How will the Reds navigate the Noelvi Marte suspension?

Some stunning and disappointing news dropped on Friday afternoon, as the Reds announced third baseman Noelvi Marte will be suspended for the first 80 games of the 2024 season due to a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs.

Marte, the Reds’ top prospect entering the season, tested positive for boldenone, an anabolic androgenic steroid. He’s the first Reds player at the MLB level to be suspended for PEDs since pitcher Edinson Volquez in 2010 and the first in the organization since pitcher Vladimir Gutierrez in 2020. Some housekeeping notes on what this means for Marte:

  • Pending any postponements that alter the Reds’ schedule, Marte will be eligible to return on June 26 against the Pirates.
  • Marte can begin a minor-league rehab assignment 20 days before his suspension ends, which will be June 6.
  • Marte will be placed on the restricted list, opening up a 40-man roster spot in his absence.
  • Marte will not accrue service time during his suspension.
  • Unless there’s a reversal in the appeal process, Marte will not be eligible for the postseason.

Although plenty of infield rotating was expected, Marte figured to be the Reds’ third baseman on most days this season. The 22-year-old made his MLB debut last August and hit an impressive .316/.366/.456 with a 120 wRC+ in 123 plate appearances. He entered 2024 as one of the favorites to win National League Rookie of the Year, and those hopes are all but dashed now.

For the Reds, the suspension clears up the infield playing time questions to some extent. With Elly De La Cruz and Matt McLain more or less entrenched at shortstop and second base, respectively, manager David Bell was facing the challenge of dividing up corner infield starts between Marte, Jeimer Candelario, Christian Encarnacion-Strand, and Jonathan India. With Marte likely getting a majority of the starts at third base, it looked like the Reds would primarily go with Candelario at first base, Encarnacion-Strand at designated hitter, and India filling in when needed at first and second base. Now, Candelario will play third base on most days, opening up more playing time at first base and designated hitter. Encarnacion-Strand and India figure to get the lion’s share of playing time at first base. Notably, India played first base in his first game of the spring on Friday.

The Reds have the infield depth to cover for Marte’s absence, but their bench will take a hit. Instead of having India, Encarnacion-Strand, Marte, and/or Candelario at his disposal off the bench every day, Bell may now have to turn to one of the Reds’ non-roster invites such as Josh Harrison or Tony Kemp. Neither is a particularly compelling option.

Harrison has a career 95 wRC+, and he has some defensive versatility — he primarily plays second and third base but also has corner outfield experience. But he’s 36 years old and is coming off a season in which he posted a 51 wRC+ in 114 plate appearances with the Phillies. It’s a similar story with Kemp. He’s had similar offensive production to Harrison, carrying a career 94 wRC+ across eight MLB seasons. Kemp is a bit younger at 32 but is also coming off one of his worst seasons (77 wRC+). He isn’t as versatile as Harrison, however, primarily playing second base and left field.

It briefly looked as though Marte’s suspension could open up a roster spot for Jose Barrero, who is out of options. However, Barrero was claimed off waivers by the Rangers on Saturday.

If the Reds feel comfortable with their depth at second base, shortstop, and third base, first baseman Mike Ford could stand a better chance of making the club. The 31-year-old only plays one position, but he’d provide far more thump off the bench than Harrison or Kemp. With the Mariners last season, Ford hit 16 home runs and posted a 123 wRC+ in 251 plate appearances. He’d also give the Reds a left-handed hitting infielder. De La Cruz and Candelario are switch-hitters, but the team’s other infielders are right-handed batters.

If the Reds don’t choose to carry one of the non-roster invitees on the Opening Day roster, they have another in-house option to cover infield playing time when needed: the versatile Spencer Steer. Although Steer was expected to be the everyday left fielder, he could again be an infield option. He played every infield position except shortstop last season.

If Steer is pressed into more infield playing time, however, that only increases the need for another right-handed hitting outfielder on the Reds roster. Currently, Steer and Stuart Fairchild are the only right-handed outfield options for Bell. India has reportedly worked out in left field during the offseason, but he has never played in the outfield.

With two spots now available on the 40-man roster after Marte’s suspension and Barrero’s waiver claim, could the Reds look outside the organization for an outfielder? There are still several notable names left on the free-agent market, including two former Reds, Adam Duvall and Tommy Pham. Defensive whiz Michael Taylor and switch-hitting Robbie Grossman are also among the options available. The Reds reportedly showed interest in Taylor earlier in the offseason. General manager Nick Krall was non-committal about whether the Reds would bring in an outside player, but he didn’t shut down the idea.

Righty outfield options already in camp with the Reds include Bubba Thompson, Rece Hinds, and Blake Dunn. Notably, Hinds and Dunn have already been sent to minor-league camp. Hinds is on the 40-man roster, though Dunn is not. Neither has played above Double-A. Thompson was claimed on waivers four different times during the offseason, including twice by the Reds. While the 25-year-old is one of the fastest players in baseball (99th percentile sprint speed), he’s a non-factor at the plate (career 65 wRC+ in 241 PA) with little power or plate discipline. Nick Martini is also in camp, on the 40-man roster, and played well down the stretch last year (136 wRC+), but working against him is that he hits left-handed — hardly a need for the Reds with TJ Friedl, Will Benson, and Jake Fraley locked into roster spots.

There’s also the possibility of the Reds picking up a spare outfielder via trade or waiver claim as spring training winds down and teams start making cuts.

At the end of the day, the Reds are reasonably well-positioned to cover for Marte’s suspension. But it undoubtedly hurts their depth and leaves a giant roster question mark that didn’t exist before Friday. There are a few different ways the team could go. Will the stick with the in-house options, many of whom are underwhelming or inexperienced? Or is this the impetus needed for re-exploring the free-agent market, freeing up Steer to take on more of a utility or super-sub role? It’ll be one of the most interesting stories to follow over the final three weeks of spring training.

Featured Photo: Brian Rothmuller/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 Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @_MattWilkes.