by Matt Wilkes

Elly De La Cruz among Reds’ 40-man additions; Aristides Aquino among cuts

The MLB offseason is in full swing, and Tuesday was the deadline to add players to 40-man rosters to protect them from the Rule 5 draft. That meant there was a lot of movement around the league, and the Reds were no exception.

Cincinnati added a trio of top-10 prospects to the 40-man roster, including shortstop Elly De La Cruz, shortstop/third baseman Noelvi Marte, and left-handed starter Brandon Williamson. The club also added a pair of right-handed starters, Levi Stoudt and Lyon Richardson, and a righty reliever, Ricky Karcher.

To open up those roster spots, the Reds designated six players for assignment: outfielder Aristides Aquino and relievers Jeff Hoffman, Art Warren, Derek Law, Jared Solomon, and Kyle Dowdy.

What to make of the additions

Most of the players added to the roster were givens.

De La Cruz is one of the best prospects the Reds have had in many years. He’s #20 on Baseball America’s top-100 list and #14 in MLB Pipeline’s rankings, and it’d be unsurprising if he’s even higher than that when both outlets release their preseason lists in the spring. De La Cruz bulldozed his way through High-A in 2022, earning a midseason promotion to Double-A. He hit a combined .304/.359/.586 with a 150 wRC+ between the two levels, including 28 home runs and 47 steals. The 20-year-old has been playing in the Dominican Winter League during the offseason, hitting .286/.398/.429 in 23 games. De La Cruz does just about everything at a high level, possessing light-tower power and blazing speed. The biggest question with his game is whether he can cut down his strikeouts and take more walks. It’d be surprising if De La Cruz doesn’t make his big-league debut at some point in 2023.

Along with shortstop Edwin Arroyo, Marte was the headliner of the Reds’ return from the Mariners for Luis Castillo. Like De La Cruz, Marte is a top-100 prospect, coming in at #32 on Baseball America’s top-100 and #17 on MLB Pipeline’s list. The 21-year-old spent the 2022 season in High-A, where he hit .279/.371/.458 with 19 home runs, 23 steals, and a 132 wRC+ between his two organizations. He also participated in the recently concluded Arizona Fall League, hitting .211/.321/.310 in 21 games. More notably, Marte spent most of his time in the AFL playing third base, where he figures to eventually move given the presence of De La Cruz, Arroyo, and other shortstops in the organization. Marte will presumably start the 2023 season in Double-A.

Williamson and Stoudt were also acquisitions from the Mariners, the former in the Jesse Winker/Eugenio Suarez trade and the latter in the Castillo deal. Following a breakout year in 2021, Williamson had a shot to push his way into the Reds’ rotation in 2022, but control problems led to a disappointing season in the minor leagues. The 24-year-old southpaw walked 77 batters in 122.2 innings while posting a mediocre 22.2% strikeout rate, leading to a 4.11 ERA and 4.60 FIP. Despite his struggles, Williamson was promoted to Triple-A midway through the season. Stoudt had a similar 2022 campaign. Following Tommy John surgery in 2019, Stoudt made his way to Double-A in his first professional season in 2021. But in 2022, his strikeouts dropped (so did his walks, on the bright side) and he posted a 4.70 ERA and 4.40 FIP between Double-A and Triple-A. Stoudt will likely join Williamson in Triple-A to start the 2023 season, though both have an outside shot to force their way into the big-league rotation.

The lesser-known 40-man additions were Richardson and Karcher.

Richardson was a second-round pick by the Reds in the 2018 draft. Despite impressive raw stuff, his professional career has been inconsistent (5.09 ERA, 4.69 FIP in 76 minor-league innings) as he’s struggled with command and control at times. Richardson missed the 2022 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery but has recently returned to throwing in the instructional league, where he’s been hitting 99 mph with his fastball, reports The Enquirer’s Bobby Nightengale. It’s encouraging that Richardson’s velocity has returned, but it’s still a little surprising the Reds protected a pitcher who’s thrown only 76 professional innings — none above High-A — and seemed like a long shot to be selected in the Rule 5 draft.

Karcher is a player most Reds fans probably haven’t heard of. The 25-year-old was selected by the Reds with their 13th-round pick in the 2017 draft, but he didn’t make his debut in full-season ball until 2021. Control is a major problem for Karcher, as he has nearly as many career walks (128) as innings pitched (143.1). While he nearly cut his walk rate in half in 2022, it was still far too high at 15.9%. However, he counteracted that a bit by posting an impressive 35.1% strikeout rate, which helped him post a respectable 3.65 ERA and 3.35 FIP in 56.2 innings between Double-A and Triple-A. He’ll compete for a spot in the Reds’ bullpen in 2023 and provides the team some flexibility with all of his minor-league options remaining.

Who wasn’t added

Of course, teams can’t protect every player from the Rule 5 draft, which leads to some tough decisions. Some of the notable players the Reds didn’t protect include catcher Daniel Vellojin, infielder Ivan Johnson, and outfielder T.J. Hopkins.

Given the Reds’ lack of depth behind the plate (Tyler Stephenson is the only catcher currently on the 40-man roster), the club likely gave strong consideration to adding Vellojin. The 22-year-old has a keen eye at the plate, possessing a career .380 on-base percentage and 16.9% walk rate. But he doesn’t hit for much power, and his defense behind the plate is a mixed bag — he’s regarded as a good pitch framer and has a good arm, but he struggles to block pitches in the dirt. Vellojin had a nice start in High-A Dayton in 2022, posting a 153 wRC+, but he struggled mightily after his promotion to Double-A (.191/.309/.362, 80 wRC+). A rebuilding team could take a shot on Vellojin and try to stash him as a third catcher all season, but there’s a good chance he won’t be selected in the Rule 5 draft.

Johnson is ranked as the Reds’ #28 prospect by MLB Pipeline. He’s a switch-hitter who has split his time between second base and shortstop. But the 24-year-old has struggled to stay on the field, appearing in 79 games in 2021 and just 50 in 2022. When healthy, he’s been fairly productive at the plate (125 wRC+ in 2021 at Low-A and High-A, 98 wRC+ at Double-A in 2022), although strikeouts have been an issue (career 28.8%). He doesn’t seem like a player who could stick on a big-league roster for the entire 2023 season.

Hopkins had a productive season in 2022, hitting .259/.333/.458 with a 107 wRC+ and 21 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A. While he’s played some center field, most of his playing time has come in left field. The Reds could certainly use outfielders, but Hopkins profiles as more of a bench bat than a starting outfielder — pretty much what the team already has on the roster. That said, a team looking for an outfield bench bat may take a shot on drafting Hopkins.

What to make of the subtractions

To put it kindly, not much was lost.

Aquino has been discussed ad nauseum since his magical run in August 2019. He’s never come close to replicating that success, and although he provides value with his arm in right field, his shortcomings at the plate (70 wRC+ since September 2019) make him expendable.

Warren was a bright spot in a dismal bullpen in 2021, but his strikeouts evaporated in 2022 and he struggled to the tune of a 6.50 ERA, 4.81 xERA, and 4.58 xFIP. He’ll turn 30 years old in March and is expected to miss the entire 2023 season after undergoing a non-Tommy John elbow surgery.

Hoffman is also turning 30 soon and coming off an elbow injury, although it’s less serious than Warren’s. The right-hander had a solid 3.83 ERA in his first full season as a reliever in 2022, but the underlying numbers weren’t much different than his uninspiring career marks. His strikeout rate was mediocre, his walk rate was poor, and he’s an extreme flyball pitcher.

Law pitched in 17 games for a depleted Reds bullpen in 2022 and was fine but unremarkable (4.12 ERA, 4.78 xERA, 4.34 xFIP). He’s the definition of a replacement-level reliever (career 0.8 fWAR in 201 innings).

Dowdy was another reliever who only found his way to the majors because the Reds bullpen suffered so many injuries, pitching in two games.

A once-promising prospect, Solomon had a disastrous season in his first action since 2019. He pitched in nine games with the Reds, giving up 10 runs on eight hits and five walks in 8.1 innings. He didn’t perform well in Triple-A Louisville, either, with an 8.93 ERA and 5.55 FIP.

Featured image by Ian D’Andrea

Matt got hooked on Reds baseball after attending his first game in Cinergy Field at 6 years old, and he hasn’t looked back. As a kid, he was often found imitating his favorite players — Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn, Sean Casey, and Austin Kearns — in the backyard. When he finally went inside, he was leading the Reds to 162-0 seasons in MVP Baseball 2005 or keeping stats for whatever game was on TV. He started writing about baseball in 2014 and has become fascinated by analytics and the new data in the game. Matt is also a graduate of The Ohio State University and currently lives in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @_MattWilkes.

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