect in all of baseball. Like Encarnacion-Strand, De La Cruz also started the season late thanks to a hamstring injury. Then, in his first taste of Triple-A after all the off-season hype, Elly started 2-for-22. In the 10 games since, however, he’s hit .333/.347/.625 with three doubles, three homers, and eight RBI. Small sample size? Sure, but these are the things Elly has been doing at every single level of the Reds organization. He’s a comic book superhero, and there’s nothing he can’t do as far as I can tell.

Oh yeah, and if you weren’t already aware: Elly is a shortstop, too.

The time is now for the Reds to think seriously about bringing these guys to the big leagues. There are still big question marks about all of them, it’s true. CES and EDLC aren’t taking many walks, leading to questions about plate discipline. Elly is a legit shortstop defensively, but is McLain? Is his future in center field (where he played often in college) or second base? If it’s 2B, what do the Reds do with India? Is there any position on the field that Encarnacion-Strand can actually play defensively, or is he a DH waiting to happen?

On the other hand, what’s the worst that could happen? Will the Reds lose more games by bringing up these talented young kids? I hate to mention it, but Cincinnati is currently on pace to lose 95 games. It’s difficult to believe they’d lose more games with McLain or CES replacing guys like Kevin Newman and Matt Reynolds. And even if they did, at least they’d be more interesting. At this point in the Reds rebuilding process, I’m OK with that. If you can’t be good, at least give me some hope for the future. Bring the kids to Cincinnati.

As long as we’re clear on this point: When Votto returns, he’s the first baseman for the Cincinnati Reds for as long as he wants to be. I’m just not ready for the post-Votto Reds. Sorry, Christian Encarnacion-Strand.

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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