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Will 2023 be a bridge year, or another tank year for the Reds?

We will find out soon enough.

Florida Marlins v Chicago Cubs

It is easy to lose in the fold just how aggressive the Cincinnati Reds were in kick-starting their tank last offseason given the lockout, the later aggressive tanking, and the depths to which the franchise sunk beginning on Opening Day. Yes, the lockout put a pause on their cull, and the deal that sent Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suarez to the playoffs certainly stole most headlines before the fateful Opening Day debacle, but the reality is that the Reds made clear from the first chance they got that 2022 was going to be a year-long kick in the shins.

As the beer still dried in the Houston locker rooms as Atlanta claimed their World Series glory, the Reds were busy doing every single thing in their power to unload the money owed to Tucker Barnhart and Wade Miley. It wasn’t that they were willing to jettison veteran players with in-house backups in the pipeline that caused frustration - that would make sense in most any scenario, really - it was the timing and voracity with which they pursued the exodus that caught the eyes not just of Cincinnati fans, but of the GMs of all other franchises, too.

Barnhart and Miley had options and buyouts, and the Reds were pursuing their immediate departures prior to even having to pay them to be bought out. They didn’t just want them gone, they needed them gone, and that signaled to every predatory franchise out there - of whom there are many - that this was a franchise desperate to pull back, to go cheap, and to do so by any means possible. And while their later deals at least saw something of an improvement in their execution, the writing was long clear on the wall that any and all attempt at making the 2022 season one that actually mattered in Cincinnati was a concept not even in the universe of expectations.

Perhaps the single worst season in team history has predictably followed. The question with just three days remaining in it, though, is just how bad they’re willing to let 2023 get, too.

Despite the mangled execution of their last offseason, the thorough cull of a once-decent roster has managed to refill the minor league coffers, though mostly at the lower and mid-tier levels. Backfill the devoid big league roster that does not do at the moment, however, nor does it project to do so in 2023, either. Despite the gains made by the young starting pitchers and the emergence of Alexis Diaz as a viable high-leverage arm, this roster still has more holes than my hiking socks, with little to no expected help on Opening Day 2023 from what’s in the minor league system at the moment.

We don’t yet know where the team’s hundred-ish loss season will land them in the 2023 MLB Draft thanks to the new lottery system, but it will net them a very high pick - a pick that will, in theory, end up a big piece of their rebuild down the road. Further tanking in 2023 would net them something similar in the 2024 draft, too, and that kind of gluttony for punishment now could well make things extra rosy in an ideal-world future.

Perhaps that’s the route on which we trek right now. There’s nothing about this current Reds regime that suggests they’re going to alter their path, not even after doing quite literally everything imaginable to drive away what few fans still remained during the miserable 2022 campaign. The inverse of if you build it, he will come should be if you don’t, they will go, but remember, this is the Major League Baseball monopoly of which we speak, where there’s both no relegation and no recourse for being bad for as long as you choose to be.

That’s the easy way to do this, after all. Do nothing now, when it matters, while continuing to promise that it’ll be better down the road since, y’know, Major League Baseball makes sure there will actually be a down the road regardless.

The thing is, you don’t have to squint too incredibly hard to see that 2023 should, by gods, be better than 2022 even if they do stay as brutally austere all winter like they did last year.

Tejay Antone and Lucas Sims should, in theory, be back to bolster the relief corps. The decimation of the team’s offense cannot possibly be as thorough again next year, so there’s obviously hope of getting more out of Jonathan India, Tyler Stephenson, Joey Votto, Jake Fraley, and Jose Barrero than they got out of them this season. Pair that with the expectations that will undoubtedly be heaped upon the upcoming sophomore campaigns of Nick Lodolo, Hunter Greene, and Graham Ashcraft, and there’s a lot there to suggest that a franchise of any solvency and competency would find them an outfield and a veteran starter and a hot bowl of legitimate confidence on which to feed come spring training.

After all, once you get past the $43 million owed to Votto and Moustakas for 2023 - the last year both are under contract - there isn’t much at all on the ledger for this franchise, one that repeatedly ran payrolls over $100 million recent memory, even when those numbers fell below the league’s average. Even if this ownership group was broke and destitute at their previous levels this time a year ago, it’s impossible to imagine they’re as broke, as destitute at these.

Rolling the dice on signing Michael Conforto and Jameson Taillon, for example, are not the kind of moves that would push this franchise from ‘look how bright our future is!’ to ‘oh no, we’re insolvent!’ Those moves are also not ones that put you in the playoffs, on paper, either, and I get that. The 2023 Cincinnati Reds are not going to the playoffs by signing those two players, and I’m typing that again for full clarity here, just like the 2022 Cincinnati Reds weren’t going to the playoffs by acquiring Mike Minor and signing Donovan Solano, either.

Signing a couple players of that ilk would, however, send out a number of signals. It would signal to the rest of the baseball world that the Reds did, in fact, have enough liquidity to afford more than just doormats to fill roster spots, and could even float a few contracts to quality big leaguers in a bridge year. It would signal to the rest of the active roster that there’s some support from above, even if it’s slight, that’s above just claiming players off waivers and cycling them through. It would also signal to fans that there’s at least minimal value in picking up each marginal win possible during a 2023 season, and that the mindset that grows with picking up every last win is more valuable than drafting two, three, five spots higher in the 2024 draft.

This is the bed the Cincinnati Reds have made, by the way. With three games remaining in the 2022 season, I’m not talking about gargantuan Aaron Judge’s contract will be this winter or how to trade for Luis Robert. I’m not trying to talk myself into making the playoffs, even, let alone how to win a World Series. I’m merely talking relevancy here, and how to reestablish credibility around the baseball world that this entire operation isn’t just a bank account to cash MLB checks. Having the rebuild actually pan out by 2025 is one way to take a big step in that direction, but forfeiting the next year, and even the next, isn’t a requirement to make that fingers-crossed outcome happen, too - they can actually, y’know, try a little between now and then, too.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we should expect it with this crew.