There’s just something special about this time of year. Spring has arrived, the weather is getting warmer, and the world is in bloom. As baseball fans, you have to love when it’s just days before the season opens. You know the Reds are going to play actual baseball soon.
That annual and unavoidable sense of optimism begins to wash over your otherwise rational brain. The Reds haven’t lost a game yet. There’s still a chance your favorite players are all going to have great seasons. It’s called “hope,” and you should savor it. Soon enough, your favorite team will inevitably demonstrate its flaws and we’ll be smacked in the face with reality. But not yet!
On the surface, for a casual fan, things appear to be moving in a positive direction for the Cincinnati Reds. The club has had two consecutive seasons with a .500 record or better. They made a brief playoff appearance two years ago, then followed up by winning 83 games in 2021 and staying in the playoff hunt until deep into September. Seems like we should be optimistic about this year’s version of the ol’ Redlegs, right?
Alas, you know what Reds ownership and management did during the off-season. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of reasons to get excited about watching the 2022 Reds. As part of the process of “aligning payroll to our resources,” as Reds General Manager Nick Krall put it, the Reds will be depending on a bunch of young guys this year. While that’s not an optimal strategy—for organizations intent on making runs at a championship, that is—at least there’s some real talent here that will get a golden opportunity.
You already know about Jonathan India, the reigning National League Rookie of the Year. Another standout rookie of a year ago, Tyler Stephenson, impressed in his first campaign and stands to play a much bigger role in the Reds offense this season. Catcher Tucker Barnhart and his Gold Glove were shipped to Detroit, so he’ll be Cincinnati’s primary backstop in 2022. With the designated hitter coming to the NL this year, in addition to Stephenson’s ability to play first base on occasion, there is no reason the big guy’s bat shouldn’t be in the Cincinnati lineup nearly every day.
The Reds also boast a trio of top 40 prospects who are now ready to be big leaguers. We’ve gotten glimpses of shortstop Jose Barrero the last couple of years, to mixed reviews, but he remains the best prospect in the Reds system and the 33rd-best in the entire league, according to Baseball America. He had wrist surgery this spring, unfortunately, but should be back with the club within a month or two. Expect to see his outstanding bat and even better glove in the Reds lineup somewhere—whether that will be shortstop or somewhere in the outfield remains to be seen.
Even better, two former first round draft picks are finally poised to make a splash on the big league scene within the next couple of weeks. The Reds have already announced that Hunter Greene and his triple-digit fastball will be on the Opening Day roster; when he pitches in Atlanta this weekend, it’ll be his MLB debut. Manager David Bell hasn’t yet named his fifth starter, but all indications are that the spot will go to Nick Lodolo.
Once everyone is healthy, it’s quite possible that we could see a rotation featuring two high quality veterans, Luis Castillo and Tyler Mahle, surrounded by Greene, Lodolo, and Vladimir Gutierrez, who impressed in his rookie campaign a year ago. You shouldn’t count on any of these guys to put up the numbers Cincinnati would have gotten from recently-departed pitchers Sonny Gray and Wade Miley, but there’s a lot of talent there and a boatload of upside.
On the offensive side of the ledger, there are plenty of reasons for hope as well. Joey Votto returns after a resurgent campaign, and he seems bent on proving to everyone that he’s the best player in the history of this franchise. The Reds also acquired outfielder Tommy Pham, a hitter with a long track record who should get on base and smack a few balls inside and out of Great American Ball Park. Those two, along with India and Stephenson, will form the core of the everyday lineup.
After that, you have Nick Senzel, who is finally healthy and hopefully ready to prove the doubters wrong once again. After that, the pickings get a little slim, but if you squint hard enough you can see guys like Mike Moustakas, Tyler Naquin, Kyle Farmer, and Aristides Aquino providing enough production to make this an above-average lineup. Unfortunately, because management jettisoned so many productive big leaguers over the off-season, the Reds have very little depth in the organization. The team must depend on good health if it hopes to compete; we’ve seen a rash of injuries to key players this spring, so it seems likely that not having enough healthy bodies will provide the death knell to Cincinnati’s playoff chances.
So what can we reasonably expect? The mathematical models aren’t particularly optimistic, with FanGraphs projecting the Reds to have a 75-87 record this year, while Baseball Prospectus sees them as a roughly 79-80 win team. Both predict the Reds to be in second or third place in the NL Central. If a few things go right—good health the rest of the way, Greene and Lodolo being better than the typical rookie pitchers, Stephenson improving substantially, returns to form from Senzel and Naquin—the Reds could certainly sneak into the playoff hunt.
Heck, Baseball Prospectus’ model gives the Reds a 22.7 percent chance of making the post-season. FanGraphs isn’t quite as optimistic, but they do give the Reds 7.4 percent odds of qualifying for the playoffs. So yes, I’m telling you there’s a chance.
My prediction? We’ll look back on the 2022 Reds in much the same way as I summed up last year’s team:
Ultimately, I expect that the 2021 Reds will be remembered as a good team—with an incredibly fun roster of rowdy Reds—that could have been great if ownership and management hadn’t completely abandoned them, giving away good relievers for free and abjectly refusing to fill the roster’s obvious holes. In retrospect, with only a little help from ownership and the front office, this team could have been a division winner and we’d be talking about World Series chances right now.
Alas, in the coming years, I fear this season might be remembered as the last fun team before ownership killed the franchise for yet another generation. Time will tell, but at least we did have some good times along the way.
But we’re not yet looking backwards at the 2022 team yet, and hope springs eternal. As of this precise moment, the Reds are still tied for first place! There’s no reason yet to think key players will perform less than they’re capable of! And if this year’s club manages to play .500 or better baseball, they’ll become the first Reds team to do that in three consecutive seasons since the mid-1990s.
No, “hope” is not a strategy for a front office, but as fans we have to cling to it. It might be all we have in 2022.
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.