4 biggest X-factors heading into the Reds 2023 season

Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Graham Ashcraft
Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Graham Ashcraft / Sam Greene/The Enquirer / USA TODAY
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Welcome to Opening Day, Reds Country! Hopefully you put in your vacation request early and are headed to the ballpark today. At the very least, grab some peanuts and Cracker Jacks, find a comfy spot in your recliner, and enjoy the Cincinnati Reds first game of the 2023 season.

I know last season was difficult to watch, but hope springs eternal and there's plenty to keep an eye on during the upcoming season. This Reds team has some of the best starting pitching in the division and some exciting, young prospects are poised to make their debut during the upcoming season.

Every year, there are some X-factors; players who's unforeseen contributions or unexpected disappointments help shape the overall feel for the season. Last season, Reds fans saw Brandon Drury and Alexis Diaz excel, while players like Joey Votto and Jonathan India disappointed. Who will be the Reds four biggest X-factors in 2023?

1. Reds biggest X-factors in 2023: Christian Encarnacion-Strand, infielder

Let's begin with the player who had the biggest spring, shall we? Christian Encarnacion-Strand came out swinging this spring - literally. It seemed as though every time Encarnacion-Strand stepped into the batters' box the ball was going to go a long way.

The Reds decided that now was not the time for Encarnacion-Strand and reassigned the infield prospect to minor-league camp a couple weeks back. Fans have also learned that Encarnacion-Strand will miss the first few weeks of the 2023 season with a back injury.

When we begin to talk about Christian Encarnacion-Strand's major league debut, t's not a matter of if, but when. The slugger showed more than enough with his bat this spring to be included on the team's Opening Day roster, but Encarnacion-Strand's glove could still use some refinement. That's espeically true with the 23-year-old learning a relatively new position.

Joey Votto, who will be out of the Cincinnati Reds Opening Day lineup as well, may be the biggest hurdle for Encarnacion-Strand to clear this season. There's no way that the rebuilding Reds will accelerate Encarnacion-Strand's development in order to supplant a future Hall of Famer during what could be his last year in Cincinnati.

But the Reds may have no choice if Encarnacion-Strand continues to mash in the minors this season. If push comes to shove, Cincinnati is not going to let Encarnacion-Strand wallow in the minor leagues if a bump in competition is what's necessary. When Encarnacion-Strand makes his big league debut could be an X-factor during the 2023 season.

2. Reds biggest X-factors in 2023: Graham Ashcraft, starting pitcher

Everyone always talks about the "Big 3" when discussing the Cincinnati Reds starting rotation, but it seems as though the conversation continually centers around just two of three pitchers. Is Graham Ashcraft being overlooked?

Yes, Hunter Greene has an electric fastball and if he's able to mix a low-90s changeup the former first-rounder is going to be punching out opposing batters left and right. Nick Lodolo had an impressive spring, and watching his close out his rookie season gives Res Country a goo feeling about the southpaw heading into the upcoming season.

But Ashcraft may have had the best spring of any pitcher in camp. The right-hander started five games, worked 17.1 frames, and struck out 25 batters. Ashcraft allowed just 13 hits and posted a 2.60 ERA and 0.87 WHIP.

Greene and Lodolo have the pedigree to be All-Star pitchers, and while Ashcraft has a bit more of an unconventional approach and repertoire, the Alabama native has the chance to be the most effective pitcher in the rotation.

Graham Ashcraft did not finish well last season, so there's reason for doubt. But he also threw more innings than any other Cincinnati Reds starter last year. If he's healthy, Ashcraft may represent the biggest X-factor for the Reds in 2023.

3. Reds biggest X-factors in 2023: Will Benson, outfielder

The Cincinnati Reds traded what amounted to two second-round draft picks for outfielder Will Benson. The Reds swung a deal with the Guardians earlier this spring and sent both Justin Boyd and Steve Hajjar to Cleveland in exchange for Benson.

This trade the potential to pay huge dividends for the Reds or it could blow up in their face. Benson had been a prospect in the Guardians farm system for quite sometime. Cleveland drafted Benson in Round 1 back in 2016, but he didn't debut until last season and only appeared in 28 games.

Benson hit just .182/.250/.200, but that was in 55 at-bats in what was largely a reserve role for the Guardians near the tail-end of last season. Prior to his call-up, Benson slashed .279/.426/.522 with 40 extra-base hits.

Benson may not necessarily hit for average, but he should reach base at a good clip. If the adjustments he made last season come through during his first extended action in the big leagues, the Cincinnati Reds might really have something to build on.

Will Benson brings speed to the base paths, the ability to play all three outfield spots, and a left-handed power-bat. All three of those things will see him find plenty of playing time this season. How he produces at the dish will be the difference between Benson being a key bat in the heart of the order or a fourth outfielder off the bench. Benson certainly fits the mold of an X-factor in 2023.

4. Reds biggest X-factors in 2023: Jose Barrero, shortstop

The biggest X-factor on the Cincinnati Reds in 2023 is Jose Barrero and there isn't really a close second. There are no more excuses, Barrero has got to perform during the upcoming season or the Reds are going to be forced to make a move.

Let's set aside the argument that the Res screwed up Barrero's development. While there is certainly merit to that argument, it's irrelevant at this stage of Barrero's career. Kyle Farmer is gone. Yes, the Reds brought in Kevin Newman, but if Barrero plays up to his potential, Cincinnati is not going to play a shortstop with a career OPS of .660 over one of their most highly-skilled young players.

Look for Barrero to be the Reds Opening Day shortstop. And when a lefty is on the bump, fans may well see Barrero getting some reps in center field while Newman holds down the fort at shortstop.

But Barrero's status as an X-factor on this squad has nothing to do with his defense. One could make the argument that his glove and arm are the best on the team. No, this is about how the offseason swing adjustments translate to the regular season.

Did Jose Barrero and new new Reds hitting coach Joel McKeithan do enough during the winter to make the infielder into a capable major league hitter. Cincinnati does not need Barrero to crush 25 homers and post a .525 slugging percentage; though that would be nice. More than anything else, Barrero cannot go down swinging at that same 40-percent clip that he did in 2022.

Barrero has company, and he knows it. Elly De La Cruz and Matt McLain are on the cusp of making it to The Show in 2023. If Barrero wants to keep his starting job, he's going to have to earn it. If we hit the All-Star break and Barrero is still the starting shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds, then the fanbase should be doing cartwheels. If not, it's time to embrace the youth movement.

Next. 15 worst trades in Cincinnati Reds history. dark