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Top of the order: Reds’ inconsistency hurts their potential

Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to Top of the Order, where every Tuesday and Friday I’ll be kicking off your baseball day with some news, notes, and thoughts about the game we love.

The most encouraging thing about the Reds entering spring training is their depth. Noelvi Marte, Jeimer Candelario, Jonathan India, Christian Encarnacion-Strand, Elly De La Cruz, and Matt McLain would fill the four infield spots, while TJ Friedl, Jake Fraley, Spencer Steer, and Will Benson will get the lion’s share of the offseason. Hunter Greene, Andrew Abbott, Nick Lodolo, Frankie Montas, Brandon Williamson, Nick Martinez, and Graham Ashcraft have been vying for five rotation spots, and an experienced bullpen will headline the 2023 All -Star Alexis Díaz. The most talented of these players can form the core, with more than enough depth to weather poor performances and injuries. Well, that’s what we thought.

Instead, Marte was suspended for 80 games after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. McLain underwent shoulder surgery and is expected to miss most – if not all – of the season. Encarnacion-Strand may meet the same fate after breaking his wrist after bleeding a 37 wRC+ through his first 123 plate appearances. Williamson is in IL with a strained shoulder that could keep him out the entire season without throwing a single pitch in the big games. Ashcraft is in Triple-A after posting a 5.05 ERA through 12 starts this season. Bullpen veterans Ian Gibaut, Emilio Pagán, and Tejay Antone are all in the IL. All of this misfortune added up to a 35-39 record with the Reds at the bottom of the NL Central.

It wasn’t all bad, of course. Cincinnati posted a winning record through April, and is 10-7 since the start of June, a stretch that includes a seven-game winning streak from June 2-8. It’s a promising turnaround after the team’s brutal May 9-18.

If there’s one player who represents the Reds’ up-and-down year, it’s De La Cruz. He’s on pace for over 6 WAR this year, but his season hasn’t gone well. He was one of the top hitters in the majors in the first month (165 wRC+); then 32% worse than the league average in May. His 37 steals leads the league, but he has also been caught six times and made seven more walks, tying him with the Nationals’ CJ Abrams for the most. His 11.5% walk rate is above average, but he is also successful on 31.0% of his trips to the plate and leads the league in strikeouts with 97. OAA (+5) likes the defense, but DRS (-3) doesn’t. , and made more errors (15) than anyone else, with some trouble throwing accurately (nine throwing errors). Even the switch-hitter’s hand split (124 wRC + from the left side, 97 from the right side) shows dual performance.

Of course, the Reds are there and need more than their best player if they are to make good on all the young talent they have amassed in some young years. But the reality is that the contributions from catchers Tyler Stephenson (101 wRC+), Steer (104 wRC+), India (96 wRC+), Fraley (90), Friedl (99), and Benson (89) are far from balanced. Candelario, who leads the team with a 116 wRC+, had 82 marks in the first month of the season.

The pitching has been a rollercoaster as well, though Greene has finally emerged as a bonafide number one. 1 thanks to his new splitter, which gave him a solid third pitch. Otherwise, Lodolo has already been on the IL twice, Montas is averaging less than five innings in starts, and Abbott, while very good, has been aided by a low BABIP that has produced an eight-point strikeout rate. The bullpen is very similar; Díaz’s ERA is over 5.00, and Fernando Cruz is a hitter in the world but walks a lot.

It’s easy for me to sit here and say – as I often do in these columns – that the team just needs to match up and string some wins together to get back into the sweet mix of the NL Wild Card race. And the Reds have the talent to do just that, with significant reinforcements soon to arrive when Marte’s suspension ends after just six more games.

Candelario and De La Cruz lead the team with 12 homers, putting them on par with 25 apiece, and Justin Wilson throws the hardest fastball average (95.4 mph) of any reliever on the team. used this year. That’s not a bad pitch, but the lack of thump makes it difficult to score – which requires the offense to string together multiple hits to run the plate – and prevent runs, because their pitchers can’t hit fastballs with hitters.

Fortunately, if the Reds are hovering around .500 in late July, they should have options to improve their lineup before the deadline. Pitchers Tanner Scott and old friend Aroldis Chapman both have major issues with command and control, but it’s hard to combine and throw harder than anyone in the Cincinnati bullpen. Brent Rooker and Bryan De La Cruz should both be there, have years of club control before free agency, and currently lead the Reds in home runs.

There are no perfect options out there; they probably never were. But surprisingly, the Reds can find consistency in the inconsistency. They don’t need to add a star in the next five-plus weeks. Instead, if they fix their conflict by acquiring complementary talent, they can bring out the best in the small mind they have and make a postseason run.

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