Which Reds Have Something to Play for?

These four young Reds are trying to firm up their roster spots for next season and beyond as another lost season grinds to a conclusion.

No one has ever called me a quitter, but I’m starting to think the ol’ Redlegs might fall short in their quest for the World Series this season. Call it a hunch. Having lost 13 of 19 games before back-to-back wins over the weekend, Cincinnati is clinging desperately to fourth place in the National League Central division.

With 35 games remaining in the 2022 campaign, however, some Reds players still have everything to play for. Whether that’s a place in Cincinnati’s long-term plans or a spot on some other club next year, a lot is on the line for a few guys.

Take outfielder Jake Fraley, for one. Since returning from injury on July 30, he’s been magnificent, hitting .312/.393/.584 with six home runs in 24 games. In some ways, He’s doing an outstanding imitation of former Red Tyler Naquin, and he’s a similar type of player. Fraley has always been able to mash right-handed pitching, so he’s perfect as a platoon partner. Given the lack of outfield options in Cincinnati, the 27-year-old is likely playing himself into a key role for 2023.

In fact, despite a weakness against lefties and a less-than-stellar defensive reputation, you could make the case that Fraley is the best returning option for Cincinnati in the outfield. I mean, I won’t make that case—I’m still keeping my fingers crossed for Nick Senzel, against growing odds—but who else do the Reds have in the outfield for next year? Don’t think about that question for too long … it’ll make your head hurt. But Fraley can definitely help next year’s Reds. Plus, he isn’t going to put up with any of your nonsense.

Another guy I’m watching very closely is starting pitcher Justin Dunn (not to be confused with the greatest player of all time, Adam Dunn), who came over from Seattle in the Jesse Winker/Eugenio Suarez trade back in March. A former first-round pick of the Mets, he’s only 26 and, before this season, had started 25 games over parts of three seasons with the Mariners.

Thanks to a shoulder injury, Dunn’s Reds debut was delayed until August, and his first two starts were uneven at best. But in his last two outings, he’s flashed real potential: 1-1 with a 2.45 ERA, going five innings against the Pirates and six against the Phillies. He’s still walking too many batters, but Dunn is one of the reasons to continue watching this team for the rest of the season. He’s one of the few guys on this roster that has a shot to be a guy on the Next Good Reds Team (™). I’m interested to see how he develops.

Perhaps no one has more at stake over the final month of the season than shortstop Jose Barrero. Rated as the No. 33 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America prior to the season, he suffered a hamate (hand) injury that delayed his season. After the trade deadline, the Reds called him up and handed him the shortstop job, effectively saying, “Here’s your shot.”

It hasn’t gone well. In 23 games, Barrero has hit .160/.181/.247, with just two lonely singles in his last 26 plate appearances while striking out 12 times. In addition, his defense has been inconsistent, though occasionally spectacular, and he was dropped from the starting lineup for Monday’s series opener against St. Louis.

For all that, Barrero is still just 24 and only months from being rated as one of the best prospects in baseball. His poor slash line could be credited to the hamate injury, a problem that nearly always takes a while to recover fully. It’s way too early to give up on a player with his pedigree. But Barrero needs to show something over the next month if he wants to place himself firmly in the mix for a starting job on next year’s club. With a bevy of talented shortstops behind him in the organization, including the electric Elly De La Cruz, the Reds might not be inclined to have much more patience.

Another guy I’m watching with an eye on next year is Mike Minor. Wait, that’s not right. Surely Minor’s 3-10, 6.10 ERA stat line will be toiling elsewhere next year, and we wish him all the best. (Though he is 2-0 in his last two starts!) Godspeed, old-timer.

OK, one final guy I think we need to keep an eye on is Graham Ashcraft. Yeah, he just hit the injured list with right biceps soreness and is probably nearing his innings limit for the year. But I hope we get to watch him again before the season ends, as I keep getting more and more excited about the kid.

Since I wrote about him earlier this year, Ashcraft has had the typical ups and downs of a rookie big league pitcher, but the trend has been solidly positive. In his four August starts before hitting the IL, Ashcraft was 2-2 with a 2.33 ERA, with 18 strikeouts and six walks in 27 innings pitched. He keeps getting better. He’s already earned a spot in the Reds rotation plans beyond 2022, but is Ashcraft a long-term answer for the club? Only time will tell.

There are obviously plenty of interesting things to watch the rest of the way for these Redlegs … wait, no, it isn’t obvious at all. The Cincinnati Reds are just playing out the string on another miserable season. But certain players—Fraley, Dunn, and Barrero especially—have everything to play for. Are they destined to join the pantheon of obscure former Reds (along with about 20 other players from this year’s squad), or will they have a chance to play for the next Reds team that’s actually competitive? Stay tuned.

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.

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