Cole, Strider highlight top 10 fantasy starters
D.J. Short and Eric Samulski reveal their top 10 fantasy baseball starting pitchers for 2024 and discuss the order in which they should be ranked.
2023 record: 82-80 (.506)
Third Place, NL Central
Team ERA: 4.83 ERA (25th)
Team OPS: .747 OPS (10th)
What Went Right
The Reds found themselves on the precipice of making the postseason for the second time in the last decade before a late-season collapse left them on the outside of the playoff picture heading into the final home stretch of the year. Cincinnati’s young nucleus of top prospects – which includes Elly De La Cruz, Matt McLain, Spencer Steer, Christian Encarnacion-Strand, Noelvi Marte, Brandon Williamson, Andrew Abbott and Connor Phillips – finally arrived in the big leagues this season and were the driving force behind the organization’s return to relevance in the NL Central. While De La Cruz, McLain, Steer, Encarnacion-Strand and Marte had their respective ups and downs in their debut seasons, this group collectively showed enough potential to believe they’ll be potential everyday options for the Reds’ lineup moving forward.
With the wave of elite prospects forming the backbone of Cincinnati's offensive core, veterans like TJ Friedl, Jonathan India and Tyler Stephenson fit well this season as complementary components. If some of the Reds' young hitters reach their potential, this lineup has a chance to be one of the best on the senior circuit in short order. There are some questions on the pitching side of the ledger, which we'll address momentarily, but Williamson and Abbott looked like legitimate mid-rotation stabilizers in their first exposure to the big leagues.
What Went Wrong
There were enough cracks in the foundation of Cincinnati’s pitching mix that mid-season injuries to front-line starters Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo were enough to ostensibly bring down the house as the Reds’ depth crumbled in the second half. Break glass in case of emergency stopgap solutions like Luke Weaver and Ben Lively struggled to plug holes in the starting rotation, hard-throwing righty Graham Ashcraft took a step backwards this season, and Cincinnati's bullpen was largely ineffective outside of closer Alexis Díaz, who finished with a career-high 37 saves. Assuming that Greene and Lodolo are capable of spearheading a starting rotation, which will also include Williamson and Abbott, there's enough talent to believe that this can be a playoff-caliber pitching staff, but the Reds' front office needs to do a better job of fortifying the edges of the roster, especially when it comes to starting pitching depth and experienced relief depth. It’s way too early to draw any definitive conclusions, but it feels like the Reds are going to face some tough decisions with their young offensive core in the near future. There might not be enough at-bats for everyone in the future, which might lead to a trade to fortify the organization’s questionable pitching situation.
** Elly De La Cruz nearly broke Statcast and looked like a potential generational superstar when he finally arrived in the majors back in early June. The 21-year-old top prospect flashed stratospheric raw power, in addition to game-changing speed on the bases, as he literally took the baseball world by storm heading into the All-Star break, batting .325 (41-for-126) with four homers and 16 stolen bases through the first 30 games of his career. Unfortunately, his omnipresent contact issues became a colossal issue following the Midsummer Classic as he struck out a staggering 105 times in 292 plate appearances over 68 games in the second half. Striking out nearly 40 percent of the time led to a calamitous .191/.271/.355 triple-slash line with just nine homers and 19 steals during that span. The stratospheric over-the-fence pop and stolen base prowess offer a realistic 25-homer, 50-steal threshold, even if he continues to strike out at his current clip.
** Spencer Steer blossomed from unheralded prospect to legitimate big-league regular this season, finishing with a stellar .271/.356/.464 triple-slash line with 74 runs scored, 23 homers, 86 RBI and 15 stolen bases across 665 plate appearances in 156 games. With veteran Joey Votto's $20 million club option appearing unlikely to be picked up, he projects as the Reds' everyday first baseman moving forward. The versatile 25-year-old slugger has exceeded expectations so far, but his power/speed combo will make him a borderline top-12 option at first base in fantasy drafts next spring. Stolen bases are becoming more prevalent in the game, but finding a first baseman that can pop 20 homers, and also notch double-digit steals, outside of the elite options at the position is rare.
** Alexis Díaz established himself as one of the premier closers in baseball this season, converting a career-high 37 saves to go along with a strong 3.07 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 86/36 K/BB ratio across 67 1/3 innings (71 appearances). The hard-throwing 27-year-old right-hander has zero competition for saves in Cincinnati moving forward and will be a borderline top-five closer in fantasy drafts next spring.
** Matt McLain ascended to the big leagues in mid-May and wasted zero time cementing his status as one of the more exciting young hitters in the game, posting a robust .290/.357/.507 triple-slash line with 65 runs scored, 16 homers, 50 RBI and 14 stolen bases across 403 plate appearances over 89 games before a late-August oblique injury ended his season prematurely. The 24-year-old former first-round pick is expected to be fully healthy heading into spring training and projects as an upper-echelon five-category fantasy contributor for years to come. There's legitimate 30-homer, 30-steal potential lurking here, which should make McLain a top-five option at second base, and a borderline top-50 overall selection next spring in fantasy drafts.
** If the Reds are going to make it back to the postseason, it’s going to come down to whether Hunter Greene reaches his lofty ceiling. Greene possesses some of the most electric stuff in baseball, but hasn't quite put it all together just yet. The hard-throwing 24-year-old righty has shown flashes of brilliance, and boasts a stratospheric strikeout rate, but he'll need to reign in his control issues, and also do a better job of limiting hard contact, if he's going to make the leap to superstardom. He's talented enough to make it happen, but it hasn't happened yet. He was limited to just 22 starts this season due to injury and was underwhelming from a run-prevention standpoint for the second consecutive campaign. It feels like only a matter of time before he makes the leap.
** Nick Lodolo was limited to just seven starts this season due to left calf tendinosis and a stress reaction in his left tibia that he suffered during his rehabilitation process. Barring any unexpected setbacks, the 25-year-old southpaw is expected to be fully healthy and ready to pitch in spring training. He showed during an extremely impressive rookie campaign back in 2022 that he could be an upper-echelon starting pitcher for fantasy managers, but it's going to be difficult to bank on that following an injury-marred season. He’s a decent late-round lottery ticket for fantasy managers at this juncture.
Key Free Agents
The central question for the Reds revolves around whether potential once-in-a-generation caliber talents like Elly De La Cruz and Hunter Greene put it all together and lead the franchise to postseason success. They’ve managed to assemble one of the most exciting young groups in recent memory, but it certainly feels like their ultimate success hinges on whether someone like De La Cruz becomes a true game-changing performer in the biggest moments. Beefing up the supporting cast and bolstering their pitching depth need to be the primary concerns for Cincinnati heading into the offseason. There are enough quality arms on the free agent market to envision the Reds picking up a quality veteran innings-eater in addition to several veteran relievers to bridge the gap to Alexis Díaz. This is unquestionably one of the most exciting teams in baseball, but their range of outcomes is wider than the Mariana Trench at the moment.