As we’ve already done with the Rockies, Diamondbacks, and Phillies, we’re going through those clubs whose primary attention has turned to setting up for future seasons to identify their three most pressing strategic needs. Up today: the Reds.
Cincinnati is mired in last place in a hyper-competitive NL Central, looking up (along with the Brewers) at three teams that seem primed to remain high-quality outfits for years to come. With Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, and Marlon Byrd already shipped out over the summer, what are the key areas for the Reds to focus on over the coming months?
1. Maximize the value of Aroldis Chapman. Chapman is reasonably young (27), durable, and utterly dominant (16.0 K/9 vs. 4.6 BB/9 with a 1.73 ERA on the year). He’s one of the few relievers in all of baseball that looks like a relatively sure thing to provide serious impact to a contender. And the Reds, despite some signs of promise around the diamond, seem a poor bet to leapfrog the Cardinals, Pirates, and Cubs (or a host of theoretical non-divisional Wild Card competitors) to make a serious run at the postseason next year.
It’s hard to trade an exciting and popular player whose job is to ensure that your club wins the games it should by locking down the ninth in spectacular fashion. But those are the kinds of decisions that teams — especially those with limited payroll flexibility, like Cincinnati — need to make to set themselves up for future success. The Braves did it last year with Craig Kimbrel, and the case for a trade is even stronger here given that Chapman will hit free agency after 2016.
It’s arguable that the Reds should have taken the best offer at this year’s deadline, when contenders were lining up for the Cuban Missile, but that opportunity has passed. GM Walt Jocketty and his staff now need to determine whether to shop Chapman this winter or instead to roll the dice on waiting for next year’s trade deadline.
2. Free up payroll space. When the Braves moved Kimbrel, they did so in large part to rid themselves of the tens of millions owed to Melvin Upton. The team also managed to add a useful pitching prospect and hit the lottery on salary-balancing throw-in Cameron Maybin, but the deal was primarily motivated by payroll considerations. Cincinnati has its share of long-term commitments, too, and while some look better than others, the club would do well to begin clearing the books for the future — possibly by utilizing some creative packaging arrangements.
Looking forward, the Reds’ priciest asset is star first baseman Joey Votto, the franchise face who has turned back into himself in 2015. He’s not at all likely to be moved, though perhaps Cincinnati should be open to it if blown away by an offer. But big dollars are also promised to second baseman Brandon Phillips ($27MM over two years) and righty Homer Bailey ($86MM over four years, plus a mutual option buyout). And then there’s outfielder Jay Bruce, who will earn $12.5MM next year and comes with a $13MM club option for 2017, and third baseman Todd Frazier, who is promised $7.5MM for 2016 and will presumably line up for another nice arbitration increase in his final season of eligibility. Add in commitments to younger players like Devin Mesoraco and Raisel Iglesias, and the organization has a rather large portion of its future spending capacity already committed to a relatively small number of players.
As MLBTR’s Steve Adams explained yesterday, parting with Phillips may be the place to start. He has played well this year and could be replaced by Eugenio Suarez, who would pair up the middle with a recovering Zach Cozart. It’s largely inconceivable that the team will be able to do anything with Bailey until he’s had a chance to return to health, but that could be a goal as time goes on. The more difficult questions arise with regards to Bruce and Frazier, both of whom are affordable enough but who may not be controlled long enough to play for another Cinci contender. While extensions are theoretically possible, both are close enough to free agency that the price would be steep, and the Reds would run the risk of buying up post-prime years. Freeing cash to acquire and/or extend other, younger players — while adding significant prospects in return — may be the wiser course. Though it would sting in the short run, the Reds would gain added flexibility to meet needs and act on opportunities when they arise.
3. Bolster the bullpen. This may seem like an odd idea at first glance, given that I just finished suggesting the club consider dealing away several productive regulars as well as a lights-out closer. But there’s a possible strategy here that may ease the pain of rebuilding while adding some reasonably-priced upside to the team’s assets.
We’ve seen several clubs promise rotation spots to bounce-back rotation candidates on short-term deals, filling innings in the meantime and in some cases providing an opportunity to cash in at the trade deadline. (See, e.g., the Cubs’ deals with Scott Feldman and Jason Hammel.) Jocketty has acquired a range of quality pitching prospects who are ready to be tried in the rotation, reducing the need and the capacity for that particular strategy. But something analogous could be done with the relief corps, which has been rather uninspiring — at least, before the 9th inning. Indeed, that’s more or less what the Braves did last winter in adding Jason Grilli and Jim Johnson, and the Reds could follow suit.
Particularly if Cincinnati parts with Chapman this winter, it will have several attractive late-inning opportunities open in its pen. As high-priced late-inning relievers shake loose over non-tender season, the market will be flooded with arms — Steve Cishek and Addison Reed are two potential names that come to mind — all of whom won’t have a chance to work high-leverage innings for contenders. Signing a few such options should be quite reasonable, especially if the organization can move some contracts in the meantime, and those players would help secure winnable games, ease the burden on the team’s young starting staff, and offer the potential to morph into valuable deadline chips at the time when relievers achieve the greatest trade value.
A related approach could even be applied as the team considers prospect targets and develops its own pitchers. Cincinnati has a history of taking chances on quality arms that many believed would ultimately be ticketed for the pen (Chapman, Tony Cingrani, Nick Howard), and could seek to achieve value by doing so further via trade. Indeed, one could argue that the team did just that with the pitchers it added in its recent deals, all of whom could profile as future relievers. Those that aren’t excelling as starters could be moved quickly into the big league pen, setting the organization up for a cheap and high-quality future outfit and/or being spun off via trade.