Although 2023 did not end with a playoff appearance for the Cincinnati Reds, it was a special season for the city and fan base. Hope was restored, as a path to sustained success was seemingly paved by the likes of Will Benson, Matt McLain, Spencer Steer, Andrew Abbott, Alexis Diaz and, of course, Elly De La Cruz. It is sad but also fitting that a potential metamorphosis took shape in what could be Joey Votto's final year playing in The Queen City.

But after this encouraging campaign, fans were slapped with a painful reminder, as if they needed one, that their beloved franchise is confined to payroll purgatory. The front office did not make many earth-shattering or high-end acquisitions to build off the team's progress, settling for solid yet unspectacular free agent signings like Jeimer Candelario, Frankie Montas, Nick Martinez and Emilio Pagan.

That being said, those moves undeniably make the Reds a better club on paper. An infusion of veteran talent should be beneficial for this young group, particularly during the postseason push. But is it enough to propel Cincy above some of the flashier teams in the National League Central?

We will do our best to answer that question, and others concerning some of the most intriguing players in this organization. With spring training already underway, let's not waste any more time in getting to our bold predictions for the 2024 Cincinnati Reds.

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Reds' Elly De La Cruz will lead NL in stolen bases

Elly-Mania did not last as long as fans would have liked last season, but the shock waves it sent through Cincinnati and the baseball-watching world are still reverberating. A strong 2024 showing that sees De La Cruz raise his paltry .235 batting average and .300 on-base percentage should ensure that the hype train rolls forward at full force.

Though, even if the 22-year-old shortstop needs some more time to refine his plate discipline (33.7 strikeout rate as a rookie), he will continue to captivate fans with his elite speed and athleticism. In 2023, Elly De La Cruz stole 35 bases in just 98 games to finish ninth-best in the MLB. This year, he is coming for the top spot.

Yes, you read that right. I believe the Dominican Republic native will swipe more bags than reigning NL MVP Ronald Acuna Jr., the man who became the first player to steal 70-plus bases in a single season last year. De La Cruz has the confidence and ability to reach the 60s and eventually cement himself as a generational baserunner. Acuna is not going to just take his foot completely off the gas, but there might not be the same urgency for him to aggressively pursue a mind-boggling number again.

The quest for No. 1 will still be grueling, with the Atlanta Braves superstar and Washington Nationals' CJ Abrams posing significant threats to the speed demon title, but De La Cruz's increased offensive prowess will provide him with the necessary opportunities to be the NL leader.

I hesitate to give him the MLB crown, though, because outfielder Esteury Ruiz should be insanely motivated to draw more eyeballs on the dreadful Oakland Athletics.

Hunter Greene will finish among top 3 in NL strikeout leaders

Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Hunter Greene (21) throws a pitch in the first inning of the MLB Interleague game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Minnesota Twins at Great American Ball Park in downtown Cincinnati
Sam Greene/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

At the top of this article, I omitted Hunter Greene as one of the guys responsible for sparking a rebirth of Cincinnati baseball in 2023. That was no accident. He has electric stuff and a sky-high ceiling, but the former No. 2 overall pick recorded a 4.82 ERA in what was another year hindered by injuries.

Despite having a potentially bright future, Greene's past struggles can't just be dismissed when giving young Reds players their flowers. Though, a beautiful bouquet should be delivered to the right-handed flamethrower in 2024.

Andrew Abbott might prove to be a steadier arm in the long run, but Greene grabs an ample share of the spotlight due to a fastball-slider combination that is downright devastating when operating at full effect. Although the right-hander did not pitch 130 innings in either of his first two big-league seasons, he eclipsed 150 strikeouts in both. The only thing preventing him from clearing 200 is his health.

The Reds made a six-year, $53 million commitment to Greene last April, something that I think stuck with him. When an organization works out an early contract extension, morale can soar. An extra focus on preparation and body management can follow this renewal of trust. While no one can predict how an athlete spends their offseason, I believe he's doing everything in his power to make durability a top priority.

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Whether this theory comes to fruition obviously remains to be seen, but a healthy Hunter Greene will make a definite impact in the standings and statistical rankings. Even though Spencer Strider is still the master of the K, Cincy's young hurler will catapult up the strikeout rankings. If he can post close to 30 starts, a top-three slot in the NL should be in reach.

Reds will win the NL Central

I wont lie to you, there are multiple reasons to temper expectations. Matt McLain suffered an oblique injury at the beginning of spring training, the same issue that shortened his dazzling rookie campaign. Defense remains a concern, as the Reds finished near the bottom in both outs above average and defensive runs saved in 2023, per FanGraphs. The starting pitching rotation is also stuffed with questions.

Factor in the possible revivals of both the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs, the Milwaukee Brewers' first-class crop of prospects and an underestimated Pittsburgh Pirates team that sneakily won 76 games last year, and one can see Cincinnati stuck in the 80-84-win range.

That feels like its floor, though. The wealth of star power that is bubbling on the surface is too vast and therefore has me convinced that an eruption is coming in 2024. If there is ever a time to face uncertainties, it is during a year when the entire NL Central is unpredictable.

I trust that the star power beaming from the Reds' pitching staff and batter's box is not an illusion. It will be unequivocally unleashed. The time for pondering possibilities ends now, as a “fun little team” evolves into division champions for the first time in 12 years. Buckle up.