The upstart 2023 Cincinnati Reds won 82 games and stretched their thin playoff hopes all the way to the final weekend of the season. They leaned on a gaggle of rookies - most all of whom shined at least a little, all of whom are back again for 2024.
They signed Frankie Montas, once a burgeoning top of the rotation caliber arm.
They bolstered their bullpen with proven arms like Nick Martinez, Emilio Pagan, and Brent Suter.
They even added to their overflowing infield depth with Jeimer Candelario, thereby allowing Spencer Steer - the breakout bat of 2023 - to spend more time down the defensive pecking order in the outfield.
All that (and a bag of chips) only for Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections to peg them as the 4th best team in the National League Central as the 2024 MLB season looms. Adding insult to injury, today we saw FanGraphs give the Reds the 4th best chance of winning their division (just 12.3% chance), a pretty good way of saying we, too, think the Reds will finish 4th in their division.
Perhaps they saw that the Reds gave up a whopping 821 runs last year, that their starters’ ERA of 5.43 was the third worst among all teams, and that the only guy they added to that mix missed basically all of last year with a major shoulder injury (and surgery). They certainly saw that despite the Reds burgeoning talent on the position-player side, the club still finished having scored 38 fewer runs than they allowed - a margin similar to that of the Cleveland Guardians (-35) and their 10-games-under-.500 finish last year.
They’re banking on the idea that just because the Reds played an amalgamation of rookies last season, they aren’t all just going to be better this year because they existed last year. They’re also likely leaning into the idea that none of Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo, Graham Ashcraft, or Matt McLain has shown they can stay healthy for a full MLB season, while the veterans around them - Jake Fraley, Jonathan India, Montas, and Tyler Stephenson - have been about as routinely injured as players can get.
Projections, it should be noted, are big fans of sure things. They’re fans of the St. Louis Cardinals this year because Sonny Gray is about as sure thing as it gets, as are bounce-back seasons from the likes of Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt. The Reds, as currently constituted, are about as far from sure thing status as they can be at almost every single 26-man roster spot despite the obvious talent (and depth) that they can boast.
The Reds hope today, as it was all winter, is that one of those young talents throws the projections to the fire and simply emerges as a better player than anyone expected. Maybe two. Maybe five! That’s how they’ve kept their costs down relative to other clubs, but it’s also how they’ve kept the expectations of the masses down, too.
Maybe they’re right. They’ve got backup plans at almost every position if they aren’t, but even then, their backup plans are banking on just as much hope as the guy in front of them. For now, it sure seems as if the Reds are either heading into another season of frustrations or that Nick Krall is simply hoping - knowing? - that he’s just smarter than everyone else in the room.