Next up in our Three Needs series: the Cincinnati Reds.
1. Don’t (completely) abandon the pitching strategy.
Wait, what?! The Reds’ pitching staff has been the worst in all of baseball since the start of 2016, handily pacing the league in the volume of walks, long balls, and earned runs allowed. Actually, that doesn’t quite capture it: the Reds’ pitching staff has essentially defined replacement level since the start of 2016, making it a true outlier. By measure of fWAR, at least, the 2016-17 Reds hurlers have turned in a two-year stretch of futility that is orders of magnitude worse than any other organization of the past two decades, falling well shy of the dreadful 2004-05 Royals and 2002-03 Devil Rays units.
It goes without saying that there’s work to be done if the Reds hope to win at any point in the near future. But Cinci was largely justified in its recent approaching, having accumulated a significant number of interesting-enough pitching prospects at the upper levels of the farm. While few were seen as sure things, the club correctly assessed its chances of contention (not good) and declined to dole out significant contracts to back-of-the-rotation veterans. (Compare to the Braves and Phillies, who spent quite a lot of money on veteran pitching and ended no closer to contention than did the Reds.)
Clearly, the pitching hasn’t developed as hoped; there’s quite a lot of room for self-assessment and improvement. But injuries to Anthony DeSclafani, Brandon Finnegan, Homer Bailey, and even Scott Feldman — the rare player the Reds did sign into the rotation — played a major role in the dreadful performance, too. The first three of those hurlers will have an offseason to rest up. Luis Castillo — acquired for Dan Straily, who was found last year as part of the budget-friendly strategy — looks like an arm to build around. And the Reds have seen enough moments of intrigue from a few younger arms to hope that one or more can round out the starting unit. Others will become affordable relievers, perhaps with some capacity to make longer relief appearances (an approach the organization has stressed, with some success thus far).
At this point, there’s little reason for the Reds to suddenly begin investing in expensive, aging starters. It would be nice to see some stability added into the mix over the winter — the Feldman signing could provide a guide, or the team could perhaps spend a bit more and take a shot on a higher-upside arm — and the Reds have enough talent on the position-player side to be a plausible contender as soon as next year. But continued restraint would be preferable to a move that ties the organization’s hands in future campaigns.
2. Shop Raisel Iglesias.
What do you do with the best pitcher on a historically awful staff? Trade him, of course! Sounds odd at first glance, I’ll admit, but the Reds could be in a position to cash in on the talented right-hander.
Iglesias could be the centerpiece of a big trade after turning in 71 1/3 innings of 1.89 ERA pitching (so far) with 11.0 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9. The 27-year-old is guaranteed just $14.5MM over the next three seasons, though he can choose instead to opt into arbitration and would qualify next year as a Super Two. Iglesias can also be tendered arbitration in 2021, meaning the Reds control him for four more campaigns at what ought to be quite an appealing rate (though his outstanding pitching and saves tallies will boost his earning power in arbitration).
For organizations that will be looking into veteran free-agent closers, or that otherwise have interest in a multi-inning relief ace (and who doesn’t?), there ought to be a real willingness to part with significant young talent. Teams will no doubt notice that Iglesias has thrown harder and generated more whiffs than ever this year, elevating his trade stock to what may well be an all-time high. Given the risks inherent to any pitcher, let alone a flame-throwing reliever, it’s quite possibly an opportune time for the Reds to cash him in.
To be sure, it would be foolish to give up such a talented, controllable asset for less than a compelling return. But the guess here is that the club should have a good chance of prying loose some quality, near-MLB assets — all the better if that includes a young starter — that could be of greater long-term impact and help set the stage for a sustainable run of contention. Earnestly shopping Iglesias will at least give the organization a strong sense of his market value, and might just drum up a great trade opportunity.
3. Bid a fond farewell to Zack Cozart.
It’s unfortunate that the Reds were never able to cash in on the strong play of their veteran shortstop, who has turned from a light-hitting defensive whiz to an all-around star in 2017. Injuries and thin market demand make the failure to strike a match largely understandable from the front office’s perspective.
Now, though, the club is left with a decision to make — one that’ll be due just five days after the end of the World Series. Should the club choose, it can dangle a qualifying offer to the free-agent-to-be. If he declines, and signs for more than $50MM elsewhere, the Reds could score an extra draft pick just after the end of the first round. Of course, if Cozart falls shy of that amount in free agency, the team would receive only a choice after the second round.
When polled recently, MLBTR readers were split as to how the team should proceed, but most felt a QO was in order. Count me among the minority on that decision. Cozart is already 32 and has battled quite a few injuries in recent years. We have already seen the dearth of shortstop demand leaguewide; while he’ll no doubt land a solid, multi-year deal, Cozart likely won’t earn enough (with draft pick compensation required of a signing team) to earn the Reds the highest-possible pick. And he will need to strongly consider taking the ~$18.1MM payday for one year of work.
As good as Cozart has been, and as hard as it may be to see him walk away with nothing coming in return, the Reds simply can’t afford to take the chance that he takes the offer. The team already has over $60MM on the books and will owe some reasonably significant arbitration salaries. Rather than potentially adding an expensive veteran to the left side of the infield, Cincinnati should be anticipating how to clear the way for top prospect Nick Senzel, who destroyed Double-A pitching this year but is blocked at third by Eugenio Suarez — who has spent plenty of time as a professional at short.