Breaking down the Reds 2024 Opening Day roster: position players

Breaking down the Reds 2024 Opening Day roster: position players

Although the roster will change countless times throughout 2024, there is always a special feeling when the Reds announced their Opening Day squad. After months of anticipation and prognostication, there are finally concrete answers on who will stand along the first-base line in Great American Ball Park during team introductions and the national anthem on March 28. Now, it’s time to break it all down, starting with the position players!

Catchers

As expected, the Reds will have either Tyler Stephenson or Luke Maile behind the plate every day. While Curt Casali was mixed in before a season-ending injury, Stephenson and Maile started a combined 135 games at catcher in 2023. This year, the Reds will carry only two catchers on the roster.

Tyler Stephenson

2023 Recap: Last season was disappointing for Stephenson. He spent the offseason recovering from surgery on a broken collarbone and never hit his stride. The Reds planned to ease the physical wear on Stephenson by rostering three catchers and playing him at first base and designated hitter. He stayed healthy and logged a career-high 517 plate appearances — but had his worst MLB season. He struggled to make contact (25th percentile in K%, 30th percentile in whiff%) and had the 16th-highest ground-ball rate (48.6%) among hitters with at least 500 plate appearances, though his expected stats based on contact quality were similar to previous years. In addition to subpar offensive numbers, he was a liability behind the plate (-11 fielding run value, 3rd percentile). His blocking, throwing, framing, and pop time all ranked in the bottom 22% or worse. Put it all together and Stephenson had a -0.7 fWAR, second-worst among MLB catchers with 300+ plate appearances.

2024 Outlook: Now 27 years old, Stephenson has a lot to prove in 2024. Can he make more contact and starting lifting the ball more? If he can check those boxes and carry over his 65th-percentile hard-hit rate from last season, that could raise his offensive floor. If not, it could get more difficult to continue starting Stephenson unless his defense improves significantly.

Luke Maile

2023 Recap: Maile signed with his hometown Reds prior to last season and played well enough to earn another contract over the offseason. The Reds re-signed him to a one-year, $3.5 million deal for 2024 with a 2025 team option. Maile appeared in 74 games last season and had a similar offensive output to Stephenson, including a career-high six home runs. Defensively, Maile had the clear edge over Stephenson. Although he rates slightly below average overall by fielding run value (-1, 40th percentile), Maile graded out as above average in blocking, throwing, and pop time. He was below average in framing (33rd percentile), though still above Stephenson.

2024 Outlook: The 33-year-old enters the season as the backup catcher, but he figures to receive plenty of playing time. Maile served as the personal catcher for Hunter Greene and Andrew Abbott last season and could do so again in 2024.

Infielders

Coming into spring training, the Reds had an infield logjam. But as these things typically go, the “problem” was solved due to an injury and a suspension. Matt McLain dove for a ball during a workout on March 18 and injured his left, non-throwing shoulder. McLain will begin the season on the injured list after undergoing surgery for a torn labrum, and although the team is hopeful he’ll return this season, there’s a possibility he won’t. A week before that, the Reds announced Noelvi Marte would be suspended for the first 80 games of the season due to a positive test for a performance-enhancing drug. Just like that, the Reds’ depth is being put to the test to begin the year.

Christian Encarnacion-Strand

2023 Recap: After arriving in the Reds organization as part of the Tyler Mahle trade with the Twins in 2022, Encarnacion-Strand took Reds country by storm with a monstrous spring training in 2023. He kept hitting in Triple-A, eventually getting the big-league call in mid-July. CES received 241 plate appearances the rest of the way and was an above-average hitter, showing off the skills that made him an enticing prospect (power) as well as the weaknesses that invited skepticism (plate discipline). Encarnacion-Strand slugged seven doubles and 13 home runs and would’ve ranked in the 86th percentile in hard-hit rate if he had enough playing time to qualify, tying him with Giancarlo Stanton. But he also chased a lot of bad pitches and struck out at a higher-than-average clip. Defensively, Encarnacion-Strand was roughly average at first base in a limited sample size.

2024 Outlook: Prior to the Marte suspension and McLain injury, Encarnacion-Strand’s role wasn’t fully clear. He figured to split time between first base and designated hitter and at times come off the bench. Now, the 24-year-old looks to be the everyday first baseman heading into the season, though he could get more DH duty when McLain and/or Marte return.

Jonathan India

2023 Recap: Similar to Stephenson, India was coming off an injury-riddled season following his excellent rookie campaign in 2021. India started last season well, displaying his Rookie of the Year plate discipline and hitting the ball harder compared to 2022. But his performance faded as he tried to play his way through plantar fasciitis in his left foot. The injury eventually caused him to miss a month-and-a-half of action in the second half and limited him to 119 games. He continued dealing with the injury into the offseason but is healthy now. Defensively, India continued to rank as one of the game’s worst second basemen. Despite trade rumors in the offseason, the Reds retained India and bought out his first two years of arbitration with an $8.8 million deal.

2024 Outlook: India was expected to play more of a utility role, seeing time at first base, left field, and designated hitter. Following McLain’s injury, though, India is once again penciled in as the everyday second baseman.

Elly De La Cruz

2023 Recap: De La Cruz took the baseball world by storm when he was called up from Triple-A last June. Ranked as MLB’s best prospect, he captivated fans with his power, electrifying speed, and cannon of an arm. He hit baseballs harder than any Reds player in the Statcast era, threw harder than any other infielder in the league, and ran faster than any other MLB player. De La Cruz also became the first Reds player to hit for the cycle since Eric Davis in 1989. And he did all this at 21 years old. But like most players that young, he had struggles, too. He had a brutal time against left-handed pitchers (28 wRC+), and the league kept him guessing with a steady diet of breaking balls and off-speed pitches. De La Cruz posted a 62 wRC+ and a 36% strikeout rate after the All-Star break.

2024 Outlook: Entering his first full season, De La Cruz is the Reds’ everyday shortstop. The 22-year-old is already an impactful MLB player as a baserunner and defender. Offensively, he has a world of potential but a clear list of areas to improve on — namely pitch recognition, laying off bad pitches, and punishing mistakes over the plate. Athletically, few are as gifted as De La Cruz and the Reds hope that his offseason work to shorten his swing and leg kick will help him take the next step toward stardom.

Jeimer Candelario

2023 Recap: Candelario started last season with the Nationals, signing a one-year deal with them after he was non-tendered by the Tigers. It’s safe to say he rebounded, as he was Washington’s best hitter in the first half and made himself a trade chip in July. The Nats dealt him to the Cubs, where Candelario began his career. Candelario hit a career-best 22 home runs to go along with 39 doubles, and he was rewarded with a three-year, $45 million contract from the Reds in December.

2024 Outlook: Although the peripheral numbers don’t jump off the page for Candelario, he’s a solid hitter across the board and has the potential to turn more doubles into home runs at Great American Ball Park. Candelario will be the Reds’ third baseman to begin the season, but he could shift to more first base duty when Marte returns from suspension in June.

Santiago Espinal

2023 Recap: After being one of the stranger All-Star selections in recent memory in 2022, Espinal assumed a utility role for the Blue Jays last season. As his All-Star nod indicated, he was a solid utility player in his first two seasons, posting a 105 wRC+ across 737 plate appearances in 2021 and 2022. He failed to replicate that in 2023, however, and was merely a replacement-level player (0.2 fWAR). The right-handed Espinal is a contact hitter through and through, with a good career batting average (.273) and a low strikeout rate (14.2%), but he doesn’t draw a lot of walks or hit for much power (.095 ISO).

2024 Outlook: Espinal was acquired by the Reds last week when it was determined that McLain would start the year on the IL and the Reds had no other backup shortstop. Espinal will serve as a backup across the infield, covering second base and third base in addition to shortstop. Notably, the 29-year-old has minor-league options, allowing the Reds to send him to Louisville if necessary when Marte returns.

Outfielders

From a personnel standpoint, the outfield largely remains unchanged from 2023. The Reds didn’t make any major additions to this part of the roster during the offseason, despite what seemed like a clear need for a backup center fielder and right-handed hitter. As fate would have it, the club was dealt a major blow in the final weeks of spring training when center fielder TJ Friedl — who led the team in WAR last season — fractured his right wrist. Friedl could return sometime in May, but the Reds will miss his stellar defense and baserunning in the meantime.

Spencer Steer

2023 Recap: Arguably the Reds’ most valuable player last year, Steer played all over the diamond — first base, second base, third base, left field, and right field — and didn’t skip a beat offensively. He was a steadying force in the middle of the lineup, hitting for average and power while showing a strong eye. Steer wasn’t elite at any one thing, but he was above average at pretty much everything. He led the Reds in games played (156) and finished sixth in National League Rookie of the Year voting. The only blemish on Steer’s season was his defense (1st percentile in fielding run value), which cost him a full win above replacement, per Baseball Reference. However, at least part of the blame lies in the fact that he didn’t get consistent playing time at one spot and was asked to field positions he’d never played before.

2024 Outlook: Steer should again be a staple in the middle of the Cincinnati lineup, and it’s tough to argue with him batting anywhere from second to sixth in the order. Though he may see sporadic time in the infield, the 26-year-old appears poised to settle into one position, left field. There’s optimism that his defensive metrics will improve with an offseason of outfield work.

Will Benson

2023 Recap: Acquired from the Guardians before spring training, Benson made the Reds’ roster but struggled badly out of the gate. He was optioned to Triple-A Louisville in mid-April and returned in late May looking like a new player. Benson hit .275/.365/.498 with 11 home runs, 19 stolen bases, and a 128 wRC+ the rest of the season, establishing himself as a starting outfielder against right-handed pitchers. Although his strikeout rate was a concern, Benson mitigated that by using his sharp eye at the plate and hitting a bunch of line drives when he made contact — he ranked 16th in sweet-spot rate among hitters with 300+ plate appearances. Defensively, Benson was a bit below average, receiving most of his playing time in right field.

2024 Outlook: Mostly a corner outfielder in his pro career, Benson will be the everyday center fielder against right-handed pitchers while Friedl is out. While Benson probably won’t maintain a BABIP approaching .400, the 25-year-old is an excellent strong-side platoon hitter and has the tools to be an offensive force at the bottom of the Cincinnati lineup.

Jake Fraley

2023 Recap: Fraley essentially did what was expected of him last year. That is, he crushed right-handed pitching (115 wRC+). With a pull-heavy approach (47.4% vs. 41.1% league average), he again defied his poor batted-ball metrics by hitting 15 home runs and posting an above average .188 ISO. Fraley paired that with a strong batting average and walk rate, along with 21 stolen bases, making him a well-rounded offensive threat. His weakness, of course, is left-handed pitching (40 wRC+) and his at-bats were limited against southpaws accordingly. In the outfield, Fraley graded well for his range (2 OAA, 75th percentile) but poorly for his throwing arm (-4 run value, 4th percentile).

2024 Outlook: Fraley’s role should be the same in 2024. He’ll start in right field against right-handed pitchers and sit against lefties. Health is Fraley’s biggest concern, as the 28-year-old has spent time on the IL in each of the last three years and has yet to play more than 111 games or eclipse 400 plate appearances in a season.

Stuart Fairchild

2023 Recap: Fairchild spent much of last season as the Reds’ fifth outfielder and was reasonably productive in that role (0.8 fWAR), playing all three outfield positions and providing strong defense (69th percentile in fielding run value). Fairchild was also the second-fastest player on the team behind De La Cruz, and he was graded as an excellent baserunner by both Statcast and FanGraphs. He was below-average at the plate, largely due to swing-and-miss issues. He flashed a bit of the offensive upside he showed in the minors, drawing walks at an above-average clip and hitting for average power (.160 ISO).

2024 Outlook: As the season begins, Fairchild is looking at a larger role than expected. Once thought to be in competition for the 26th roster spot, he was a shoe-in to make the club once Friedl went down. The righty hitter will start against left-handed pitchers, likely in center field.

Nick Martini

2023 Recap: Martini was a late-season hero for the Reds, getting called up in August with Fraley and Fairchild on the IL. Martini slugged 10 extra-base hits (6 HR) in 79 plate appearances during his first MLB action since 2021. His batted-ball metrics were impressive, too, as he posted an average exit velocity of 91.0 mph. A career journeyman who has yet to stick in the majors for an extended time, he spent most of the year in Triple-A Louisville (93 games), where he hit 15 homers and posted a wRC+ of 122.

2024 Outlook: Martini seemed a long shot to make the Opening Day roster entering spring training, but injuries opened the door for him, especially since he was already on the 40-man roster. He’ll fill in at first base, left field, and right field as well as get pinch-hitting opportunities. It’s tough to have high expectations for Martini, as he turns 34 this year and has only 141 MLB games under his belt. The batted-ball metrics are certainly intriguing if he can maintain them, however. Of note, Martini has a minor-league option remaining.

Bubba Thompson

2023 Recap: A first-round pick in 2017, Thompson made the Rangers roster out of spring training last year and remained on the big-league team until late May, mostly appearing as a pinch runner and defensive replacement. Ultimately, his immense struggles at the plate made it tough for the Rangers to continue rostering him. Thompson was optioned to Triple-A at the beginning of June and designated for assignment in August. The Royals claimed Thompson off waivers and he spent the last month-and-a-half of the season with their Triple-A team. He went through the DFA/waiver cycle several more times in the offseason, bouncing from the Royals to the Reds to the Yankees to the Twins and finally back to the Reds at the beginning of spring training.

2024 Outlook: Thompson will serve as a backup outfielder and, as a right-handed hitter, and he could draw some starts against lefties, pushing Fairchild to right field. Thompson is a true center fielder and one of the fastest players in the game (99th percentile in sprint speed), giving the Reds a reliable defensive option behind Benson and Fairchild. If he can provide any offensive value beyond his baserunning, the Reds will take it. The 25-year-old still has two minor-league options remaining.

Featured Image: Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire

Matt Wilkes

Matt Wilkes 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 all the new data in the game. Matt is also a graduate of The Ohio State University and currently lives in Columbus. Follow him on Twitter at @_MattWilkes.

2 Responses

  1. Brian Van Hook says:

    Nice read, thanks for this, Matt. … So, what would be a projected lineup against left-handed starters? Fairchild is in the outfield, maybe center, with Steer in left. So who ends up in right field? Bubba? Or maybe a left-handed batter is force-fed at-bats against lefties? And who’s the DH? Maybe whichever catcher isn’t starting? Or Espinal. … Not getting a proven right-hand hitting outfielder really makes this off-season seem bad to me.

    • Matt Wilkes says:

      Thanks, Brian! The lineup against LHP could look rough no matter how you slice it. Not acquiring a right-handed-hitting outfielder is probably the biggest miss of the offseason.

      CES, India, Candelario, Steer, Fairchild, and Maile/Stephenson are givens. I’d imagine Elly will see plenty of starts against lefties, but those could also be easy opportunities to get him some rest when needed. Beyond that, it seems up in the air. We’ll probably see some Maile or Stephenson appearances at DH, but not sure how much. I imagine Bell will want to mitigate the risk one of them getting hurt and losing the DH for the rest of the game.

      I’m guessing we’ll see quite a bit of Steer/Thompson/Fairchild across the outfield against LHP. Espinal will probably start as well, giving one of the infield regulars (India, Elly, Candelario) a quasi off-day as the DH. If the Reds feel comfortable with India in the outfield, he could start in LF with Steer sliding to RF — but, man, that would potentially be some UGLY outfield defense. In that case, the DH would likely be Maile/Stephenson, Thompson (or Steer, who’s the worse defender between the two), Fraley, or Benson. Not great options there, either.

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