Exactly one year and eleven days ago, we detailed how Baseball America - perhaps the most esteemed ranker of top prospects in the entire industry - rated Jose Barrero as the single best prospect in the Cincinnati Reds system. Most of their peers had already considered Barrero a graduated prospect due to the discrepancy over service time during the pandemic-shortened season, but the fact remained that there was enough that Barrero had shown in his minor league days to push him all the way to the 33rd ranked prospect in all of baseball by BA.
That was ahead of Nick Lodolo, ahead of Hunter Greene. One year and eleven days ago.
Things, of course, have changed mightily since then. Barrero showed up in Goodyear for spring training last February with a nagging wrist injury that was eventually determined to be a hamate bone break, an injury that required a surgery from which he was somewhat surprisingly rushed back. His .639 OPS during his return to AAA looked awful. The .401 OPS he put up while with the Reds after that looked worse. The swings he used to get to those awful numbers looked, perhaps, even more awful.
One year and eleven days removed from being anointed perhaps the brightest star in future of the franchise, Barrero sits firmly at a crossroads. Gone is Kyle Farmer, who rightfully got the playing time at SS ahead of him for most of last season, and Farmer’s out of the mix at the hot corner now, too. In is Kevin Newman, Kyle Farmer Lite, who has been the second worst hitter in all of baseball since 2020 (min. 1000 PA). That would, in theory, seem to be a series of events that would give a healthy Barrero one more shot at showing he can be the team’s future at the SS position, something that will get a lot tougher to nail down when the fleet of elite SS prospects they’ve got further down on the farm are ready within the next year.
SS is the linchpin position on any infield, especially now that infield shifting has been curbed and individual infield defense will be more paramount than it has been in years. Finding out which Red will man that position also has a trickle-down impact on the dirt, as there is plenty still unsettled about that portion of the team’s roster.
Newman/Barrero seem to be the obvious contenders at short. The question would become, however, whether Barrero plays himself into the mix at 3B, either because a) Newman looks rejuvenated at SS or b) the other unproven options at 3B who are poised to enter camp with cases to be big league regulars stumble out of the gate in ways similar to Barrero in previous years.
It’ll be Spencer Steer in the spotlight there first. The most ready-made chip the Reds received in all of their flurry of trades last year, Steer got his big league call-up during the 2022 season and promptly socked a homer in his debut. It was a steady slog from him after that debut, however, as he posted just a .548 OPS in the subsequent 27 games with the Reds, though his track record in the minors with AAA Louisville and throughout his time in the Twins system suggests he’s earned the biggest look at the hot corner to begin. He brings versatility to the equation - he played 1B, 2B, and 3B with the Reds last year and has experience at all four infield positions in his minor league career - and that could see him moved around if need be, but he’s the clubhouse leader for Opening Day 3B for now.
It’ll be Alejo Lopez who once again enters camp on the outside looking in despite the back of his baseball card actually looking the best. His .645 OPS at the big league level last year was by no means impressive, but it did best those of Barrero and Steer. His career .298 average and .371 OBP in the minors also stack up impressively against his peers here, though his size and lack of pop have seemingly rendered him nothing more than a backup option in the eyes of the Reds brass thus far. That he plays everywhere and is a switch-hitter might automatically pigeon-hole him into a bench-bat/utlity role, though there’s certainly the chance he shows out well enough to earn more of a look if others falter in front of him.
Anytime a player is acquired with no more than ‘cash’ heading the other way, it’s a pretty clear sign that it’s a depth move and depth move only. That’s how the Reds came upon IF/OF Nick Solak back in November, and while he brings 865 PA of big league experience to the table with some experience at 3B, he’s only logged 11 G there - the rest of his work coming at 2B and across the OF. He’s on the depth chart here, but I do not expect him to factor into the equation barring catastrophe. In a somewhat similar vein, Matt Reynolds is around again on a non-roster invite, but after having been outrighted off the 40-man roster this winter, it’s pretty clear he’s been bumped down the ranks accordingly.
The lone true wild card scenario as camp in Goodyear looms is one we touched on only briefly before - the team’s bevy of uber-talented infield prospects at this juncture of the rebuild. Elly De La Cruz leads that list with Noelvi Marte close behind him, while Edwin Arroyo and Victor Acosta sit still a few years down the road. Despite their rising profiles, it would seem highly improbable that the Reds would choose to rush Elly or Noelvi to the bigs early in 2023, but another of their future options at SS could well be the kind of prospect who could break through. That’s Matt McLain, the team’s 1st round pick from 2021 who was chosen as a polished college bat out of UCLA who was supposed to be the kind of guy who moved through the minors quickly. While his average scuffled a bit at AA Chattanooga last year, that came with a modified approach that saw him greatly increase his walk rate and power, and with so many talented players close behind him, there’s some bit of wonder whether the Reds might use 2023 to give him his chance to show what he’s got before others rise to muddy the waters around him.
(The lost 2020 season obviously factors into this loose comp, but consider this: Jonathan India’s final MiLB work before he broke camp as a big-leaguer on Opening Day 2021 came in the form of a .792 OPS with AA Chattanooga at age 22. McLain just posted an .816 OPS with AA Chattanooga at age 22 last season.)
I’d wager that the most likely scenario we’ll see play out will result in an Opening Day lineup that features Barrero at SS, Steer at 3B, and both Lopez and Newman in utility IF roles. Performance could very well alter that, of course, but injuries elsewhere could throw it into flux, too. There’s no guarantee that Joey Votto is recovered enough from his offseason surgery to man 1B come game one, while Nick Senzel in CF is still recovering from his surgery, too. Might the Reds choose to use Barrero in CF again? Could Steer shift across the diamond to get reps at 1B until Votto returns? Could the big pop of prospect Christian Encarnacion-Strand see him skip AAA and seize a role? Maybe Elly goes full-on Kris Bryant and mashes his way into the discussion sooner than anyone expected!
With just over two weeks until all parties descend upon Goodyear, the left side of the Reds infield remains in-focus as an unsettled aspect of this evolving roster. There are some promising options there, but it just might take some Cactus League mashing to sort out how the team will align them come Opening Day.