David Bell Has a Problem Any Manager Would Love to Solve

Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

The Reds have had many problems over their long and convoluted history, but few so wonderful as this: They have more good infielders than they can use. And not just good, but young, and mostly on pre-arbitration deals. The oldest and most expensive, Jeimer Candelario, they’ve just signed to a three-year, $45 million contract. He’s only 30, and coming off a season in which he posted a 117 wRC+.

The other six guys include a recent rookie of the year, Jonathan India, and five talented youngsters age 26 or younger: Spencer Steer, Elly De La Cruz, Matt McLain, Christian Encarnacion-Strand, and Noelvi Marte. Steer had a cameo at the end of 2022, but the other four got their first taste of major league action last year and performed somewhere between competently and superbly.

Here’s the sum total, with each player’s stats from last season:

The Infield Logjam
Player Age Position PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ WAR
Matt McLain 24 2B/SS 403 .290 .357 .507 128 3.2
Jeimer Candelario 30 3B/1B 576 .251 .336 .471 117 3.3
Jonathan India 27 2B 529 .244 .338 .407 99 1.2
Elly De La Cruz 22 SS/3B 427 .235 .300 .410 84 1.7
Noelvi Marte 22 3B 123 .316 .366 .456 120 0.7
Christian Encarnacion-Strand 24 1B/3B 241 .270 .328 .477 112 0.5
Spencer Steer 26 3B/1B/OF 665 .271 .356 .464 118 2.1

Reds manager David Bell addressed the media on Tuesday, and sure enough the topic of this glut of young talent came up. How he works this problem through will be the most interesting part of the Reds’ season — perhaps the most interesting storyline in the entire NL Central.

Bell is entering his sixth season as Reds manager, and in that time he’s never finished more than four games over .500 with a series of mostly underfunded rosters. He’s made the playoffs only once, in 2020; that year, the Reds were the no. 7 seed in the only season in baseball history in which that would’ve been good enough for a playoff berth. Once there, they got swept by the Braves in the first round, and didn’t even manage to score a run in the process.

But last season, buoyed largely by this same exciting crop of infielders, the Reds were in the playoff race well into late September. With no obvious runaway favorite for the division title, Cincinnati enters the season with more serious playoff aspirations than in any year of Bell’s tenure to this point.

If not for the pressure to win now, Bell could privilege his younger, higher-upside infielders in the battle for playing time, with no fear of negative repercussions. Arguably, that’s what he did with De La Cruz last season, even tough the gigantic shortstop tired and struggled down the stretch.

Now, Bell has to balance playing time for seven players who need to fit into six spots in the lineup. And he needs to do it while maximizing his odds of winning each game, while at the same time not compromising the development of his young players, especially De La Cruz, who will need to work through their struggles in order to reach their ultimate ceilings.

It’ll be a tricky balance to strike, unless one of four things happens. In increasing order of likelihood:

1. The Reds lobby MLB to change the rules to place a fourth base on the infield between now and Opening Day, opening a spot in the lineup.

2. The Reds’ R&D department’s years of research into subquantum kinetics and temporal mechanics finally bear fruit in the form of a working time machine, which Bell uses to travel back to 2018 and convince India to learn how to play catcher.

3. One of the players involved gets traded. God knows the Reds tried to move India, but now that he’s been signed to a two-year contract extension, it seems that ship is at least in the process of sailing.

4. Someone gets hurt or stops hitting. It’d make the Reds worse, but it’d make filling out the lineup card easier. Marte is already recovering from an offseason hamstring injury, but I’d be astonished if he isn’t ready to go Opening Day.

There is good news. Everyone in the Reds’ infield rotation can play multiple positions, and there are multiple players who can cover every infield position. The Reds also don’t have an entrenched, incumbent designated hitter or a regular left fielder from outside this crop of players. And by spreading seven players across six positions — the four infield spots, DH, and left field — the Reds can give everyone a starter’s playing time. Last season, Cincinnati allocated a total of 4,134 plate appearances to those six positions. Split seven ways, that’s 590 PA and change.

So how do those plate appearances get divided up?

Let’s start with what Bell and president of baseball ops Nick Krall actually said. De La Cruz will be the everyday shortstop, which is logical. Last year, he was the worst hitter of these seven players statistically, but given that De La Cruz also posted a maximum exit velocity of 119.2 mph, the hope is that he doesn’t stay that way for long. Even if he does remain a mid-80s wRC+ hitter, De La Cruz has the tools — excellent range and one of the best throwing arms in the sport at any position — to carry that level of offense and still be an average-or-better shortstop.

The Reds should give De La Cruz all the playing time he can handle, because he’s the best defender at the hardest position, and would benefit most from reps. McLain will start at second and spell De La Cruz at short; he was the team’s best all-around infielder last year, and has earned a starter’s playing time.

Steer, who played 45 games in the outfield in 2023, will play in the outfield corners. And roping him in (I’m sorry, I couldn’t help it) with this group will open up an additional spot in the lineup. Steer played more games at first base than anywhere else in 2023, and is also capable of playing at second and third, though I doubt he’d be needed much there.

The one drawback to using this group to fill in left field: Encarnacion-Strand has played 10 innings in the outfield in his professional career. Apart from Steer, that’s the totality of this group’s professional outfield experience. But in general, anyone who can play second or third can probably hack it in left, and both Encarnacion-Strand and India are going to get some outfield reps in spring training.

India has actually never played anywhere but second base in the major leagues, which surprised me, but he played a ton of third base in college and filled in at shortstop from time to time in the minors. If he can develop into a legitimate utilityman, capable of playing second base and the four corners, he’ll find his way into plenty of games.

There are two further considerations, which weren’t reported as part of Krall and Bell’s comments on Tuesday: Candelario is going to play every day. Nobody signs a $15 million-a-year, multi-year contract to be part of a platoon, particularly not with a team that doesn’t give out many $15 million-a-year contracts to begin with. And Marte should get preferential treatment in terms of playing time. Just as with De La Cruz, younger, inexperienced players need to play consistently in order to develop.

So based on those considerations, here’s how the Reds ought to line up. This is basically the working assumption on our depth charts at RosterResource as well:

Reds Basic Preliminary Depth Chart
Position Starter Backups
1B Candelario Encarnacion-Strand Steer India
2B McLain India Steer
3B Marte Candelario India Steer
SS De La Cruz McLain
LF Steer India Encarnacion-Strand
DH India Candelario Encarnacion-Strand Steer

The challenge for Bell, then, will be picking the spots to insert Encarnacion-Strand and India into the lineup. Let’s look at how everyone stacks up in terms of platoon advantage:

Reds Infielders Platoon Splits, 2023
De La Cruz B 122 4.1 40.2 .184 .231 .263
McLain R 101 7.9 20.8 .326 .386 .609
Candelario B 161 9.3 22.4 .254 .342 .451
India R 134 11.2 26.9 .207 .306 .336
Steer R 180 9.4 18.3 .313 .378 .550
Marte* R 142 11.3 15.5 .303 .387 .393
Encarnacion-Strand R 60 10.0 25.0 .259 .333 .352
De La Cruz B 305 9.8 31.1 .255 .328 .471
McLain R 302 7.6 31.1 .278 .348 .473
Candelario B 415 9.2 21.9 .251 .333 .479
India R 395 9.4 18.5 .257 .349 .432
Steer R 485 10.5 21.9 .256 .348 .431
Marte* R 380 9.2 19.2 .282 .350 .477
Encarnacion-Strand R 181 4.4 29.8 .274 .326 .518
*Includes minor league numbers

I’ve included Marte’s minor league numbers not because I think his experience at Double-A is comparable to the other players’ major league competition, but because he only played 35 games in the majors and it’s hard to tell anything about a player’s tendencies in that small a sample.

Here’s what we can tell: Candelario is basically the same from both sides of the plate, while De La Cruz as pretty good against righties but hit like a pitcher against lefties. Again, the Reds shouldn’t hide him or platoon him, because they need him to develop, but maybe Bell could go out of his way to rest De La Cruz against tough left-handed opponents.

Among the right-handed hitters, Steer and McLain both had substantial platoon splits in 2023 but hit righties well enough to start. Encarnacion-Strand and India both had reverse platoon splits in the majors in 2023, which would be convenient considering the Reds don’t have any strictly left-handed-hitting infielders. Zooming out to a multi-year sample, India’s reverse split persists — for his career, he has a 99 wRC+ against lefties but 110 against righties. But if Encarnacion-Strand gets to count his minor league numbers, like Marte did, his platoon split basically zeroes out.

So if De La Cruz sits when someone like Max Fried or Blake Snell comes to town, maybe Encarnacion-Strand gets into the lineup at DH or a corner, with everyone else sliding down the defensive spectrum and McLain ending up at shortstop.

The other situational consideration to monitor is offense versus defense. We know that De La Cruz is the team’s best defensive shortstop. We know that if De La Cruz is at short, McLain is the best defensive second baseman. To be honest, he might be the best second baseman anyway, because putting De La Cruz’s arm that close to first base might be legitimately dangerous.

Beyond that, it’s a bit of a crapshoot. Marte and Encarnacion-Strand are inexperienced at the major league level, and India is inexperienced at first base and in left field. Candelario has traditionally been an average defender at both corners. He’s had a couple above-average seasons in his youth, and is better at third than first, though that might change with age and experience.

The only relative judgment I feel comfortable making, apart from De La Cruz and McLain, is that Steer is a horrendous defender anywhere you put him. Here are his defensive numbers from his season-and-change in the majors:

Please Hide Spencer Steer’s Glove
Position Innings OAA RAA
1B 572 -6 -4
2B 160 -1 -1
3B 458 -7 -6
LF 311 -4 -3

I don’t think you can actually learn that much by watching spring training games generally, but anyone who’s interested in the Reds’ long-term success should be glued to the TV whenever India is in the outfield. He’s graded out as a pretty poor defender at second base in his major league tenure, but if he shows any kind of aptitude in left field — enough to force Steer into more of a full-time DH role — that’d clarify Cincinnati’s logjam pretty quickly.

Balancing short- and long-term team goals while keeping all seven players happy is going to take some doing, but that’s why Bell gets paid the big bucks. Besides, there are at least a dozen other managers across the league who would love to have a chance to solve a problem like this. I’m sure he’ll figure it out.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Jason Linden
2 months ago

As someone who follows the Reds very closely, this is a good piece that mostly gets things right. I do think there are two issues, though:

I have not seen anyone anywhere from within the Reds say that India is going to play 3rd. My understanding is that he doesn’t have the arm for it. They tried to fix him in the minors and he couldn’t make the adjustment to be an MLB 3B. If there is a day when neither of the first two options are available, I’d be shocked if the third option wasn’t EDLC with McLain sliding over to short for the day.

Additionally, I think any confidence about what kind of defender Steer is has little merit. He played four different positions last year, as a rookie. Two of which he hadn’t really played before. The sample size just isn’t there. And the scouting I saw from his time in the minors didn’t characterize him as a disastrous defender. It will be interesting to see if he improves with a regular position.