Matt McLain’s paths to the majors

Matt McLain’s paths to the majors

One game into the 2023 Reds’ Cactus League season and Matt McLain has shoved his way to the forefront of the storyline. Yesterday, leading off the 9th inning, McLain teed-off on an Aaron Pinto fastball, blasting it half-way up the Goodyear Ballpark scoreboard that looms over the lawn in deep left field. The dramatic shot broke a 3-3 tie, giving the Reds a win over the Cleveland Guardians.

One spring training swing doesn’t mean much for the big picture. But our recent experience with 2021 Rookie of the Year Jonathan India is fresh enough we should ask: Does the 23-year-old Matt McLain have a realistic path to the club’s Opening Day roster?


Scouts considered McLain one of the top high school players in the country coming out of Irvine, California in 2018. The Arizona Diamondbacks drafted him in the first round that summer. Instead of going pro, the young right-hander chose to travel 50 miles up the road to attend his hometown college of UCLA.

UCLA is an elite college baseball program, having appeared in five College World Series and winning the National Championship in 2013. Gerrit Cole, Chase Utley and Jackie Robinson (yes, that Jackie Robinson) are notable alums. McLain was a three-year starter at UCLA (2019-2021) where he reached All-American status. In his junior season, McLain hit .333/.434/.579 with nine home runs in 47 games. His walks (34) matched his strikeout total.

The Reds selected McLain in the first round of the 2021 draft with the #17 pick overall. He signed for a $4.625 million bonus, well over slot value.

Minor League Career

The Reds were aggressive with McLain, having him play only two games at the rookie level before jumping him to the High-A Dayton Dragons for 29 games to finish the 2021 season. Reds farm director Shawn Pender said they “pushed him as hard as we ever pushed anyone.” McLain hit .273/.387/.424 for the Dragons, with three homers in 119 plate appearances.

McLain played the entire 2022 season for the AA Chattanooga Lookouts. In 103 games and 452 plate appearances, he hit .232/.363/.453, notably with 17 home runs. He maintained a strong walk rate (15.5%). But with the added power came more strikeouts. McLain’s K% jumped from 20% to 28%. He hit in the number two or three spot in the lineup until his final twenty games when he batted cleanup or number five.

Prospect Rankings

McLain hadn’t landed in any Top-100 Prospects lists this spring until Dan Szymborski published his ZiPS rankings last week at FanGraphs, where McLain was ranked a surprising #35.

In terms of the Reds system, Eric Longenhangen, FanGraphs prospects guru, ranks McLain the #7 Reds prospect. Doug Gray at RedsMinorLeagues has McLain #6. MLB Pipeline rates McLain fifth.

Defensive Position

Matt McLain played center field in 49 of his 61 games his first year at UCLA. The rest of the games he started at third base. We’ll come back to this in a minute. He moved to shortstop for his sophomore and junior years.

In the Reds system, he played shortstop for all his games at Dayton and remained at that position with Lookouts until the end of July. With the arrival of Elly De La Cruz in Chattanooga, McLain split his time between short and second base. De La Cruz played shortstop most days, but also started at third eight games and batted DH in several others.

It’s noteworthy that doubts coming out of college about McLain sticking at shortstop “reliable, not spectacular” (Prospects Live) have turned around. He’s now considered “more or less a slam dunk shortstop.” (FanGraphs). Yesterday, he made a terrific stop and peg to start a double play in the top of the 9th.

Scouting Report at the Plate

Many sites note McLain’s compact swing (MLB Pipeline). He’s demonstrated gap-to-gap power. After early concerns that he may be a hit-skill-over-power hitter, McLain’s 2022 season reversed that. Fangraphs notes his “power output is for real” and has a “power over hit skill.”

McLain’s isolated power (ISO) increased from .152 in 2021 to .221 in 2022. For context, here are ISO numbers for a few of his Lookouts teammates: Allan Cerda (.203), Elly De La Cruz (.247) and Christian Encarnacion-Strand (.213). While McClain only hit two of his 17 homers in his last 25 games, it’s worth pointing out De La Cruz didn’t hit any homers in his final 20 games. Those droughts can happen at the end of minor league seasons.

If you want to watch a bunch (12+ minutes!) of McLain’s swings, FanGraphs has compiled them for us:

A Parallel to Jonathan India’s Emergence?

McLain’s 9th-inning heroics yesterday recalled Jonathan India in 2021. That spring, India won an improbable Opening Day roster spot by kicking down the door as well as taking advantage of opportunity. His subsequent path to the NL Rookie of the Year Award was also anything but a straight line.

India had spent the 2020 COVID season at Prasco Park, quietly working on his game. Heading into 2021, the Reds, who were expected to contend for the division title, seemed to be set in the infield. Veterans Joey Votto (1B), Mike Moustakas (2B) and Eugenio Suarez (3B) had three of the positions locked. Nick Krall announced signing a shortstop was his highest offseason priority.

But after Krall whiffed at that and the Reds tried a parade of internal candidates (remember Alex Blandino, Kyle Holder and Dee Strange-Gordon?), the club made the decision to try Suarez at short. That move forced Mike Moustakas to third and cleared the way for India to win the second base job. By the time Suarez was deemed an intolerable dud at short, Moustakas was hurt, keeping India in the lineup.

That spring, India had done everything you would expect from the number five overall pick — hit for contact, take walks, hit for power, run the bases and field his new position. The young infielder added an exclamation point to his case launching a mammoth opposite field home run out into the Arizona desert off of major league reliever Tyler Clarke. Overall, India batted .313/.441/.604 that spring.

Matt McLain is a long way from following in Jonathan India’s path. His bomb yesterday came in the first game of spring training. There’s more than a month before the Opening Day roster will be set.

But what would it take for McLain to make the 2023 Reds?

Matt McLain’s Paths to the Bigs

Preface: Just about any route for Matt McLain to win a big league job this spring would involve a scintillating March performance and/or a huge number of injuries to players ahead of him. Further clouding the picture, with the current glut of infielders, the Reds have to sort out who plays where, including possible position changes involving the outfield. Also keep in mind that McLain is not on the 40-man roster.

Winning the shortstop job outright may be McLain’s most direct route. The current plan is for Jose Barrero to compete with veteran Kevin Newman for the job. If Barrero still looks lost at the plate, the Reds may opt to start him in AAA. In that case, they may simply give the job to Newman by default. But if the 2023 season is truly dedicated to giving playing time to the young guys, and assuming McLain performs well this spring, the Reds may start McLain.

Of course, in that scenario, McLain would also have to be ahead of Elly De La Cruz and Noelvi Marte. A dominant spring performance might accomplish that. Marte’s body seems to be pointing him toward third base. The Reds might decide to keep De La Cruz in AAA for a while to give him more experience. After all, the current assumption is that Barrero would have a few months with the Reds at short before the EDLC arrival.

An injury to Spencer Steer or Jonathan India would also create a different opening in the infield. Underperformance by Steer could also prompt head-to-head competition with a productive McLain. McLain’s experience at second is comprised of those 23 games last summer with Chattanooga. For third base, you go back to a couple dozen games his freshman year at UCLA. Newman or Barrero, whoever doesn’t play short, could slide to second or third.

At the moment (and it could be a fleeting moment), McLain does seem to be slightly ahead of Marte and De La Cruz, primarily in terms of games at the AA level. Marte played at High-A last year. EDLC had half the games at AA that McLain did (47 vs. 103). Add that to the club’s possible wish to play young ‘uns over vets and you could see McLain start at second or third due to an injury.

Harkening back to his first year in Westwood, the Reds could shift McLain to center field. This is his most unlikely way to Cincinnati. Given the number of true-ish outfielders ahead of him who have more experience (Nick Senzel, Stuart Fairchild, TJ Friedl, Will Benson, even Michael Siani) McLain would have to blast the door down, dictating the Reds find a spot for him in the lineup.

Finally, McLain could win the infield bench slot, either by beating out Newman or Barrero this spring or by an injury to one of those two. McLain could play the role of a versatile sub, with the skill to play across the infield — including short — plus the outfield. While this might seem to be McLain’s easiest path to the big league roster, the team may be reluctant to slow his development by placing him in a role without regular playing time.


Matt McLain is an exciting and talented prospect who could fill a number of needs for the Reds. Long term, a role as utility player seems most likely. But that doesn’t rule out an India-like emergence. McLain does have numerous paths to the big leagues this spring, but each is complex and uncertain, with other players in the mix.

Steve Mancuso

Steve Mancuso is a lifelong Reds fan who grew up during the Big Red Machine era. He’s been writing about the Reds for more than ten years. Steve’s fondest memories about the Reds include attending a couple 1975 World Series games, being at Homer Bailey’s second no-hitter and going nuts for Jay Bruce at Clinchmas. Steve was also at all three games of the 2012 NLDS, but it’s too soon to talk about that.