RED MONDAY | Evolving big picture, Santiago Espinal, Nationals preview, Opening Day

It’s here! Well, almost. Later this week, the games start to count again.

Welcome back to Reds Content Plus. The writers here are looking forward to an exciting and interesting season loaded with story lines. You can count on us to offer clear-eyed analysis of how the team is doing and where it’s headed. We’re kicking off this big week with our first 2024 installment of Red Monday.

Big Picture | Evolving

The Reds hope to build on a successful 2023 season. It’s 82-80 record was a 20-game improvement over 2022 and good for third in the NL Central. The 2023 club fell two games short of the final NL Wild Card slot.

The Reds were busy this offseason, adding players across much of their roster. 30-year-old Frankie Montas (post) is the Opening Day starting pitcher. Jeimer Candelario (post) was brought in as a veteran corner infield bat. Pitcher Nick Martinez (33) can swing between the rotation, where he’s starting the season, and bullpen. The club also added veteran bullpen arms Emilio Pagan (33) and Brent Suter (34), while also bringing back Buck Farmer (32). At the same time, the front office decided to part ways with Joey Votto (post).

New Reds infielder Jeimer Candelario

By the start of March, the club had appeared to fulfill its offseason narrative — “building quality depth.” The main question at that time — as it was for other NL Central contenders — was whether the front office had done enough.

Then … Noelvi Marte got suspended for 80 games (post). TJ Friedl broke his arm bone and will miss at least a month (post). Starting pitcher Brandon Williamson (shoulder) and relievers Ian Gibaut (forearm), Sam Moll (shoulder) and Alex Young (back) are expected to start the season on the IL. Scariest of all, Matt McLain has a bum shoulder and is out for now. An ominous sign, the Reds are getting a second opinion about McLain’s condition from a fancy Los Angeles surgeon.

Crossing every finger and toe for McLain’s health is mandatory for Reds fans today.

So, in the time it takes Elly De La Cruz to go from home to head-first into third, the Reds went from a successful offseason to scramble mode. The front office now faces a new challenge of giving the club a chance to get off to a good start in 2024.

David Bell enters his sixth season as Reds manager. His win-loss record is 353-375 (.470) with three winning seasons out of five. The Reds finished third in the division three times under Bell and fourth two times. In the four seasons prior to Bell as skipper, the Reds finished last in the division, a combined 124 games out of first place.

The Week To Come

The Reds open the 204 season with a three-game weekend series against the Washington Nationals. Games are schedule for Thursday (4:10 pm), Saturday (4:10 pm) and Sunday (1:40). The Reds won four out of seven games the two teams played in 2023.

The Nationals are picked by everyone to finish last in the tough National League East. While the Nats won the 2019 World Series, they haven’t been close to a winning record since then. Last year’s squad lost 91 games, an improvement of 16 games over 2022.

Nationals manager Davey Martinez, who just signed an extension through the 2026 season, has been the Washington skipper since taking over for Dusty Baker in 2018. His overall record is 392-478 (.451).

Nationals | Position Players 

Long gone are Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, Ryan Zimmermann and Trea Turner. The 2023 Nationals lineup finished in the bottom five in run production (wRC+) and next to last in power hitting (ISO). The Nats added free agent IF Joey Gallo and OF Eddie Rosario, as well as former Reds 3B Nick Senzel and LF Jesse Winker.

Here is Washington’s expected Opening Day lineup.

The stats shown are FanGraphs projections for the 2024 season. wRC+ is a composite stat for run production. fWAR is a composite that includes defense and base running. Other stats were chosen to indicate hit-skill (AVG), on-base skill (BB%) and power hitting (ISO).

As you can see, not much pop expected in that batting order, with only three starters expected to have better-than-average (and barely) run production.

Slick fielding CJ Abrams was one of the five players the Nationals received in return from the Padres for Juan Soto a couple years ago. The 23-year-old shortstop has lived up to his fielding-first scouting report when at the plate, but is a threat to steal bases if he gets on.

Did I mention Jesse Winker and Nick Senzel will start against the Reds Thursday?

Nationals | Pitchers 

Also gone from the Nationals are Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasberg, although the latter is still earning $35 million from the Nats this season.

Josiah Gray – The Nationals have designated the former Reds prospect as their Opening Day starter. Reds fans remember Gray as the team’s second-round pick in 2018. A few months later he was was sent packing as part of the monster trade with the Dodgers that included Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood, Kyle Farmer and Homer Bailey. Gray progressed rapidly through the Dodger system before being traded at the 2021 deadline for Max Scherzer and Trea Turner. The Nationals plugged Gray right into their rotation and 70 starts later, here we are.

In 2023, Gray was in the bottom 19th percentile in xERA. He’s an extreme fly ball pitcher and below average in chase, strikeouts, walks and barrels. Gray’s pitch portfolio is fastball-slider-cutter, curve. The four-seam fastball averages 93 mph (38th percentile), which is hitting speed these days. Gray faced the Reds once last year, giving up eight hits, four walks and two earned runs in five innings.

Patrick Corbin — The 34-year-old Corbin is slated to take the mound for the Nationals on Saturday. He begins the final year of a 6-year, $140 million free agent contract signed in 2018. Corbin joined Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg in a rotation pivotal to the Nats winning the 2019 World Series. After that, Corbin has been disastrous, with a 5.62 (!) ERA spread across 105 ill-fated starts. The Reds faced Corbin last year on the Fourth of July and he gave up six earned runs in five innings.

Jake Irvin – The 27-year-old Irvin will begin his second season with the Nationals making the start in the series’ third game on Sunday. As a rookie last year, Irvin made 24 starts for the Nationals with a 5.13 xERA. The former fourth-rand draft pick in 2018 finished in the bottom 3% in chase and whiff rates in 2023. He’s a fastball (93.7 mph), sinker, curveball pitcher. He made two starts against the Reds last year, giving up six earned runs in 10.1 innings.

Bullpen – The 2023 Nationals bullpen finished 26th in ERA, dead last in xERA, 26th in SIERA and last again in strikeouts. They did little in the offseason to fix it. Right-handers Kyle Finnegan (32) and Hunter Harvey (29) return as co-closers. Former Reds Tanner Rainey, Derek Law and Dylan Floro are also part of the Nationals relief corps.

A New Reds Face | Santiago Espinal

With Noelvi Marte and Matt McLain out for a while, the Reds were in desperate need for another infielder, one who could play SS. They picked up the 29-year-old Espinal from the Toronto Blue Jays for minor league RHP Chris McElvain. Espinal is in his first year of arbitration, earning $2.725 million. He has two options remaining and has been relatively healthy. (Espinal’s FanGraphs player page.)

Espinal was a tenth-round draft pick by the Boston Red Sox in in 2016. He debuted for Toronto in 2020 and has played a utility role for the Blue Jays. Espinal does check the shortstop box, starting 13 games there for Toronto over the past two seasons. But he has primarily played second and third. Espinal’s arm strength is rated well below average. Per Statcast, his range had been exceptional until last year.

At the plate, the right-handed Espinal has a good career batting average (.273), a below-average walk-rate (7.6%) and poor power (.095 ISO). His 2024 wRC+ projection is 88, which is 12 percent below average.

The Blue Jays were in a roster squeeze. Moving Espinal gives them a roster spot for Ernie Clement who is out of options. McElvain was not among the Reds top-30 prospects in Baseball America and graded out at 35+ at FanGraphs. Santiago Espinal is the definition of a replacement player and barely that. Barring another jolt to the roster, don’t expect him to see much time on the field.

Opening Day | A Cincinnati Tradition

Our love affair with Cincinnati baseball began in July 1866 when plans for the Cincinnati Base Ball Club were formalized at a downtown law office. Early Cincinnati Club teams played at the Union Cricket Club grounds, where the Union Terminal sites today.

In 1869, the renamed Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first all-professional baseball team. With a 57-0 record, it remains the only perfect season in pro baseball history.

In 1876, the Cincinnati Reds joined as a charter member of the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs (NL). As the southern-most city in the NL, the Reds were scheduled every year to open the season at home, as field conditions were presumed to be better with warmer weather.

The traditional of skipping school and work for the game goes back to at least 1900 when the game had become such a big deal it sold out. Newspaper cartoons showed folks telling lies so they could watch the game.

In the 1930s, for Opening Day the club added a dozen rows of wooden chairs in the outfield against the terrace wall at Crosley Field. If a ball went into the seats, it was ruled a double. The temporary extra seats lasted until 1959.

The Opening Day parade began in 1890, organized by team owner John T. Brush. It featured three streetcars: One carrying Reds players, one carrying the visiting Chicago Cubs players and a third that carried a marching band. The parade was run by local shop owners, their friends and families.

The 104th Findlay Market Opening Day parade starts at noon on Thursday. Former Reds players Dmitri Young and Pokey Reese will serve as grand marshals to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the 1999 Reds team that went 96-67.

The parade departs historic Findlay Market and heads down Race Street toward the Ohio River. At Fifth Street the caravan turns east, passes Fountain Square and ends at the Taft Theater. The weather forecast is mostly sunny and 56º with only a 4% chance of rain.

Let’s play ball!

[Photos: Reds Facebook]

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.

1 Response

  1. Brian Van Hook says:

    A great read, thanks for doing this! … I might be in the minority, but I didn’t think the offseason was very successful even before the spring training injuries.

    Great to have Red Mondays back !!