Enjoyment in baseball — more than, arguably, any other sport — is based heavily on perspective. Depending on your nightly choice of viewing, you can go for fun (Shohei Ohtani’s existence, Ronald Acuña Jr.’s return to form). Or you can go for less fun (gestures broadly at, like, half the league performing well under expectations).
The Cincinnati Reds, weirdly, find themselves squarely in the former of late. Even for someone such as myself, who still identifies as a fan of the Chicago Cubs (if just barely), a club like the one taking shape in the Queen City is tough to ignore.
Vibes Above Replacement
I say weirdly because of two reasons. Reason 1: The Reds play in the National League Central. There isn’t a lot of collective joy coming out of that division (or its AL counterpart, for that matter). Reason 2: The Reds were not supposed to be remotely good yet. Rebuilds are hardly linear, after all. This was the year where we thought we might see some upper tier prospects reach the highest level before they reached the “fun” phase of it next year, when those names would join them out of the gate.
Instead, we’re (at least for now) looking at a playoff contending squad in Cincinnati. At the end of April, the Reds were 12-16. That put them fourth in the National League Central, a few games ahead of the (at that point) 10-19 St. Louis Cardinals. As May reached its end, the Reds sat 26-29, ahead of both the aforementioned Cardinals and aforementioned Cubs.
With June now coming to a close, two more squads have joined the backseat to the Reds in the NL Central. A wild slide down the standings from the Pittsburgh Pirates and general malaise from the Milwaukee Brewers has certainly helped.
It’s obviously easy to look at the futility of their competition in the Central as a reason why the Reds are as competitive as they are. That perspective does a disservice to the Reds, though.
Just a year ago, ownership was packing it on and dismissing the fans. And it’s hard to dismiss an 18-9 month outright, regardless of context. Especially when there’s a tangible buzz at the ballpark now. Vibes may not win you a World Series, but they can win a division like this one.
Young talent, an increasingly packed home venue, and a weak division? Yeah, you can work with that if you’re Cincinnati.
Payroll Flexibility Lineup Pliability
But the discussion here isn’t about whether the Reds have the chops to take the Central. They probably do given the above factors (the starting staff likely needs a boost to get there). There are far more interesting elements at play, though. A team with an influx of young talent is, by nature, interesting. This Reds club is more than that, though. They’re fascinating.
With any team making the transition from stopgap veterans to the young players that will make up their new “core”, there’s going to be some questions as to who will play where. Position changes happen organically as part of this process.
But in this case, we have absolutely no idea how this will take shape. It’s as fluid a group reaching the big leagues as we’ve seen in recent memory. Not only is there the influx, but they all have multi-positional flexibility. And that, in itself, will be a wild time to watch.
There are likely five names we can write in pen as making up the Reds’ future core: Elly De La Cruz, Spencer Steer, Matt McLain, Christian Encarnacion-Strand, and Noelvi Marte. Maybe three in pen and two in pencil, since the latter pair have yet to debut at the Major League level. The other worth mentioning is Jonathan India, who has become a stalwart on the infield throughout this rebuilding process.
Ultimately, that’s six names. And there are four infield positions. Basic math tells us that either position changes or transactions are coming. But operating under the assumption that the Reds keep all six is more fun. Let’s do that.
Who’s on First (and Second and Third and Short)?
It’s … complicated. The team leaders for games at each position go Steer at first, India at second, McLain at short, and Nick Senzel at third. The bulk of that obviously occurred before the call-up of De La Cruz and return of Joey Votto.
With Votto taking over again at first, Steer has been launched to the outfield grass (left field, specifically). India is spending a touch more time DH-ing as McLain slides over to second. Senzel has become something of a superutility guy (and something of a non-factor in this discussion given his injury history).
This does lend at least a little bit of clarity as to what the plan could be down the road, especially as Encarnacion-Strand and Marte prepare to arrive at the top level. Clarity, despite the fact that all five of the names listed above have all played extensively at multiple positions in the minor leagues up through their arrival in Cincinnati (if applicable). De La Cruz at short and third. McLain at short and second. Steer at first, second, third, and now left. Encarnacion-Strand on the infield corners. Marte at short and third.
But given what we’ve seen thus far, perhaps the future Cincinnati Reds‘ lineup goes:
- First Base: Christian Encarnacion-Strand
- Second Base: Matt McLain
- Shortstop: Elly De La Cruz
- Third Base: Noelvi Marte
- Left Field: Spencer Steer
- Center Field: TBD
- Right Field: TBD
Joey Votto turns 40 in September. One imagines he’ll hang up the spikes in the pretty near future, even if playing with this group revitalizes him a bit. We can rule him out among the Reds’ new group.
Maybe India, too. Since becoming a big league regular, he’s only appeared at second base and hasn’t been a tremendous fielder (he’s actually been bad). That lack of flexibility/stability could hurt him in getting into the lineup regularly.
Unless, possibly, someone like McLain makes a move to center field or they’d prefer to deploy one of those names as a superutility type a la 2023 Nick Senzel.
What’s funny is that the lineup is only this degree of a mystery now. It could get worse the closer Edwin Arroyo and Cam Collier get to the bigs. Some of this could be sorted as the trade deadline nears and the team acts on its need for more rotation help. But with new Cincinnati Reds core taking shape that has so much positional flexibility, they’re going to be an extraordinary watch, regardless of what happens down the stretch.