In a remarkable three-year span, the Baltimore Orioles went from 53 wins in 2021 to 83 in ‘22 to 101 in their breakthrough campaign last season.

In the 2024 MLB season, the Cincinnati Reds are positioned to replicate that striking turnaround.

The Reds won 62 games in 2023, then upped that total to 82 and third place in the NL Central last year, staying in wild-card contention right up until the last series of the season despite a youthful roster beset with constant injuries. 

“The players and staff, they have demonstrated the standard of what it means to work really hard and truly be a team and play hard every day. That’s what it took,” manager David Bell said entering that final series. “It’s not anything complicated, but it’s one of the best groups of people and teams that I’ve been around, as far as controlling those things.”

The Reds have moved on without long-time first baseman Joey Votto, but the core of last year’s team is back, and the front office made some strategic additions in the offseason – pitchers Frankie Montas, Nick Martinez and Emilio Pagan as well as infielders Jeimer Candelario and Tony Kemp – in an effort to shore up areas of weakness.

Copying the Orioles’ total of triple-digit wins won’t be easy, but the Reds have the most talented roster in the NL Central even with rookie third baseman Noelvi Marte suspended for the first 80 games due to testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance.

And, heading into the 2023 MLB season, who would have thought Baltimore was poised to make that kind of jump? Everyone knew the Orioles would be good, but 101 wins wasn’t expected even if the signs were there.

Same thing with the Reds this spring – the pieces are in place.

Hunter Greene, Reds Rotation Seek Consistency

Let’s start with the rotation. 

Hunter Greene will win a Cy Young Award in his career. Possibly multiple Cy Young Awards.
Maybe that sounds like a stretch for a 24-year-old right-hander with a career 4.62 ERA/4.31 FIP, but Greene is a special talent, and when he’s on his game, few are better. 

Over the past two seasons, Greene made 46 starts, and in seven of those outings, he threw at least six innings with at least eight strikeouts and two or fewer hits allowed. Only three other pitchers had more starts like that: Spencer Strider (nine in 52 starts), Shohei Ohtani (nine in 51 starts) and Corbin Burnes (eight in 65 starts). 

Yeah, that’s elite company. Among MLB pitchers with at least 200 innings the past two seasons, only Strider (13.7) had a better K/9 ratio than Greene’s 12.0. And among pitchers who threw at least 2,000 pitches last year, Greene’s average four-seam fastball velocity of 98.3 mph ranked highest in the majors. In fact, his whiff+ 145 on that pitch was 45% above the league average of 100.

So what’s holding Greene back? To date, too many walks (3.6 per 9.0 innings) and home runs (1.6 per 9.0), especially at the worst moments. Some of those issues of inconsistency can be traced to injury disruptions he’s had the past couple seasons: He’s made three trips to the IL, for a shoulder issue in 2022, then a hip problem and positive COVID test in 2023. It’s a lot of stop/start for a pitcher who’s still learning at the highest level. 

Consistency, not surprisingly, is as much of a goal as anything for Greene. 

“I want to throw 180-plus innings. I want to be that guy,” he told reporters after a start in St. Louis last June. “Seeing guys like (Adam) Wainwright who have done that year after year, that’s on my radar. I know I can do that. … I have a really good routine, system, in place with what I’m doing with our strength coach and trainers.”

Working hard to stay healthy will be a theme for the Reds’ starters this season. Nick Lodolo is a young lefty with nasty stuff who spent most of last season on the IL (tibia), but signs during spring training have been mostly encouraging.

Righty Frankie Montas was given the nod as the Opening Day starter; he’s coming off a season with the New York Yankees spent rehabbing and working his way back after shoulder surgery. If he’s the same pitcher who was a Cy Young candidate with the Oakland A’s in 2021, that would be a huge addition.

Righty Nick Martinez, also signed this past offseason, adds stability. 

Was there a more under-the-radar rookie starter than Brandon Williamson last year? He finished with a 4.46 ERA in 23 starts, but had a 3.15 ERA over 11 starts in July and August. He was somewhat overshadowed by fellow lefty Andrew Abbott, who was incredible initially after being called up in early June, posting a 1.90 ERA in his first 10 major-league starts.

Also, Graham Ashcraft experienced both highs and lows in his second season, a proverbial roller coaster with:

  • First six starts: 2.00 ERA
  • Next eight starts: 12.82 ERA
  • Final 12 starts: 2.58 ERA

And then, Ashcraft finished the season on the IL with a toe injury. He’s been healthy this spring, and the club is expecting a big season.

Right now, the rotation is crowded. That’s a good problem to have, though.

Interchangeable Infielders Coming of Age  

Like the rotation, the infielders form a crowded group, even with Marte’s suspension. It’s another good problem.

Any short list of the most exciting players in baseball includes Elly De La Cruz, a still-learning talent who has massive power – did you see that 470-foot home run he hit in spring training? – and blazing speed. His impact on the big-league club was immediate and dramatic last year after he was called up from Triple-A to make his debut on June 6.

De La Cruz hit for the cycle in just his 15th game and batted .325 with four home runs, 15 RBIs, 12 stolen bases, nine doubles and a .905 OPS over his first 27 games.

Maybe most importantly? The Reds went 21-6, the stretch that boosted them into playoff contention. Call it the Elly Effect. 

“He’s fun to watch,” fellow Reds rookie Matt McLain said with a knowing grin, about a week after De La Cruz made his debut. 

In 98 games in the majors, De La Cruz finished with 13 homers and 35 stolen bases. If he’s going to take a step up in 2024, there’s room for improvement. He struck out 144 times, contrasted with only 35 walks, as pitchers adjusted and exploited weaknesses in his swing. He ended up with a poor discipline+ of 72 – far below the league average of 100.

Following his incredible start, De La Cruz batted just .191 with a .271 on-base percentage after the All-Star Game break. It’s important to remember De La Cruz just turned 22 in January, and not every young hitter starts out with Juan Soto’s plate discipline

The Reds need more of Debut Elly because when he’s getting on base, they’re a different team than when he’s struggling. Check out these splits: 

  • In 53 Reds’ wins: .305/.374/.554, 27 extra-base hits, 22 stolen bases, 63 strikeouts
  • In 45 Reds’ losses: .149/.207/.234, eight extra-base hits, 13 stolen bases, 81 strikeouts

He is the likely starter at shortstop, though he has the arm to play third base, too. McLain can play short, but he’s the likely starter at second. 

McLain had been in the majors about a month when he was asked about the biggest adjustment: “The pitchers are really, really good,” he said. “They don’t miss a lot. They don’t make many mistakes, and they’re just really, really competitive every single pitch. There are no breaks. There’s no one in the bullpen where you’re like, ‘Oh, he’s not that good.’ Everyone’s really good.”

At the time, McLain was batting .343 with a .395 on-base percentage and 13 extra-base hits in 24 MLB games. McLain is really good, too.

It also probably should be pointed out that if McLain hadn’t landed on the IL with a strained oblique near the end of August, the Reds just might have made the playoffs. He was that important to the club’s success. After he was sidelined, Cincinnati went just 14-16 the rest of the way, and wound up missing a playoff spot by two games. 

With Marte out due to suspension, Canderlario should see the majority of time at third base, though he can play first base, too. Christian Encarnacion-Strand, who hit 13 homers as a rookie, will see time at third as well as first base and designated hitter.

Jonathan India will see time at second, first and DH. Spencer Steer, who hit 23 homers as a rookie and had a raw value of 110 that was highest among the 11 Reds with 250+ plate appearances, will see time at first and DH, but he’s likely going to be the regular left fielder. 

rookie leaders in 3+ hit games

Time to Put the Pieces Together

Cincinnati’s rookie class last year really was incredible: McLain, De La Cruz, Abbott, Williamson, Marte, Steer and Encarnacion-Strand all made significant impacts.

Although we haven’t talked much about the outfield, Will Benson had just exceeded rookie status a year earlier and had 11 homers and 19 stolen bases to go with a 130 OPS+ in 108 games. Center fielder T.J. Friedl also had breakout numbers (.278 with 18 HRs, 66 RBIs and 27 stolen bases) in his first full season.

The future’s bright, no doubt.

Will the 2024 Reds be the 2023 Orioles? They certainly have the pieces to make it happen. 

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