Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts: Cincinnati Reds

Which Reds are worth their draft price and which should be faded?

The Reds are in full rebuilding mode after letting Nick Castellanos walk in free agency last offseason and trading away Jesse Winker, Luis Castillo, Tyler Mahle, and others over the past calendar year. Their top hitting prospects like Elly De La Cruz and Noelvi Marte are still likely a year away from being consistent contributors and the chances that the club spends money to bring in any free agent that would move the needle are slim. In all likelihood, we’re looking at another poor offensive club in a hitter’s park in 2023, limiting the value of both hitters and pitchers. There may be a good pick or two to find in here, and we’ll try to find it, but nobody could blame you for just avoiding Reds in your 2023 fantasy drafts.

One thing to note about ADPs in this article is that they’re a bit apples to oranges right now. 2022 ADPs are going to be from a mix of NFBC leagues drafted in March 2022, so primarily leagues with FAAB. Obviously, 2023 drafts for almost all NFBC leagues haven’t started yet, so I’m using data coming mainly from Draft Champions leagues which do not have FAAB. This small change in league rules tends to raise the draft price of “sure-thing” guys like established closers and top catchers and lower the price of players without a team yet or without an established role. The overall ADP will shift as we get closer to draft season when other types of leagues start drafting, so I’m including the positional ranking as well which should be a bit more stable.

 

SLEEPERS

 

Jonathan India

Key stat: 5.9, the difference between his 1st half walk rate (3.6 %) and 2nd half walk rate (9.5%)

 

India had a disappointing 2022 finishing 36th among 2B eligible players after being drafted as the 11th. There are some reasons to believe in a bounce-back season, though. He suffered a hamstring injury early in the year that caused him to miss 48 of the team’s first 59 games. Even when he came back, though, he wasn’t the same player who won the 2021 NL Rookie of the Year. His barrel rate was cut in half and his plate discipline plummeted. After posting an 11.4% walk rate in 2021, his rate was a paltry 3.6% at the All-Star break. In addition to the injury, India said he was pressing in the first half and trying too hard to hit for power with the departure of big bats like Nick Castellanos and Jesse Winker. The second half, while still tarnished by a freak injury at the Field of Dreams game that led to him getting airlifted to a hospital, represented a big turnaround. His walk rate shot back up to 9.5%, an indication that he was becoming more comfortable waiting for his pitch, and his wRC+ rose from 75 to 108, just 12 points shy of his breakout 2021 campaign. The first-half and second-half splits show a number of improvements after the All-Star Break. It wasn’t perfect, but it’s an indication that the breakout player from 2021 is still in there.

 

India’s 2nd Half Improvements
PA OPS SwStr% BB% Barrel Rate wRC+
1st half 169 .636 10.4% 3.6% 2.4% 75
2nd half 262 .751 7.6% 9.5% 6.2% 108

 

Picked around 90 overall last year (11th among 2B), it’s definitely reasonable to fade him a bit from that number given the low expectations for the Reds’ offense. However, early returns have him around 160 for 2023 (14th among 2B) and that’s low enough for me to feel comfortable betting on a bounce-back performance. This won’t be a good offense, so expectations should be tempered a bit, but India has a good chance to outperform that draft price with a solid bounce-back campaign now that he’s more comfortable in his role as the best hitter in the lineup.

 

Tejay Antone

Key stat: 101, his target for his top-end fastball velocity in his return from his second Tommy John surgery

 

We’re quickly getting into deep sleepers in Cincinnati as there aren’t too many guys to get excited about. Back when Cincinnati was a playoff team, though, one of the most exciting breakouts on the roster was Tejay Antone. In the course of three seasons, he went from a low-end starter prospect topping out at 92 mph to an electric long reliever sitting 95 to a dominant late-inning reliever sitting 97. He was one of several young Reds pitchers to benefit greatly from the hiring of Driveline’s Kyle Boddy as minor league pitching coordinator and, despite Boddy’s departure from the organization after the 2021 season, Antone has kept the lessons he learned from Driveline and continues to apply them. The questions now turn to his recovery and his role when he does return.

Antone had his second career Tommy John surgery in August 2021, so he should be ready to compete in Spring Training as a reliever. The Reds bullpen has been wide open the past two years and, despite the presence of Alexis Diaz, who will be covered later, I don’t see the path to saves as closed. I see Antone being used as a multi-inning closer similar to what the Red Sox have been doing with Garrett Whitlock which means his main value will be coming from strikeouts and ratios with only a handful of saves. I mainly see this as an opportunity to take a cheap dark horse in a bullpen that has shown itself to be unpredictable. Don’t draft him as an RP2 expecting saves out of the gate, but rather take him as a depth arm and see where his velocity is in Spring Training. If he hits 101, watch out.

 

Jake Fraley

Key stat: 134, his wRC+ against righties in 2022, 17th among OF with at least 200 PAs

 

I’m not very excited about this one, but the Reds are full of platoons and unintriguing players and figuring out where middling players are effective and where they aren’t can provide that small edge you need. Some people would consider exciting prospects like Elly De La Cruz or Noelvi Marte here, but they still look to be a year away from being consistent contributors in the majors. This is the year they’re going to be giving Fraley a full look and deciding if they’re going to continue to take him with them through their rebuild. He’s likely looking at a platoon with Stuart Fairchild to start the year, but he can still be valuable despite that because he’s a guy on the strong side of a platoon who plays in the Great American Ballpark and mashes righties.

Jake Fraley isn’t a name that many will say won them their league last year, but his second-half OPS of .903 was 9th among OFs with at least 100 PAs. That stat alone makes him sound like a guy who could be a major breakout candidate, but that level of breakout wasn’t supported by jumps in barrel rate or hard-hit percentage, so I’m tempering expectations a bit. This will be a bad offense and Fraley has some pretty major splits and won’t see much time against lefties. At the very least, if you have a bench, keep him and only play him in weeks where he gets six or more games against righties or has four or five righties at home. Maybe he mashes enough to make it worth it or, just maybe, he breaks through his platoon a bit. I think the most likely scenario is that he’s a situational player on most fantasy rosters, but his splits are pretty easy to predict and plan for, and that allows him to retain some value.

 

BUSTS

 

Hunter Greene

Key Stat: 98.9, his average fastball velocity in 2022

 

Greene is going to be a hot commodity and for good reason. Look at his September 17th start @ STL. He had just missed six weeks with a shoulder injury and had faded down the stretch in 2021. He was a young pitcher on a pitch count and in the home park of a pretty decent offense. He proceeds to average 101 mph on his fastball. AVERAGE 101!!! And strike out eleven across six scoreless innings on 81 pitches. No other pitcher in the league can do that and it represents the top-end potential that has a lot of guys around baseball really excited about him. Why is he on my bust list despite this potential? Consistency. Greene has had trouble maintaining his velocity in both 2021 and 2022 and, while he is young, until he gets a full season of 160+ innings under his belt, it’s hard for me to bet on him finding a consistency that no one else in league history has ever had. Consistently averaging 99+ on his fastball. Maintaining a consistently elite fastball velocity is huge for him because, when he doesn’t have it, he seems to become a pretty hittable pitcher.

 

Greene Relies on Elite Fastball Velocity
Average FB Velo GS IP K-BB% HR/9 ERA WHIP
98.9+ 12 65.2 25 0.83 3.17 1.06
Under 98.9 12 60 18.7 2.70 5.85 1.38

 

But, you might say to me, “Eric! That 18.7 K-BB% is nothing to sneeze at either! His progression will come when he’s able to find success when sitting at 97-98. He won’t need to throw as hard to have success.” Yes, that could happen, but I think that jump for Greene is further away than people are thinking. At first glance, you might want to say that it’s mainly home run luck separating the higher velocity starts from the lower ones. That’s true to an extent. He had three starts in which he allowed three or more homers including a five-homer barrage in Milwaukee. His average FB velocities in those three starts were 98.1, 98.2, and 98.2. A couple of bad-luck homers could certainly shift the needle a disproportionate amount when we’re talking about sample sizes barely over 50 innings. But, the data was similar in the minors in 2021. He allowed seven of his eleven home runs in AAA across just two starts. His home run rate skyrockets as he moves deeper into the game and gets tired. First time through the order: 0.84 HR/9, 2nd time: 2.01 HR/9, 3rd time: 3.13 HR/9. The narrative, to me at least, makes sense too and hints at this not just being luck or having to “figure it out” at lower velocities. Hunter Greene is a two-pitch power pitcher right now. His fastball doesn’t sport elite movement or location. It’s the velocity that gets him outs. When the velocity isn’t elite, it’s a hittable pitch and batters are more than happy to take advantage of the power being supplied. The slider is a good weapon, but not good enough to be a primary option at this point. In games where he had success with the slider, it was working off of an overpowering fastball. If you split up his starts to those with over 40% slider usage and under 40% slider usage, you get a different grouping of starts from the fastball velocity grouping, but more middling, inconclusive results. The K-BB% actually favors the lower slider usage, but I don’t take that to mean he should throw his slider less, just that his fastball matters more.

In order to reach his full potential, he needs to either consistently keep his elite fastball velocity deep into the game or find another way to get outs that doesn’t rely on elite fastball velocity by taking some major leap forward with one of his pitches. Neither seems likely to me this year. Whether the answer is an improvement in fastball command, slider movement, or starting to use the changeup against righties, they all seem like longer-term projects, especially with a pitcher that has struggled with consistency up to this point in his career. I’d expect a strong start in April, but some inconsistency throughout the year along with a couple of blowup outings where he allows three or four homers. With the depth of starting pitching this year, he’s not a guy I’m targeting where he’s going right now in the mid-30s among SPs.

 

Alexis Díaz

Key Stat: 3.32, his SIERA in 2022, 75th among relievers with at least 50 IPs

 

Alexis Díaz had an excellent year and, at least in the early going, is being touted as the Reds’ closer going into 2023. I have doubts both about how firm of a hold he has on that role and how he will perform if he does have it. The Reds have not held a full-time closer for the past two seasons. Nineteen Reds relievers have earned a save since the beginning of 2021 and Alexis Diaz is the only one in double digits with ten. Their bullpen has been inconsistent and, overall, just not a good one to bet on. Diaz is a good reliever, but he’s likely not so good that he will pitch himself into a situation where the Reds are breaking trends from the past couple of years. His walk rate of nearly 13% and middling SIERA point to regression in 2023, but it’s his homer-prone fastball that worries me the most.

Beyond a likely fluid role, Diaz has a fastball that lives up in the zone without overpowering velocity. The 81st percentile of fastball velocity is good, but not great, and he pairs that with a fly ball rate of nearly 55%, fourth-highest among qualified relievers. With these types of pitches, even with a great secondary pitch and good location, homers can happen. He’s avoided them so far (among the nine qualified relievers with over a 50% flyball rate, his HR/FB ratio is the lowest), but that doesn’t mean he’ll continue to be able to avoid them. With sample sizes as small as modern-day relievers work with even over the course of a full season, a few poorly timed homers are enough to ruin an entire season of ratios. For a quick comparison, let’s take a look at the story of Alex Reyes. He’s also a fastball/slider guy with a higher-than-you’d-like walk rate whose four-seamer lives up in the zone and, who for the first half of 2021, avoided home runs like the plague. When the home runs came in the second half, they came in bunches. Three homers in August and four in September and boom, pow, closer role gone, season-long ratios ruined. Maybe there’s some reason I’m not seeing why Diaz is special, but I’m looking at a guy who lives up in the zone, relies on fly balls for outs, doesn’t have elite velocity or movement on his fastball, and pitches his home games in a top-5 hitter-friendly park. Homers will come eventually. I don’t necessarily think he’s going to be a negative for your team, he’s just not really worth it at that draft price. He’s only going as the 18th overall reliever, but that’s 149 overall right now. That overall number will likely go up as we get closer to the season and get into leagues with more traditional rules and more closing situations get locked down. However, even if he’s in the 190s, there are so many other guys I’d like to take a flier on while taking a risk on a guy like Pete Fairbanks or Rafael Montero as my RP2.

Conclusion

 

The Reds only have five players currently being drafted in the top-300 overall right now and that’s not likely to change. I have already talked about three of them and I’m not in love with Tyler Stephenson or Nick Lodolo enough to call them sleepers at their current price, but I also wouldn’t feel comfortable calling them busts. Rather than calling out some poor guy who already has a 300+ ADP as someone who clearly doesn’t even deserve that, I’m content leaving it at two busts and just saying that this is not a team to hang your hat on this year. The Reds are a team whose best prospects possibly won’t see time until 2024 and who will not spend money right now. This isn’t going to be a good offense and the pitchers will be making their home appearances in the Great American Ball Park which, if we roughly follow park factors, make them about 10% less valuable. There are some platoons that can be leveraged on this team, but those aren’t guys that you draft and build a team around. Those are situational plays that you make when the opportunity presents itself. Don’t get enamored and reach for these guys, even my sleepers. Only consider them if they fall at or below their ADP except for the busts I mentioned. There are more exciting plays out there.

 

Photos by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)

Eric Dadmun

Eric is a Core Fantasy contributor on Pitcher List and a former contributor on Hashtag Basketball. He strives to help fantasy baseball players make data-driven and logic-driven decisions. Mideast Chapter President of the Willians Astudillo Unironic Fan Club.

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