The Cincinnati Reds haven’t had a real need at first base in over a decade. Joey Votto has been the guy in Cincinnati for a long time, but while the end isn’t here yet, it’s getting close. The 2023 season is the last one that is guaranteed for Votto with the Reds, though they do hold a team option to bring him back in 2024 or they have to pay him a large final year buy out. No matter how you slice it, Cincinnati will soon be looking for a new first base option.
In the post-trade deadline Reds Top 25 Prospect list there was only one player that played mostly first base that made the list and that was Alex McGarry. But McGarry isn’t the only Top 25 guy who played at least some first base this season. Two players acquired at the trade deadline saw action at first during the season, too. Spencer Steer played 11 games at the position late in the year – including nine starts in Cincinnati at first. Since being drafted in 2021, Christian Encarnacion-Strand has played 31 games at first base, including 12 with Chattanooga after the trade deadline.
Among that group, Spencer Steer has the most defensive versatility. Cincinnati played him at shortstop a handful of times in Louisville, and he’s spent plenty of his time in the minor leagues between third base and second base, while also getting a start in right field when he was in the Twins organization. Christian Encarnacion-Strand has only played third base and first base in his career as a professional. Alex McGarry has spent 87% of his time in the minor leagues at first base (in games he played in the field). The other time has been spent in left and right field.
The good news here is that there are options that not only have shown they can hit in Double-A or Triple-A and can play first base, but they all have also shown that they can play other spots on the field, too.
Alex McGarry had a real breakout season in 2022. Much of that breakout came in the form of big time power as he hit 27 home runs and slugged .543 in his time between High-A Dayton, Double-A Chattanooga, and Triple-A Louisville (only 8 games here). McGarry also stole 15 bases in 19 tries. In all, he hit .264/.316/.543 on the year, finishing second in the farm system with an .860 OPS (among full-season, qualified hitters). The power is real. But there are some concerns about his low walk rate (6.2%) combined with his high strikeout rate (30.3%) and just how that will play out against more advanced pitching if one or both of the rates don’t improve.
Spencer Steer played in Double-A Wichita for 35 games before being promoted to Triple-A St. Paul when he was in the Twins organization. After the trade deadline he was sent to join Triple-A Louisville. Steer crushed the ball in Double-A, slugging .591. But his power did drop off at both Triple-A stops, though it was still solid as he slugged .479. Between his three minor league stops in 2022 he hit .274/.364/.515 with 23 home runs, 30 doubles, 51 walks, and 89 strikeouts. Steer also saw action in the big leagues late in the season with Cincinnati. He played in 28 games and hit .211/.306/.326 with 11 walks and 26 strikeouts. Small sample size, but his walk and strikeout rates were fine, but he simply didn’t hit for any power and his BABIP was lower than one would expect.
Christian Encarnacion-Strand had the best offensive season of the three. He began his season in Cedar Rapids, the Twins High-A affiliate, before being moved up to Double-A Wichita in the second half. Once he was traded the Reds sent him to join Double-A Chattanooga. Between his three stops he hit .304/.368/.587 with 31 doubles, 32 home runs, and 114 runs batted in. During his professional career he’s struggled defensively at third base, but he really turned a corner this year in mid-June and almost overnight his errors stopped.
Beyond those three guys, and only one of them actually played a lot of first base, there’s really only one other guy who played first base in the minors in 2022 that showed something worth talking about.
Ruben Ibarra missed much of the second half of the season, playing his final game on July 23rd after a wild throw took him into the baseline and the runner collided with his arm and Ibarra suffered a thumb injury. He began the year in Daytona and struggled over the first three weeks of the season. But in the 48 games that followed he hit .284/.378/.548 in his time spent with the Tortugas and after a promotion with High-A Dayton. He’s got big time power potential, and unlike the others we talked of above, Ibarra’s limited to first base.
Cincinnati has several options at first base in the minor leagues who are good or better prospects at this point. Not all of them are “first base only” prospects, either, which gives the team plenty of flexibility and also time if they need it.
This is probably the only position where I’m going to give some leeway on “guys don’t really play this position, but could”. Due to that, we’re including guys like Spencer Steer and Christian Encarnacion-Strand here even though they haven’t played a ton at the spot and it may not be the most ideal position for them down the line since they can play at a spot with more defensive value.
We’re going to give this position a B+. Spencer Steer is a top 100 prospect. Christian Encarnacion-Strand might be when the offseason lists are all released. Then you’ve got Alex McGarry who crushed 27 home runs this year, and Ruben Ibarra who showed good peripherals and then strong stats after the first few weeks of his 2022 season, too. There’s both depth and upside at the position, and much of that has already performed very well in Double-A.
First Basemen Stats
You can see all of the State of the Farm series here.
Good write up Doug,,, I am not sure how good Votto can be this year after surgery,,so the time might be now for one of these guys
How about Stephenson before he gets banged up, if DumBell is so intent on Votto, let him DH. Get a catcher via free agency.
Oh yeah, just “go get a catcher”, since that worked so well for them last year (groan). Must be that easy huh?
Cincinnati’s 2024 option for Votto is 20 Million with a 7 million buyout. Votto only has to be worth 13 million to be worth bringing back. If he rebounds this season and can stay healthy, I believe the Reds will pick it up. I see Encarnacion-Strand as the future at 1B
It doesn’t sound like you are taking into consideration the Reds are aligning their payroll to their resources. I love Votto but I don’t see the Reds spending 20 mil on a player who hasn’t had an all star season in years and is approaching the wrong side of 40.
Think you might get an indication of intention by management. If there is a Votto Day scheduled near the end of the season, then that is typically a farewell move. Can’t imagine they wouldn’t take that opportunity to sell a few extra tickets that this would promote.
He only has to be worth 13 million. He gets 7 million either way. I’m not saying I think we should pick up the option. Unless Votto has a very good season next year, I wouldn’t. I’m saying if he has a good, healthy season, I think the Reds will.
Nice breakdown Doug. I really enjoy when you lay out some of our options.
Great article Doug! I may be alone on this but I really believe Stephenson should be moved from behind the dish to 1B. His bat is to valuable and we need him on the field.
Given we have an F grade for catchers, moving Stephenson would not be a good idea for a while….unless they signed a good free agent.
Listening to a Jim Day Podcast Tyler says he has no intention of moving to first in the near future.
You are certainly not alone in this idea. Unfortunately, players can get hurt at any position. J.T. Realmuto made 130 starts at Catcher in his age 31 season, posting a 6.5 bWAR total. The Phillies likely don’t make the playoffs if Realmuto isn’t their starting catcher, as moving him would have displaced another productive bat.
Despite some sound reasons to the contrary, I agree that Stephenson sharing catching duties with another top-level catcher is good for everyone. Both Sean Murphy (A’s) and Danny Jansen (Blue Jays) could be available for trade. Wilson Contreras (probably too expensive), Omar Narvaez, Christian Vazquez and Gary Sanchez are all available in the FA market.
With a second strong catcher the Reds would be able to alternate Votto, India, and Stephenson in DH duties keeping players fresh and making use of matchups, while allowing opportunities to allow Stephenson and Steer to play 1B on occasion.
Was offense in the high minors up this year? At least anecdotally it seemed so. If yes, it makes me question whether these ‘breakout’ guys are legit…..but that said, Strand would get a long leash from me.
In the Southern League, which is the relevant one for CES and McGarry (mostly), offense was up approximately 1/2 a run per game with a league wide OPS of .752 versus .714.
As a team, Chattanooga was about league-average offensively this year. But that had a lot of variance in it. They had a few really good hitters, a few who were above average, and then a lot of ABs by guys who should have been a step lower in the organization. They also had some guys (cough, Cerda) who put up deceptively good numbers while taking hitting approaches that have little chance of succeeding at higher levels.
McGarry and CES were two of the best hitters there this year. They’re very different, though.
McGarry won’t have much value if the ball doesn’t consistently go over the fence. I never actually saw him play outfield (Chattanooga had an OF jam while he was here), but he’s got the legs for it: he nearly had an inside-the-parker in Rocket City on a ball the CF didn’t particularly misplay. Defense is fine at 1B.
I’ve got some concerns about the bat, though. Swing gets loopy at times and he seems to have two distinct vulnerabilities in it, both related to him not seeming to have the wrist/forearm strength and quickness that I’d prefer to see. He’s a hard worker though and he’s improved vastly, and he may continue to do so. But he’s also ~18 months older than CES, who I think is already a better hitter in almost every respect.
CES is a hitting machine. He doesn’t have a ton of power (yet) but he’s only 22 – which is a potentially alarming thing to say about a dude who hit 32 homers across 3 teams this year. His approach is mature, disciplined, and he does not appear to struggle with any pitch type in particular or any location in particular. If you had to put any hitter in the Reds’ minor league system in at DH in a game against the aliens tomorrow for the survival of the species, it’s probably him over De La Cruz, simply because De La Cruz still has some holes (and especially if the aliens throw a lefty). The dude can hit.
CES also may be – but is not a certainty to be – able to play 3B. The hands are there, I think the arm is okay, and he moves well for a guy his size. But he is listed at 6’0″ 220ish, which looks about right. And a dude who’s that thick at 22 is often going to be 235 by the time he’s 28, which is not usually a recipe for playing 3B long term. (Nor is it a guarantee 3B will even be open given the current glut of near-ready IFs in AA through young MLBers.) But I would be really surprised if CES couldn’t hit enough to be a serviceable MLB 1B. For what it’s worth, he’s also a really nice guy.
Thanks! Agree on CES—seems he can hit all pitch types in all locations. Low key think the Mahle trade will yield more future WAR than the Castillo trade.
Nicholas Northcutt, acquired as the PTBNL in the Tommy Pham trade, is another 1B option. Although most of his time came at 3B, he made 30 starts at 1B, culminating at AA in the Red Sox organization.
I don’t know where my breakdown fell apart but for some reason my spreadsheet didn’t have him with any games at first base.
Honestly, though, not sure it changes much. He’s got real power, but a .276 on-base percentage isn’t moving the needle for me. I’ll talk more about him when I get to the third basemen options.
McGarry, Ibarra and Triana are physically the most conventional as far as major league first basemen go. Steer not being 6′ is a little short and Encarnacion Strand is just 6′.
I’m with you on body type. I believe it’s important to have a tall Left handed 1B, and McGarry fits that bill with a bit of speed, that I wasn’t aware of. CES seems like a DH as far as I can tell, and Steer can play all over which means he’ll probably play all over as a utility.
It would seem about time for McGarry to make his move to the majors if he’s going to. Votto isn’t going to be around forever and may not bounce back from surgery. The Reds need to start making serious moves to shore up the position. Kind of like the catcher case. Hopefully, Doug’s writeups on the left side of the IF will show the Reds in decent shape, leaving the OF a spot needing major investment.
The next two years may be a sorting issue, but 5 years from now it should include TySteve. Good news is that Steer’s BABIP should return to form, and CES has 2 solid years and age working in his favor. If they can settle on those 3 at the infield corners, and Joey is somewhat productive for two years, that really isolates the problems. Also allows the “if McGarry develops” scenario to play out. I expect Krall could handle the front office problems (pen, C, defense up the middle), but there remain the ownership and game management issues.
Given the very limited pro experience, and the fact they are current 3Bs, I’m not surprised Doug hasn’t listed the two rookie draftees from 2022 in this context. But both Collier and Stewart had draft reports regarding a potential move to 1B tossed about. Meaning, even more 1B depth and possibly a bump to A- mid season on 2023. I personally think CES is gonna mash his way to 1B in the ML’s, so he may be hard to eject once he gets there.
Collier and Stewart should both start next season in Daytona.
Getting Benintendi and G. Sanchez to sign long term deals would be a shrewd move towards kickstarting the rebuild.
After Votto’s farewell, Ty Stephenson spends some time at first, Sanchez gets plenty of swings as dh, and Krall finds a defensive gem behind the plate to fill in the gaps.
Benintendi solidifies a corner, and allows for internal competition for the other.
Signing both allows trading from greater depth long-term, without really breaking the bank in the near-term.
Benitendi seems like a pretty vanilla player to be handing out a big contact to. I could see him getting a series of 2 year prove it deals.
Yeah, I’m not talking about a ‘splash’ signing, but I can dream on a high ceiling still. Barring injury, his floor is a 2+ war player, with potential for 4+ campaigns along the way. I can envision a .320/.400/.500 season or two, while relying on .280/.350/.440. Doesn’t hurt to have a local cincy kid in the lineup either.
I’m high on Sanchez too. Even if he barely hits above .200, I think he could be a 30+ hr guy every year at GABP for the next 4-6 years.
I’d think each could be had with an AAV of under 16m, on longer term contract offerings. Both would be worth the stability as we transition out from under Votto and Mouse, into the next period of contention.
Would india, senzel and Williamson to blue jays. For Moreno and tenerowitz?? Make sense for both squads?? Reds get their catcher to pair w Stephenson and guard against injury. And also get a higher upside lefty. Toronto gets a young controlled superstar at a position of need, a back up for springer and a lefty closer to the show.
You heard it here first. Put Senzel at 1B while Joey makes his way back.
Is Sal Stewart in the ‘Too Young and Too Small a Sample Size’ and/or ‘Can’t Give Up Yet on the Possibility That He Can Handle Another Position’ category at this point?
It seems EDLC is intent on staying at SS (and the Reds agree). This has evidently led to Marte moving to 3B and expect him in Cincy some time in ’24. I’d move Encarnacion-Strand to 1B and groom him to take over for Joey when he’s gone. I see Steer & McGarry in “SuperSub” roles with McGarry able to spell CES against tough righties