Opening Day is here, and that means prediction season has arrived. Like any respectable blog, we’d be remiss if we didn’t throw our hat in to the ring.
Here are four bold predictions for Reds hitters for the 2023 season, one per writer.
Tyler Stephenson Makes the All-Star Team. (Mike Perry)
I’m a bit of a sucker for the All-Star game. For a guy who has never seen the Reds advance in the playoffs (I’m 30!), seeing a Red highlighted in the Midsummer Classic is the most pride I’ve ever been able to feel in this team. This year, I’m predicting that Tyler Stephenson will make his first All-Star appearance.
I have a bone to pick with some MLB writers and commentators who seem to be sleeping on Tyler Stephenson. I’ve seen several people point to him as a regression candidate due to him outperforming his underlying metrics last year (.319 batting average vs. .260 xBA for example). Last year, his slash line of .319/.372/.482 would have placed him in the MVP conversation if he’d kept it up all season (JT Realmuto is the best comparison here. His slash line was .276/.342/.478, and he finished in 7th place in MVP voting). Assuming regression took place, Stephenson would still be one of the top catchers in the National League.
Jake Fraley will hit 25 homers and steal 25 bases. (Steve Mancuso)
Let’s start with the Reds Pantheon. Over a six-year stretch with the Reds, Joe Morgan averaged 22 home runs and 60 (sixty!) stolen bases a season. Vada Pinson was basically a 20-20 guy for the nine (!) seasons of 1959-1967. Barry Larkin went 30-30 in 1996. And Eric Davis averaged 30 homers and 40 stolen bases for the five years of 1986-1990.
But baseball has changed. The stolen base has been de-emphasized. The league-wide number peaked in 1999 (3421) and fell to 2132 SB in 2021. The Reds haven’t had a legit 20-20 guy in ten years. Not since Drew Stubbs. The lanky centerfielder came close in 2012 (14-30) and 2011 (15-40) but only reached the goal once, in 2010 (22-30). Before Stubbs, Brandon Phillips reached 20-20 in 2008 and 2009. Phillips even joined the 30-30 club in 2007 with 30 homers and 32 steals. Todd Frazier and Shin-Soo Choo each had one 20-20 season for the Reds.
Back to Jake Fraley. Last season, the left-handed left fielder hit 12 homers and stole only four bases. Given how short of 20-20 he was, why would anyone think it plausible Fraley could reach Mount 20-20 a year later? Fraley is a platoon player, which means his max game number is closer to 130 than 160.
Here’s the case. Last year, Fraley played only 68 games due to injury and was hobbled while on the field for part of that with knee issues. Fraley stole 10 bases (12 attempts) for the Mariners in 2021 in 78 games. If spring training is an indicator, the Reds are likely to attempt to steal more in general. Fraley was five-for-five this spring in Goodyear. [On the other hand, he was four-for-five last year in spring, in about half as many games.]
Fraley will need to stay healthy. If he does and combines his stolen base rate from 2021 with his home run rate of 2022, he’ll have a decent shot at 20-20. That’s what makes 25-25, a season knocking on the door of the Reds Pantheon, a bold prediction.
The Reds will have an NL Rookie of the Year Finalist – and it’s not Elly De La Cruz. (Kyle Berger)
When it comes to Reds prospects, Elly De La Cruz understandably gets most of the hype. Despite his upside, however, it would not come as a surprise to see the Reds try to be a bit patient with De La Cruz, limiting his chances of making an immediate impact on the 2023 roster. Beyond De La Cruz though, the Reds still have a trio of interesting young players that could force themselves into the Rookie of the Year conversation.
First, we will start with the one guaranteed a spot on the Reds’ Opening Day Roster, infielder Spencer Steer. Though he made his MLB debut for the Reds last season, Steer remained barely below the plate appearance threshold required to be no longer considered a rookie. Thus, Steer is eligible for the Rookie of the Year award in 2023. Steer posted a .242/.345/.485 slash line in AAA for Minnesota last year before being acquired in the Tyler Mahle trade, and slashed an even better .293/.375/.467 for Louisville after the trade before getting the call to the Majors.
Though he was unspectacular in 108 MLB plate appearances, he gained some valuable experience and even showed some positive signs. His 10.2% walk rate in the Majors was nearly the midpoint of his two AAA stops last year, and that patience mimics what we saw from Jonathan India en route to winning the Rookie of the Year in 2021. Truth be told, digging into Steer’s minor league numbers continue to draw you back to India, though Steer has shown a bit more power. Steer has the potential to put up very India-like numbers in 2023, which we all saw puts a player right in the conversation for the Rookie of the Year award, even if he doesn’t end up finishing on top of the voting.
Besides Steer, the Reds have two other candidates that could factor into the Rookie of the Year conversation. Matt McLain had a nice spring, and is being seriously slept on after what many consider a “down year” last year. In fact, some would argue that McLain’s 2022 was a step forward, given that he addressed evaluators’ primary concern by beginning to show game power. While that came at the cost of some decrease in batting average and an uptick in strikeouts, McLain still walked at a fantastic rate and posted a 116 wRC+ in AA. Arguably the most MLB-ready of the Reds’ prospects outside of Steer, McLain could be up very early in the season and be here to stay if he performs.
Christian Encarnacion-Strand is the third candidate. Though his Rookie of the Year run is trending toward less likely given a back injury that will keep him sidelined until at least mid-April, Encarnacion-Strand arguably put up the most impressive spring performance of any player in the entire league. All he’s done is hit at every level, with the .309/.351/.522 slash line he posted in 148 PA for the Reds’ AA team last year actually being his worst performance at any level thus far. It’s not crazy to go out on a limb and assume Encarnacion-Strand will continue to hit at a high level when he advances to the Major Leagues, and I’d almost go as far as to say it should be expected until proven otherwise. If Encarnacion-Strand can debut by mid-May and flash the power and average combo that he’s shown throughout the minors, he’s a serious sleeper candidate for the Rookie of the Year award.
Six Reds will steal 10 or more bases. (Matt Wilkes)
With bigger bases and a limit on pickoff moves, teams should in theory be able to steal more in 2023 and beyond. Indeed, stolen base attempts are up this spring and the Reds have been one of the most aggressive teams on the basepaths. Only one team, the Giants, had more steals and attempts than the Reds, who successfully swiped 41 bases on 47 attempts for a glistening 87% success rate. Reds players have also been vocal about wanting to steal more in 2023. Of course, there was a similar sentiment during spring training last year — and the team stole a whopping 58 bases all season (sixth-fewest in MLB) with an abysmal 64% success rate.
David Bell has generally taken a more cautious approach with stealing bases. But his past Reds teams have relied more on power than small-ball and haven’t been built with speed in mind. Only seven of 24 qualifying Reds ranked in the 60th percentile or better in sprint speed. This year’s Opening Day roster alone includes seven players who fit the bill: Will Benson, Stuart Fairchild, T.J. Friedl, Jake Fraley, Wil Myers, Jose Barrero, and Kevin Newman. Jonathan India will be the eighth if he can regain some of his rookie year speed (86th percentile), a distinct possibility given that he has healthy hamstrings and has lost weight. Nick Senzel will add another speed threat when he returns from the IL. If we see Nick Solak, Elly De La Cruz, Michael Siani, or Matt McLain for any extended periods this season, they’re threats to reach double-digit steals, too. Benson (6), Fraley (5), Friedl (4), India (4), Barrero (3), and Newman (3) had a combined 25 steals this spring and were only caught twice.
Additionally, there’s at least some evidence that stolen base attempts during spring training have some predictive value in the regular season.
So, between all the speedy players the Reds possess, their newfound willingness to run this spring, and the rule changes, I’m predicting that at least six players will reach 10 or more steals. If that doesn’t sound impressive, consider that no Reds team has done that since 1999 (Aaron Boone, Mike Cameron, Barry Larkin, Pokey Reese, Michael Tucker, Greg Vaughn) and no MLB team has done it since 2015.