Maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment.
Maybe I shouldn’t admit this or at least not say it out loud for fear of looking silly or losing credibility.
Ah, what the heck.
I’m looking forward to the (on-time) start of baseball season.
Yes, it’s true.
The 2023 Cincinnati Reds are ready to debut Thursday, and I am ready to get locked in for another 162. (Or at least however many games they play before the Bengals start training camp.)
“Haha, can you believe this crazy person? Hasn’t he seen the last few, um, decades of Reds baseball? The CINCINNATI Reds? That team that’s closer to the Pirates than the Guardians, let alone the Cardinals??? Get real!!!”
Those are things you might be thinking, and unfortunately I can’t dispute you if you are.
Unlike their baseball brethren to the north, the Reds have not figured out how to consistently contend in a smaller market.
Unlike their division rivals in St. Louis, they don’t seem to know how to make a baseball-mad-market work for them in generating faith or fortune.
Much like the Pirates, they pulled the plug on a rebuild before it was even over last year, likely locking in more years in which “Wait ‘til next year” might still seem too optimistic to even utter.
And yet I’ll be watching Thursday.
I will be listening many days and nights after that, and not only because Tommy Thrall and Jeff Brantley are informative, entertaining and easy on the ears while working in the yard or tending to tomatoes.
I am actually of the belief this team will be WORTH watching even if wins are hard to come by (as expected).
The real future — most of the haul of prospects they got last year for dismantling a team that had a winning record and many young-ish, relatively affordable pieces in 2021 — is still going to be in the minor leagues as this season begins (and when it ends), but there is plenty to see on the present roster.
1. Start, of course, with the rotation.
The top three of Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo and Graham Ashcroft are not only young and talented but no longer rookies.
This year, they should be ready not only to dazzle with stuff but perhaps dominate.
All three could regularly win pitcher’s duels, which figures to be important because this team still probably won’t score a lot of runs.
(The bullpen might ruin it all again, anyway, but let’s worry about that another day. Hopefully not EVERY day once the season begins..)
2. The lineup is at least comprised of player who are or still could be legitimate major leaguers.
Jonathan India and Tyler Stephenson looked like future stars in 2021 before injuries wrecked their ‘22s so there are eight or nine at-bats a night worth watching.
On the left side of the infield, Spencer Steer and Jose Barrero are legitimate prospects so their at-bats actually matter both for the present and the future. Are they warming up for long careers or warming spots for The Next Big Thing? With the other shortstops and corner infielders acquired last year or already in the system, this might also be now or never season for both.
First base is an unknown with Joey Votto, who also had a strong 2021 before scuffling through ‘22 with multiple injuries, not ready to start the season, but his return offers another potential positive (or a sad swan song).
3. The outfield could turn out to be a disaster, or it could be a lot of fun.
Many thought the Reds had a steal when they signed T.J. Friedl out of college in 2016, and he flashed potential for the Dragons the following year when he had 31 extra-base hits and 14 steals in 66 games. He would’t be the first player to look good in the low minors then never be heard from again, but Friedl has an intriguing skillset and could benefit from the changes in the rules that are expected to encourage the running game this season.
Jake Fraley was a second-round pick of the Rays, is only 27 and hit 12 home runs in 68 games for the Reds last season. He’s still never played more than half a season in the bigs, so perhaps he could be a late-bloomer, someone to keep or flip for more future considerations at the trade deadline.
Wil Myers, who can also play first base, was once a major prospect. He made the All-Star team in 2016 but has leveled off since then. He’s at least a legitimate major league player who can provide some leadership and could be another trade chip if things go well for him (but not the Reds).
But the most interesting man is probably Will Benson.
A 2016 first-round pick, the 6-5, 230-pounder from Georgia hit 17 home runs and stole 16 bases in half a season at Triple-A Columbus last season but struggled in 28 games in the majors.
Cleveland gave up on him, but maybe he can follow in the footsteps of Brandon Phillips, another Peach State native who blossomed with the Reds after a spring trade between the Ohio franchises.
4. They probably won’t put it all together and surprisingly contend for the division, but maybe they catch lightning in a bottle and stay alive for a while in the expanded wildcard race.
Younger fans might not know the Reds used to make a habit of being fun to watch before reality set in rather than regularly get off to disastrous, soul-crushing slow starts.
Are they due for the former rather than the latter?
Hey, stranger things have happened, but at least it’s worth finding out.
It’s springtime in Southwest Ohio so we might as well make the best of it.
Where else ya gonna go?
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