Matt McLain is a shortstop. He’s the shortstop right now. Elly De La Cruz is a shortstop, too, and he’s going to be here with the Cincinnati Reds any minute. The most natural landing spot for whichever one ends up deemed shortstop 1A is its mirror image on the diamond at second base, as the two dovetail in their necessities.
Jonathan India, the best hitter on the team, plays second base. That’s effectively the premise behind yesterday’s piece from The Athletic as spelled out by Ken Rosenthal and C. Trent Rosecrans.
A read of the article gets past the tagline in the tweet, to its credit, and certainly acknowledges that India is and will likely remain a key cog in what the Reds are trying to do within this rebuild. The premise, however, is one that’s rooted in at least one key fact: the early returns and odds-are that a defensive alignment within the middle-infield featuring McLain and De La Cruz will likely be more formidable than one featuring India still at second.
Defense is important, obviously, and it’s a priority for these rebuilding Reds - especially when you factor in how vital it is for their pitching staff to keep the ball on the ground in their homer-happy home in Great American Ball Park. That said, it’s hard not to take a gander at the team defense rankings over at FanGraphs and notice that the Baltimore Orioles, Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Minnesota Twins - three division leaders and an Orioles club that’s 14 games over .500 - rank among the six worst in the game.
There is certainly set to be a logjam in the near-term in regards to the Cincinnati Reds infield. Spencer Steer has already been shoehorned into the regular 1B - a spot where he ranks as the second worst defender in all of baseball, per Statcast Outs Above Average - and we haven’t even made it to the discussion of where Christian Encarnacion-Strand fits in once he’s promoted. Joey Votto will be back for at least a portion of this season, too, while Noelvi Marte is hitting his way into the conversation precisely as rapidly as we all hoped, too.
Hell, Nick Senzel is even hitting a bit now that he’s spending more time at his natural spot at third. That’s certainly a jam-packed infield!
The long-term situation is one that will need to be addressed, certainly. That scenario will see Votto long gone, and it will also see Senzel inching both closer to free agency and up the arbitration pay-scale. A move down the road to either trade some of these pieces for pitching or recreate a new outfield from within could make some sense, but the sole reason we’re even broaching the topic now is that the Reds, despite all their 2023 foibles, sit within earshot of 1st place in the dismal National League Central with all these built-in reinforcements on the way.
How they choose to address the logjam and India’s long-term position down the road does not necessarily have to be the same way they address it right now. And right now, he’s the piece that has worked the best to get the Reds even into this still very far-fetched discussion. He’s the best hitter and, likely, the best position player on a team that has stumbled into potential relevance, and shaking him (and the rest of the roster) up to get a jump on 2024 and beyond just seems silly, to me.
What’s sillier is that the Reds are still operating with a hamstrung roster based on the decision to accommodate Tyler Stephenson’s injury history. They’ve carried three catchers all year to reduce his workload behind the plate and keep him in the lineup elsewhere more often, with starts as the DH becoming the norm when not getting starts at 1B. Thing is, he’s barel hit enough to warrant more PA than a catcher getting 60% of his team’s starts, his 80 OPS+ overall and .312 slugging percentage in GABP hardly the kind of bat you regularly want to see in the middle of the order every day. From both an active-roster crunch perspective and a regular lineup perspective, it sure seems like altering his role is actually the quicker way to help solve some of logjam than doing anything with India.
In a magical world where Votto gets activated in the same stroke as call-ups of both Elly and CES, a trio of roster spots would be needed. The quickest and cleanest way to make that a possibility with short-term and long-term ramifications minimized would be to cut, trade, or shut in a locker each of Kevin Newman, Wil Myers, and Luke Maile, even though that would require the Reds eating some money.
In that scenario, it would be Stephenson losing time as both DH and 1B, instead returning to a role where he catches a little bit more often than Curt Casali (at least until his bat begins to show back up again). The regular DH PA would get doled out to CES, while Votto would pick up where he left off as the regular 1B (at least against RHP). Steer, meanwhile, would be the one who’d have to move a bit, though playing all over the field is something he’s long grown accustomed to, first as a member of the Minnesota Twins and also with AAA Louisville. For now, he’d pick up most of the PA voided by Myers as a regular corner outfielder, returning to 1B in righty-stacked lineups against LHP.
De La Cruz, meanwhile, would play third base regularly, mixing in at shortstop with McLain as needed. It’s something they did with Louisville this season, and 3B is a spot where Elly spent time in the Dominican Winter League, too. Doing so to get the best bats in the Reds lineup this year wouldn’t necessarily mean that’s how things evolved for the long term, either, and I’ll cite (as I’ve done for years) Trea Turner playing centerfield for the Washington Nationals as a rookie before moving back to short as an example of a team getting the best out of its overall roster in the short-term even if it seems awkward for a time.
This offseason, you revisit everything. Does Votto retire, or did he just hit 45 homers in 90 games and deserve having his option picked up? Did Stephenson rediscover some power? Did Steer keep hitting his way to the Rookie of the Year award? Did Noelvi mash his way to the cusp of the big league?
For now, though, you ride with what got you into the relevant discussion, and that’s with Jonathan India playing second base everyday and knocking the snot out of baseballs all summer long.