Who will make the Cincinnati Reds roster when they break Spring Training camp? From that list, which players will start on Opening Day?
Phoenix will be an interesting city this week as the Cactus League springs to life. The tide of fans in town for the Super Bowl will recede. The line to eat at Pizza Bianco will shorten back to its usual 90-minute wait instead of three times that. And the Reds will begin to work through questions regarding their roster. As players report to Goodyear, let’s take a first look at who will be in David Bell’s dugout come March 30.
With no COVID wipeout or owner lockout this spring, teams will follow the roster rules established in the March 2022 Collective Bargaining Agreement. From Opening Day to August 31, Major League rosters are set at 26 players, with no more than 13 being pitchers. From September 1 to the end of the season, those numbers increase to 28/14. The designated hitter is universal.
This post analyzes decisions regarding the 13 position players. A separate post on pitchers will follow soon. For each player, you’ll see a graphic showing his age, projected wRC+ for 2023, and platoon side (Bat/Throw).
A refresher on wRC+: It’s a weighted average of run creation on a 100-point scale. Every point of deviation from 100 is a percentage away from MLB average. For example, a player with a wRC+ of 105 is producing runs five percent above average. For context, Joey Votto’s career wRC+ is 146; Willy Taveras sports a 68. The specific projected wRC+ we are using is a composite at FanGraphs that combines ZiPS and Steamer projections.
THE 2023 OPENING DAY ROSTER
We’ll assume the Pirates throw a right-handed pitcher, probably Mitch Keller. Here’s the Reds’ projected Opening Day position player lineup.
Tyler Stephenson – Catcher
In a sense, the Reds catcher is settled. Stephenson, who missed all but 50 games last year (concussion, broken right thumb, broken right clavicle) is back. The young catcher has been impressive, frequently ranked in the top ten players at his position.
Unlike last year when the Reds didn’t sign a veteran backup catcher until August, the front office has inked not just one, but two, for 2023. Both backups, Curt Casali and Luke Maile, are signed to Major League contracts and expected to make the roster.
But here’s the plot twist: A couple weeks ago, Bell said he planned to play Stephenson 140 to 150 games in 2023 including starts at first base and DH. It’s worth noting Stephenson did a satisfactory job in 23 games when suddenly pressed into service at 1B in 2021. Whether Stephenson’s bat plays at 1B or DH in general is beside the point. On this team, he needs to be in the lineup every day.
That means we’ll see Casali and Maile start more games behind the plate than most people expect. How much Stephenson plays 1B and how much he’s at DH depends on Joey Votto’s health (and Votto’s defense, frankly). The team might be stronger with Stephenson at first and Votto at DH than the reverse.
What to expect from Stephenson at the plate? Even though he put up a wRC+ of 134 last year, projections for 2023 have him much closer to league average.
The experts take note that Stephenson benefited from an extremely high BABIP (.409) last year. The hits just kept falling in. The projections expect that number to drop (.312). Another way of looking at that is this: Stephenson’s batting average in 2022 was .319 but his expected average based on contact quality was .256. His average exit velocity was 87.1 mph, below league average of 88.4 mph.
Wil Myers – First Base
Joey Votto will be the Reds everyday first baseman once he returns from rehabbing his left shoulder following rotator cuff surgery that ended his season last August.
Until Votto comes back, expect Tyler Stephenson to play 1B most days. Bell will start Stephenson at catcher on Opening Day as a formality. That puts Myers at first on March 30.
Wil Myers signed a $7.5 million free agent contract with the Reds for 2023, having played the previous seven seasons for the San Diego Padres. Myers missed more than half of 2022 with two injuries, a right thumb contusion and right knee inflammation. He spent most of the 77 games when he did play in right field or first base. Earlier in his career (2016, 2017), Myers had been a regular at first.
Myers hasn’t shown much of a platoon split over his long career. That, plus his salary, means Bell will play him every day he’s available. With Votto out and Stephenson behind the plate, we’ll see Myers at first base, otherwise, right field. (Wil Myers’ intro post)
Jonathan India – Second Base
The 2021 NL Rookie of the Year suffered through a miserable 2022 season, mainly due to a pulled hamstring. He hit the injured list on May 1, returning six weeks later. But India seemed hobbled to some degree the rest of the season. His wRC+ fell from 120 (2021) to 95 (2022).
Now healthy, India appears to be a prime bounce back candidate. It’s worth recalling that the second baseman’s outstanding rookie season was a three-part tale. After a slow start, he moved into the leadoff spot and a few weeks later, hit 15 of his 21 homers after the All-Star break. His walk-rate, pull-rate, ground ball-rate and launch angle varied widely through that rookie year.
India has yet to put together a good defensive season. In 2021, it seemed to take him a while to adjust to playing second base, especially with infield shifting that required him to learn new throwing and catching angles as well as playing in the outfield. Last year, after an apparent weight gain and injury, he seemed less agile. Since baseball has banned the shift for 2023, India may be helped by more normal positioning.
Ah, but the future, Mr. Gittes, the future. While Jonathan India is a lock to start the 2023 season at second base, his guarantee may not last long. An imminent invasion of top-level prospects landing on terra firma at GABP may force India to the outfield or make him expendable in a trade.
Jose Barrero – Shortstop
The selection of Barrero to start for the Reds at shortstop is aspirational.
The Reds have set up an apparent Spring Training competition. Barrero will square off with new acquisition Kevin Newman in a battle for playing time at short. The Reds got Newman from the Pirates in November to replace Kyle Farmer, who they unloaded to the Twins, as an experienced infielder. (Relevant: Newman is making $3 million less than Farmer this year.)
In 174 Major League plate appearances in 2022, Barrero cratered, posting a 5% walk-rate and 44% strikeout rate. Of his 25 hits (that’s a .152 average) only five went for extra bases. Barrero’s isolated power (ISO) of .055 would make Billy Hamilton blush.
Barrero is a slick fielder while Newman is average with the glove. On the short-term merits, Newman would be the choice.
But the last thing the 2023 Reds season is about is short-term merits. Barrero is a former top prospect. A year ago, Baseball America ranked him #33 overall, tops for the Reds on their list. Ahead of Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo. Every game Newman starts at short is setting opportunity on fire. The Reds need to play Jose Barrero every day to see what they have. Recall the incoming onslaught of present-day top infield prospects.
The choice of Barrero here is an effort to will it into existence.
Spencer Steer – Third Base
The Reds acquired Steer from the Twins in the Tyler Mahle deal last August. Steer had been a third-round pick in 2019 for Minnesota out of the University of Oregon where he played shortstop. The young infielder homered in his debut on September 2, a cause of much rejoicing. The Reds played Steer in 28 games during his month-long call-up. He finished with two home runs in 108 PA. While his playing time was divided among first base, second and third, by releasing Mike Moustakas, the Reds have opened up third base for Steer in 2023.
Jake Fraley – Left Field
Fraley was acquired from the Mariners in the Eugenio Suarez/Jesse Winker trade. He missed a big chunk of 2022 with repeated knee inflammation, playing in just 68 games.
Matt published a recent, in-depth post on what to expect from Fraley in 2023. If healthy, he’ll make the roster and be the left-handed half of a platoon in left field.
Will Benson – Right Field
With Wil Myers starting at first on Opening Day, our right field assignment goes to Will Benson.
Last week, the Reds traded for Benson from the Cleveland Guardians who were looking to clear a spot on their 40-man roster. By all accounts, Benson is a talented ballplayer with a strong work ethic. He flashed big-time power, speed and an elite walk-rate in 2022 at the AAA level. The question is whether he can replicate that in the bigs.
With Jake Fraley taking the left-hand side of the LF platoon and Myers penciled in for most of the time in RF (at least after Votto returns), that leaves center for Benson. He’ll have plenty of competition there.
Benson, who has all three options left, might head back to the minors when Joey Votto suits up. But on Opening Day, look for David Bell to take maximum advantage of his team’s platoon splits. (Will Benson intro post)
TJ Friedl – Center Field
Conventional wisdom holds that if Nick Senzel is healthy – he’s recovering from offseason toe surgery – he’ll return as the starter in center field. It’s an open question whether Senzel will make it back by March 30. This selection of Friedl as the Reds Opening Day starter in center is based in part on Senzel’s track record of missing target dates for returning from injury or illness.
Beyond that, put simply, TJ Friedl has been a better Major League baseball player than Nick Senzel. Granted, we’ve only seen Friedl in 86 big-league games. More on Senzel in a minute, but Friedl did put up a 101 wRC+ last year in 258 plate appearances. He hit eight homers and stole seven bases in nine attempts. Friedl is not a great CF, but the Reds haven’t seemed to care about that quality since the Hamilton show closed.
Chad Pinder – Designated Hitter*
*We’re going to address the remaining right-handed non-Senzel outfielders here. The Reds have three of those players competing for two roster slots. One will end up in our Opening Day DH slot, the other as a bench player. Both may end up as platoon partners with some combo of Fraley, Friedl and Benson.
Pinder is a veteran who has played seven years for Oakland. His peak season was 2018, with Pinder struggling to be an average hitter since then. In 2022, his wRC+ was 86 in 379 plate appearances. Pinder’s career wRC+ against lefties is 114. How you evaluate Pinder depends on whether you place more weight on his career numbers or last year. The expert projectors think he’s on his way down. Defensively, he’s played a lot of infield, especially second base. Though versatile, he’s not a good defender anywhere. Pinder is not on the 40-man roster and has no options left. (Chad Pinder intro post)
Solak played four years with the Texas Rangers. His best season at the plate, by far, was his rookie year of 2019. Solak was the Rangers’ regular second baseman in 2021, getting 511 plate appearances. His wRC+ that year was 88. Solak’s career wRC+ against lefties is 119. He’s played infield, mostly 2B, but hasn’t been good with the glove overall. Solak is on the 40-man roster and has one option left. The Reds could stash him at AAA if they want.
Fairchild played a handful of games for Seattle and San Francisco last year before reuniting with the Reds off waivers in June. Fairchild was a Reds’ second-round pick in 2017 (#2 in that round) and came up in the Reds system before being deadline-traded in 2020 to Arizona for reliever Archie Bradley. Fairchild played in 38 games with the Reds last year, including significant time in center and homering at Yankee Stadium in his first at bat. Fairchild is a solid outfield defender but hasn’t played the infield. His career wRC+ against lefties is 120 in 59 plate appearances. He is on the 40-man roster and has one option left.
What will happen? The decisions will come down to Spring Training performance and available options, which are terrible criteria to construct a roster. But that’s where we are.
On the merits, Fairchild should be one of the two players. He’s more athletic and can cover center field as a right-hander in the absence of Nick Senzel. Fairchild showed promising power in his limited time with the Reds. At 26, he’s also a player who might be on the upswing.
Pinder and Solak are the same player. Veteran right-handed utility guys who are marginal liabilities in the field. Both are in performance decline in the back-halves of careers.
Let’s put Pinder in the DH spot on Opening Day. He’ll make the roster but on a short leash, with Solak (and Senzel) looming. Fairchild will make the team for the reasons above.
With 13 position player slots available, four bench roles remain after the nine starters. On the one hand, bench players are less important with the DH. You don’t plan to use several as pinch hitters for the pitcher each night.
On the other hand, when your lineup is filled with average-at-best hitters, some with significant platoon splits, you do need to play match-up late in the game. For example, you’d want to pinch hit for the outfielders against a left-handed reliever in the above lineup.
Two of the Reds bench choices are obvious, mandatory – the right-handed catchers.
Curt Casali – Catcher
Casali returns to Cincinnati after three terrific seasons with the Reds from 2018-2020 when he served as Tucker Barnhart’s backup. Casali is on a one-year deal for $2.5 million, plus a $750,000 mutual option for 2024. Over 485 plate appearances with the Reds, Casali put up a 104 wRC+ and strong defensive numbers. He hasn’t been quite the same hitter since he left, as is reflected in the projection for the now 34-year-old. (Curt Casali intro post)
Luke Maile – Catcher
Maile (pronounced MAY-lee) has played in a backup role for four major league teams (Tampa Bay, Toronto, Milwaukee and Cleveland) in seven seasons. The local product from Covington signed a one-year contract with the Reds for $1.175 million. Mahle hasn’t been great at the plate but he’s been outstanding behind it. Overall, he’s an enormous upgrade over last year’s Reds catchers, non-Stephenson category. (Luke Maile intro post)
Casali and Maile are similar players. Right-handed catchers who don’t offer much position flexibility. The only way it makes sense to carry them as two of the four bench players is if Tyler Stephenson spends most of his time at DH and 1B. That way, Casali or Maile will be starting, and a different player would be available on the bench. It wouldn’t surprise me if playing time at catcher was equally divided among the three this year, with maybe even more going to the vets.
Kevin Newman – IF
Since we’re giving Jose Barrero the starting SS job, that means Kevin Newman will assume the role of versatile, reliable infielder. Newman is a below-average hitter and above-average defender. He has a bit of a wRC+ handedness split (93 vs LHP, 71 vs. RHP), so he helps at the margin against lefties.
Stuart Fairchild – OF
See above discussion. Athletic, can cover center field, promising power, possible upswing.
Joseph Daniel Votto
On the mend. He may join the major league team soon after the start of the season, if not before then. Shoulder injuries are hard to return from both physically and getting hitting timing back. The effects can linger. Votto’s return will push Wil Myers to right field for every game. One of the lefty outfielders (Friedl or Benson) will get cut, probably Benson.
Hmm. Former #2 pick in the draft and top-10 overall prospect. Cautionary tale. In the 622 plate appearances for Senzel since 2020, his wRC+ has been 65. That’s 35% worse than average and unplayable. Can he hit when he’s healthy? For four months of 2022, Senzel played without injury or illness, as least as far as we know. In 363 PA, he put up a wRC+ of 70 with a below-average exit velocity. Defensive metrics are divided on Senzel but are mostly negative.
It’s a nice narrative to say 2023 is make-or-break for the Reds former #1 prospect. But based on Nick Senzel’s record, the “make” part is generous. He’s pulling down $1.95 million this year, with three options left. Even if healthy, should Senzel be rostered over Fairchild or Friedl? Best case: Utility player who provides a bit of value returning to infield stints.
Please leave your own thoughts about the Reds Opening Day roster in the comment section.