The first few days of the Winter Meetings didn’t deliver much action; at breakfast on Wednesday, Erick Fedde versus Wade Miley as the biggest signing of the meetings was a popular debate. But things picked up as the gathering ground to a close. First, the Yankees traded for Juan Soto. Next, Eduardo Rodriguez agreed to terms with Arizona. Finally, Jeimer Candelario capped the meetings off when he signed with the Reds for three years and $45 million and a team option for another year, as MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand first reported.
Part of the allure of free agency, as a fan experience, is that you never know where any given player might land, or who your team might pick up. Sure, we all have opinions on where the top guys will sign, but until they put pen to paper, or at least until Jeff Passan gets a text about their chosen destination, nothing is set in stone. But if you’d asked me to predict signings that wouldn’t happen this winter, I would have made a lazy prediction: the Reds would stay away from hitters in general and infielders in particular.
That doesn’t have anything to do with Candelario, to be clear. I think he’ll be one of the bargain signings of the offseason, a plus bat with playable defense at third base on an affordable contract. A three-year deal nets the back half of his prime without too much messiness at the end of the contract, and he’s played at a 3–4 WAR clip in three out of the past four years. He’s been the 68th-best hitter in baseball by our count over those four years, just ahead of Luis Arraez and Ketel Marte in a similar number of plate appearances, if you’re trying to calibrate that in your head.
When you’re not living at the very top of the market, there will always be question marks. Candelario’s is his 2022 season, when his offense cratered so badly that the Tigers — the Tigers! — cut him loose rather than going to arbitration. He signed a prove-it deal with the Nationals, put together a sterling first half, and finished the season on the Cubs. His 117 wRC+ wasn’t a career high — he did better in both 2020 and ’21 — but that’s kind of the point. He looked like this for a while, fell completely apart, and then bounced back to his previously established level of production. ZiPS sees him as an above-average regular, an acceptable defender at a semi-premium position who will get on base a lot and sock 20 dingers a year in the confining confines of Great American Ballpark:
ZiPS Projection – Jeimer Candelario
None of that is the weird part of the signing. That’s all stuff I could have written in October, and more or less did; between myself and Davy Andrews, our Top 50 Free Agent list had all that information. That also led to my prediction of a three-year, $45 million contract, and the crowd wasn’t far off either, with FanGraphs’ intrepid readers expecting a three-year pact worth around $36 million. In other words, the things that make Candelario interesting to major league teams are pretty straightforward.
Less straightforward: why the Reds were the most interested team. If I had to explain their offseason position in brief, I would have focused on three points: They’re cash constrained, they need pitching depth, and they have a gaudy collection of young infield talent. Here are the top Reds hitters, excluding Candelario, by 2024 Steamer projection:
Returning Reds Hitters, 2024 Projections
Six of the seven hitters who the Reds hope will anchor their next competitive core are nominally infielders; only Friedl doesn’t fit. “Where will the Reds play everyone” was already a tough question to answer in 2023. At midseason, McLain slid from shortstop to second when India went down with injury. That led to De La Cruz establishing himself as the starter at short, which left McLain at second and gave India nowhere to play, though the problem was temporarily averted when McLain missed the end of the season with injury. Steer can play a lot of places, but first base stopped being one of them when Encarnacion-Strand came up. This isn’t a bad problem to have — oh no, too many of our prospects panned out! — but it’s still a problem that needs solving.
Adding Candelario to that mix only makes the situation trickier. His defensive capabilities are straightforward: he should play third base. He’s a roughly average defender there, perhaps a tick below if you believe DRS over OAA, but certainly within a playable range. He can play first base as well, but Encarnacion-Strand is a better fit there, and Candelario’s offense is much further above the baseline level at third than at first.
A brief aside: this is a weird blind spot in positional adjustments, and a reason that I think some first basemen get overly penalized by our WAR framework. The adjustments we use — and the adjustments that everyone uses, really — imply that Candelario would need to be 15 runs above average at first base to provide equivalent defensive value to being a scratch third base defender. That’s just not possible; the range of first base defensive outcomes isn’t that wide. If he repeated the same offensive season at each position over the next two years, the year where he played third base would be worth roughly one extra win relative to the year where he played first.
That might do a good job of explaining his value to the Reds, because it’s much easier to find good hitters at first than at third. Likewise, imagine a shortstop who’s a league-average hitter and a plus defender. If he were to transition to first, WAR would correctly assess that he’s far less valuable to the team at his new position. But the player is the same in both cases; positional adjustments don’t mean they suddenly got worse. They’re just playing below their potential value, as measured by WAR, to help the team out. Call it the Ian Desmond Rule: take an up-the-middle defender and move them to first base, and their measured defensive value will crater.
Anyway, back to Candelario! Dan ran him through ZiPS as a DH instead of third baseman, just for funsies. The third base projection, if you’ll remember from up above, was pretty solid; ZiPS would pay $56 million over three years for that kind of offense. Here he is as a DH:
ZiPS Projection – Jeimer Candelario (DH)
Same hitter, different context, poof goes the WAR. If the Reds want to get the most out of him, then, he’ll need to play third. The easiest alignment for their infield goes Candelario/De La Cruz/McLain/Encarnacion-Strand moving across the infield from left to right, but that doesn’t leave anywhere for Marte, whose natural position is also third base. Okay, fine, maybe the Reds are happy to torch all that defensive value and move Candelario over to first, or even DH. But we’re not done! India is now crowded out; he’s worse than McLain on both sides of the ball, can’t hit enough to unseat Encarnacion-Strand at first or DH, and doesn’t provide defensive utility across the infield like Marte. Steer, meanwhile, will likely play the outfield full time now. I think he’ll hit enough, and develop enough fielding prowess when given a full-time role, to be a good left fielder, but that’s still an open question.
If you’re racking your brain trying to come up with some configuration that solves all these problems, you can stop. There isn’t one. You can’t play six infielders at four spots, five if you count DH. None of them are part-time players or easy platoon guys; they’re all either righties or switch-hitters. All of the solutions involve subtraction in one way or another; someone has to get hurt, or someone has to get traded. Even then, there are going to be some Ian Desmond Rule issues; someone who is defensively overqualified for DH is going to end up there, because there are just too many shortstops and third basemen on the roster.
But who to trade? Now that’s a sticky question. I think that De La Cruz and McLain are staying put for sure; they’re the top two talents, and the only two that feel like surefire core players to me. I don’t think Encarnacion-Strand is likely to get traded, either, though I’m less sure there. It’s just hard to imagine getting much value for a first baseman (he can play a little third now, but first is his long-term spot) with his strikeout issues and lack of track record. If I were the Reds, I’d hold onto him and bet that he’ll be better than what other teams would give up for him.
That leaves India and Marte, but there are issues with trading either of those guys, too. India’s value is at a low ebb; he hasn’t yet replicated his hot-hitting rookie season, with two straight years of league-average offense. He’s also a below-average defender; I think a lot of teams would hesitate to plug him in at second unless they truly had no other options there. He’s a classic baseball archetype — a guy who needs regular playing time if he wants to recapture the value he showed a few years ago — but the Reds have nowhere to play him, and they almost certainly value him as closer to his best self than the teams trying to trade for him will.
Trade Marte? I suppose they could, but his situation is even more confusing. He was the key player that the Reds got when they traded Luis Castillo, and as such, he’s a symbol of their rebuild. The tricky part here is that he looked diminished in 2022, then finished with a poor showing in Fall League, then turned in a mostly lackluster 2023 in the minors. He hit quite well in a brief major league showing but graded out poorly defensively at third, and there were already questions about his long-term defensive home. He has huge upside, but there are so many unknowns that, like India, I think teams trading for him would only be interested if they were getting him at an attractive rate.
This is the classic problem of trading from surplus: you want to trade the guys who are underperforming so that you can keep the ones who are already playing well, but the teams you need to trade with get to see that underperformance, too. Any trade involving India is going to feel underwhelming in the context of his 2021 Rookie of the Year season. Any trade involving Marte is going to feel underwhelming in the context of the Castillo trade.
Still, the Reds need to make a trade. There’s not even much concern about subsequent injuries leading to a shortfall; even if they move one of these guys, another infielder will be playing DH, and Steer can always move back to the infield if necessary. Heck, many of the Reds’ best hitting prospects behind the current crop of guys are infielders, too, though to be fair most of them are still pretty far from the majors. It’s just a strange situation. They already had too many infielders, and then they made their biggest signing of the offseason to increase the logjam.
The reason for this seems obvious: they think Candelario is great. I tend to agree with them and think he’ll do really well there. He’s a good fit for the park, and again, I already thought he’d be one of the best bargains available in free agency. If you’re going to run a budget around $90 million, like the Reds are, bargains are really important.
The happiest outcome of all of this would be that the Reds already have a trade lined up. It doesn’t matter exactly what they get in return, as long as it’s players who can help them in the near future; they could use more outfielders, more starters, and more relievers. They’re counting on a ton of innings from young and recently-injured pitchers, and their current right-field platoon of Stuart Fairchild and Will Benson doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence.
So let’s give the Reds the benefit of the doubt, at least for now. There weren’t any exciting outfielders in the budget range where they were shopping unless they won the Jung-ho Lee sweepstakes, and I’m not sure if they were even participating. The pitchers I think they’d be most interested in will command bigger deals than Candelario. From a money and talent standpoint, he really does seem like a great fit.
But from a team construction perspective: he’s a terrible fit. What do you get the team that has too many infielders? An infielder, naturally. If the Reds can’t trade their way out of this problem, this is going to be a very frustrating roster in 2024. So for now, they get an incomplete grade, and if they haven’t moved one of their infielders by next year, that grade will switch to an F. It’s truly one of the most baffling signings from a team-needs perspective in my career in baseball.