On the heels of a surprisingly competitive 2023 campaign that saw breakout performances from several top prospects, the Cincinnati Reds entered this offseason ready to take the next step. How to do that seemed clear enough: Find a way to bolster one of the league’s weakest starting rotations, either via free agency or, more likely, by trading one of a logjam of promising young infielders.
So, naturally, the team’s first major move was ... signing infielder Jeimer Candelario, who reportedly agreed to a three-year, $45 million deal with Cincy in the wee hours of Thursday morning.
Infielder Jeimer Candelario and the Cincinnati Reds are in agreement on a three-year, $45 million contract, sources tell ESPN. Candelario, 30, joins a young Reds team that has spent $87 million on free agents this winter. First on the scene with the deal was @Feinsand.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) December 7, 2023
There’s little doubt that Candelario is a solid player, one who should certainly be worth this contract. The switch-hitter can play third base or first, and has been a significantly above-average hitter in three of the last four years. He slashed a healthy .251/.336/.471 (119 OPS+) across 140 games split between the Nationals and Cubs in 2023, with 22 homers, 39 doubles, eight steals and 70 RBI. Candelario doesn’t bring a ton of power to the table — those 22 dingers were a career high — but he is a line-drive machine, one who will get on base at a healthy clip, spray balls into the gaps and lengthen any lineup (especially with a move to the very hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park). Entering his age-30 season, he’s still squarely in his prime, and $15 million per year for a three-WAR player is fair value.
What’s less clear-cut, however, is just how Candelario fits on this Cincinnati team, and what the Reds have up their sleeve from here — questions that will go a long way toward shaping how we view this signing. The Reds entered the winter with more infielders than they had spots for between Elly De La Cruz, Matt McLain, Jonathan India, Spencer Steer, Noelvi Marte and Christian Encarnacion-Strand. Adding Candelario — who has never played anywhere other than third or first — would seem to further complicate that picture. Meanwhile, exactly one returning starter — rookie Andrew Abbott — had an ERA below 4.46 last year.
Of course, too many quality players is never a bad problem to have, and there are many paths forward for the Reds. They could, as reports indicated in the aftermath of the trade, bump Steer to the outfield, where he played a bit last season (albeit not very well). That would allow De La Cruz to get the lion’s share of starts at third base, with McLain at short, India at second and Candelario and Encarnacion-Strand forming a platoon at first. (If Cincy wants to limit De La Cruz’s exposure to lefties like they did late last year, they could bump Candelario across the diamond, with Steer playing first and Encarnacion-Strand at DH.) Or they could pull the trigger on that long-rumored trade, likely involving India — by far the oldest of this bunch, with the highest salary and fewest remaining years of team control — and fetching someone like Corbin Burnes, Tyler Glasnow or Dylan Cease. (GM Nick Krall sounded as though the team had no plans to move India at the Winter Meetings this week, but that could very well be gamesmanship.)
Candelario is a solid veteran bat at a reasonable price, but this is the sort of deal that simply can’t be evaluated in a vacuum. If the Reds don’t find a way to land its sorely-needed rotation upgrade, this will look like a curious allocation of resources for a team that should be ramping up to contend in a wide-open NL Central. If Krall finds a way to get creative here, though, it could be a way to pounce on some nice value, value that increases the team’s flexibility and allows it to more aggressively fill its needs than it would otherwise be able to on the open market. This current Reds regime is never likely to swim in the deep end of the free-agent pool for someone like Blake Snell or even Jordan Montgomery or Lucas Giolito; their best bet to add an arm is via trade, and trades require flexibilit. Acquiring Candelario is just another talented player on a reasonable contract, and those assets should serve as ammunition moving forward.