The Reds took a big step backward in their first season under manager Bryan Price, and they now face a number of worrisome contracts and an uncertain future.
- Joey Votto, 1B: $213MM through 2023
- Homer Bailey, SP: $96MM through 2019
- Brandon Phillips, 2B: $39MM through 2017
- Jay Bruce, OF: $25.5MM through 2016
- Raisel Iglesias, P: ~$20MM through 2020*
- Sean Marshall, RP: $6.5MM through 2015
- Manny Parra, RP: $3.5MM through 2015
- Skip Schumaker, UT: $3MM through 2015
- Sam LeCure, RP: $1.85MM through 2015
- Brayan Pena, C: $1.4MM through 2015
*The exact details of Iglesias’ seven-year, $27MM contract have not been reported, although it reportedly included a large signing bonus.
- Johnny Cueto, P: $10MM club option ($800K buyout)
- Ryan Ludwick, OF: $9MM mutual option ($4.5MM buyout)
- Jack Hannahan, 3B: $4MM club option ($2MM buyout)
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via Matt Swartz)
- Alfredo Simon, SP (5.142): $5.1MM projected salary
- Mat Latos, SP (5.079): $8.4MM
- Mike Leake, SP (5.000): $9.5MM
- Chris Heisey, OF (4.157): $2.2MM
- Logan Ondrusek, RP (4.125): $2.3MM
- Aroldis Chapman, RP (4.034): $8.3MM
- Zack Cozart, SS (3.084): $2.3MM
- Todd Frazier, 3B (3.071): $4.6MM
- Devin Mesoraco, C (3.028): $2.8MM
- Non-tender candidates: Ondrusek
2014 was a disappointing season for the Reds, who followed a 2013 Wild Card appearance with a sub-.500 finish in a year marred by injuries to Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey and others. Going forward, they’re in a tough spot, and looking at the list of salaries and arbitration cases above, it’s not hard to see why. The Reds are a veteran team. They’re not old, exactly, but many of their stars are reaching, or have reached, that nexus where the Reds have to pay them what they’re worth, or even more than that.
It may be painful for the Reds to decisively address their payroll issue. They owe Votto, Phillips, Bruce and Bailey a total of about $48MM in 2015. In 2016, that number jumps to about $65MM, an enormous figure for a team that has never had an Opening Day payroll over $115MM.
So what can the Reds do? With the guaranteed salaries they already have in place for next season, and the raises they’ll have to pay key arbitration-eligible players like Aroldis Chapman and Mike Leake, it’s hard to imagine they’ll be serious bidders for top free agents.
They could make a few minor tweaks, hope for healthier and more productive seasons from their core players, and take one more run at contention. Beyond 2015, though, the Reds’ future becomes murkier, since Cueto, Latos, Leake and Alfredo Simon are all eligible for free agency. The Reds have a fairly good crop of starting pitching prospects led by a very strong one in Robert Stephenson, but replacing all their departing talent will be tough. It’s difficult, then, to see them fielding a competitive team in 2016 without getting very creative or lucky.
Another possible route for them this winter, therefore, might be to get a head start on their tricky 2016 season by trading Cueto for youth. Cueto’s $10MM option is a bargain in 2015, and he ought to be able to fetch a terrific return as a much cheaper and lower-risk alternative to Max Scherzer, Jon Lester or James Shields. Dealing Cueto for, say, an outfielder and two pitching prospects would allow the Reds to head into 2016 with those prospects supplementing a new-look rotation centered around Stephenson, Bailey, Raisel Iglesias, Tony Cingrani and perhaps one of Latos, Leake and Simon. Judging from the recent returns for pitchers like Jeff Samardzija (who had a year and a half of control before free agency but is a lesser pitcher) and R.A. Dickey (who had a year remaining before free agency and fetched two top prospects), a year of Cueto at a team-friendly salary could return two top-50 prospects or talented young big-leaguers. Another possibility, as ESPN’s Buster Olney suggests (Insider-only), is for the Reds to trade Cueto along with someone like Phillips to give their payroll some breathing room for the next few seasons.
The Reds could consider trades involving other starters as well, and MLBTR’s Mark Polishuk recently explored those possibilities. Bailey, who finished the year on the disabled list and has five years remaining on his contract, almost surely will not be traded. FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal recently cited Latos as the Reds pitcher most likely to be dealt, although that’s probably much less likely now than it was in August, since Latos missed most of September with an elbow injury. His diminished velocity in 2014 will likely also be an obstacle. Trading Simon, who’s coming off a very strong 2014 season, might provide the Reds with good return value, although it would only do so much to save them money. Dealing Leake, who projects to make $9.5MM in 2014 and doesn’t have a worrisome injury history, might make the most sense.
The Reds already began shedding salary for 2015 when they traded Jonathan Broxton to the Brewers in August, but it’s hard to get a read on their level of interest in more radical moves. GM Walt Jocketty (whose contract the Reds recently extended) told Joel Sherman of the New York Post that he still sees his team as a potentially competitive one. “This year is disappointing because of the injuries,” he said. “From the very beginning, we had 11 DL guys and eight were key. … I feel we still have a small window if the guys come back healthy.” While the Reds will keep Jocketty, though, they’re expected to make significant changes to their front office, so it’s hard to say whether Jocketty’s outlook might be swayed by whoever else the Reds end up hiring.
The Reds’ core of position players is mostly set for 2015, if only because most of their starters are either cost effective or difficult to move. The Reds were the worst offensive team in baseball in the second half of the season, hitting a paltry .221/.277/.326 since the All-Star break, with Billy Hamilton, Ryan Ludwick, Bruce, Phillips, Skip Schumaker and Brayan Pena all struggling. Hamilton, Bruce and Phillips appear likely to return, however. Hamilton provides most of his value in the field and on the bases, and the Reds probably have little choice but to either stick with Bruce and Phillips or trade them for meager returns.
The Reds are also set at catcher (with Devin Mesoraco posting a breakout season, and Pena signed through 2015), first base (where Votto’s contract will likely be impossible to move) and third base (where Todd Frazier quietly had a terrific year). That leaves shortstop and left field. Shortstop Zack Cozart is an awful hitter, but he provides plenty of value in the field, and he ended up with 1.4 fWAR in 2014 despite a .223/.269/.302 line. It might be possible for the Reds to upgrade at the position, perhaps with someone like Jed Lowrie. But given Cozart’s .256 BABIP this season, it would also be defensible if they hoped for a modest offensive rebound and kept him at shortstop in 2015, particularly given that the free agent market doesn’t have much to offer and Cozart should be fairly cheap in his first season of arbitration eligibility.
In left field, Ryan Ludwick has struggled through his two-year contract, and the Reds probably ought to pass on their end of his $9MM mutual option, even given the steep $4.5MM buyout cost. Chris Heisey can be an effective bench piece, but he probably shouldn’t be considered a starter. The Reds could also move Frazier to left field and pursue a free agent third baseman like Aramis Ramirez, although such a strategy seems like a waste of Frazier’s good glove. The Reds will probably be fairly limited in their ability to sign a left fielder as a free agent, and top outfield prospects Jesse Winker and Phil Ervin are each at least a year away, so the Reds’ best path might be to acquire an outfielder if they trade one of their starting pitchers. A deal with a team like the Red Sox, who have plenty of outfielders and are in need of good starting pitching, might make sense, and someone like Daniel Nava might be a good target as part of a larger deal.
With Heisey, Pena and Kristopher Negron, the Reds have the beginnings of a reasonable bench. They’ll likely decline their option on Jack Hannahan, who didn’t play much in 2014 and didn’t hit at all when he did. But upgrading the bench likely won’t be a big priority for the Reds, particularly given that they already have the light-hitting Schumaker to fill one of the remaining spots.
Other than the extraordinary Chapman, the 2014 bullpen was not a strength, and it became weaker when the Reds shipped Broxton to Milwaukee. The Broxton trade suggests, however, that the Reds understand that when there’s a budget crunch, highly paid relievers ought to be the first luxury item to go. So it wouldn’t be a surprise if they didn’t spend much on bullpen help this offseason, instead sifting through arms they already control, like Manny Parra, J.J. Hoover, Sam LeCure, Curtis Partch, Jumbo Diaz, Pedro Villareal, Carlos Contreras, and Sean Marshall (who will be returning from a shoulder injury). Iglesias might be another possibility. Logan Ondrusek, who had a poor season in 2014, is a non-tender candidate.
One outside-the-box idea might be for the Reds to trade Chapman. He’s so good that it would be difficult to get fair value for him, but it’s worth considering, since he’s only under team control through 2016, and he won’t be cheap by then. The Reds might be able to get a couple potential regulars in return for Chapman, which would dramatically improve them as they build for 2016 and beyond. There haven’t been many rumors yet about a potential Chapman trade, and perhaps there won’t be. But if the Reds make any surprising moves, that’s the kind they’ll likely make, with the big names on the way out of town rather than on the way in.