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Reds ownership has promised a record payroll on the heels of a fourth-consecutive last-place finish in the NL Central and their lowest attendance total in over 30 years. While they’re not likely to be contenders in a particularly tough division, the club figures to be on the upswing in 2019. They’ll almost certainly be looking to add some long-term pieces whom they expect to be on the next competitive team in Cincinnati.
- Joey Votto, 1B: $125MM through 2023, plus $7MM buyout on $20MM option for 2024
- Homer Bailey, P: $23MM through 2019, plus $5MM buyout on $25MM mutual option for 2020
- Raisel Iglesias, RP: $24.125MM through 2021
- Eugenio Suarez, 3B: $62.5MM through 2024, plus $2MM buyout on $15MM option for 2025
- Tucker Barnhart, C: $9.75MM through 2021, plus $500K buyout on $7.5MM option for 2022
- David Hernandez, RP: $2.5MM through 2019
- Jared Hughes, RP: $2.125MM through 2019, plus $250K buyout on $3MM option for 2020
Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Scooter Gennett (5.071) – $10.7MM
- Billy Hamilton (5.028) – $5.9MM
- Jose Peraza (2.141) – $3.6MM
- Anthony Desclafani (4.062) – $2.1MM
- Michael Lorenzen (3.159) – $1.9MM
- Curt Casali (2.151) – $1.3MM
Not only was 2018 the Reds’ fourth consecutive season of fewer than 70 wins, but they also faced the added humiliation of being the only team in their division to finish with a losing record. They managed to draw just 1.63 million fans to Great American Ballpark, their lowest attendance figure since 1984. The organization’s relationship with its fan base is facing a significant strain at the moment; ownership will have to hope that an overhaul of their coaching staff and intent to add about $30MM in payroll will help revitalize interest in watching the Reds.
Of course, that gesture alone won’t be enough; if they’re unable to field a competitive team, they may again be looking at a sparse turnout in 2019. Fortunately, they’re likely to add wins by virtue of internal improvements alone. Young players such as Jesse Winker, Luis Castillo and Jose Peraza are solid bets to take additional steps forward, and they may have some cavalry on the way in the form of top prospect Nick Senzel. Certainly, nobody expects the Reds to become a winning team due solely to surge from within. But with a solid position-player core already in place — led by Eugenio Suarez, Joey Votto, Tucker Barnhart, Scott Schebler, and Scooter Gennett (who’s in his final season of contract control) — those up-and-coming players could give fans something to cheer for if things break right.
Clearly, to move the needle toward contention, the Reds will need to go outside the organization at some point. The club has clearly signaled it intends to do so this winter, though that does not mean that it anticipates any wild spending that would tie up too much future payroll space.
The first and most obvious place to add wins is to a rotation that has perennially been one of the worst in baseball of late, having finished 30th, 29th and 27th in Fangraphs WAR among MLB teams in 2016, 2017 and 2018, respectively. DeSclafani is a lock for a rotation spot if he can remain healthy (though that’s not a given), while Castillo and Tyler Mahle will take up two more. Beyond them, Cody Reed and Robert Stephenson are among the potential rotation candidates, but neither has yet to make good on his once lofty prospect status. Ergo, the biggest item on Cincinnati’s docket will be to add at least one viable major-league starter, and quite likely a second.
That’s more than just pure logic; it echoes recent sentiments laid out by president of baseball operations Dick Williams, who hopes to add a pair of pitchers this winter. That doesn’t necessarily mean two starters, but Cincinnati’s already been connected to several prominent names on the trade market, including Indians aces Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco and high-powered Mets hurler Noah Syndergaard. Needless to say, those are some rather big names who’ll draw significant interest and may not be moved at all; it’d remain a surprise to see any land in Cinci.
It’s not apparent what they’d be able to offer a club with clear intentions to contend in 2019, unless they’re willing to part with Senzel (which seems unlikely), but Williams will surely be knocking on plenty of other doors as well. He’s said to have contacted the Yankees about Sonny Gray, and the Reds were reportedly involved in the James Paxton sweepstakes before he ultimately went to the Bronx. Hurlers such as Marcus Stroman and old friend Mike Leake could conceivably make sense in the right circumstances. Certainly, the club possesses the means to do a significant deal; it would be irresponsible not to point out that the Reds have an impressive collection of upside prospects in the lower minors, so they’ve got a plethora of enticing ways to ignite a conversation.
The free-agent market as an alternative is a much more blurry picture. On the one hand, Williams has suggested that the club plans to be “aggressive” in front of available players and their agents. On the other, some whispers we’ve heard strongly hint that the Reds are unlikely to be in play for any of the top-tier arms on the market. If that’s true, one might surmise that any pursuit of high-end starters beyond due diligence is unlikely. Patrick Corbin, Dallas Keuchel, Nathan Eovaldi and perhaps even J.A. Happ might not fall within the Reds’ line of sight.
Further illustrating that point (within the above link) is the rumor that the club is seeking to add a mid-rotation arm and a middle-to-late-inning reliever. Missing on the top of the market (should it come to pass) might leave some fans feeling disappointed, though it’s plenty arguable that reaching for a costly veteran now would be unwise.
If there’s a particularly interesting fit on the open market, it could be Japanese left-hander Yusei Kikuchi. Unless the club’s scouting department is severely down on him in comparison to the rest of the league, it seems a near certainty that the Reds will join the pursuit. Kikuchi’s relative youth would fit perfectly within the puzzle of a rebuilding club on the upswing, and while he’ll command a lengthy contract, the initial guess at MLBTR is that he won’t command a significant sum in terms of average annual value. It’s speculation to be sure, but Reds fans will want to pay attention to the rumblings that surround the Seibu Lions star.
While Gio Gonzalez and Anibal Sanchez also could fill innings as veteran rotation pieces, the only player they’ve actually been connected to is Matt Harvey, their lone outgoing free agent. The right-hander and former All-Star was traded to Cincinnati early on in the season after being designated for assignment by the Mets, and went on to make 24 starts for his new club to the tune of a 4.50 ERA. While that performance seems more indicative of a back-of-the-rotation arm, he had somewhat more encouraging peripherals for those who can look beyond his proneness to the long ball. As a Red, Harvey posted a strong 3.96 K/BB ratio with a 4.14 xFIP. And of course, he still tempts a spark of upside based on the talent he showed earlier on in his career. It wouldn’t be prudent to expect an All-Star-type resurgence, but for the two-year, $22MM contract MLBTR predicts for him, he could be worth serious consideration.
As for the “middle-to-late-inning reliever” the Cincinnati brass is said to be seeking, there are myriad options in free agency to choose from. One would think the size of their market makes a Craig Kimbrel pursuit a challenge, but between the #17 and #26 spots on our free agent rankings sit no fewer than seven talented, proven bullpen arms who could be feasible targets for the Reds. That they’re planning to up their payroll by $30MM means that any of those players could be very real options, and would help add to an already-solid back-end trio of Iglesias, Hughes and Amir Garrett. Failing a free-agent signing, the club has more than enough resources to pursue options on the trade market.
Though it’s true that investing in relief pitching can be an iffy way to tie up resources, the outdated notion of paying big cash for a tried-and-true closer has largely gone by the wayside. The Reds already locked in a price for their own ninth-inning man, regardless, with a three-year pact with Iglesias that provides some cost certainty/savings (but does not expand the club’s control). Even adding a few lesser relievers could be sensible approach for the Reds, perhaps helping them to pick up a few extra winnable games and/or generate trade assets. While the club’s 2018 relief corps featured a few solid performers, after all, it was only a middle-of-the-road unit overall. And several hurlers profile as possible regression candidates after outperforming their peripherals last year. Boosting the depth, then, would certainly be warranted even if more significant additions aren’t in the offing.
The Cincinnati offense is a bit of a clearer picture. The club’s two through six positions are each assigned to a solid player with an optimistic outlook, making their infield probably the biggest strength of the team. Turning an eye to the outfield, however, reveals a generally less-impressive cast with plenty of question marks. The current alignment projects to feature Hamilton in center, with Schebler and Winker at the corners. Senzel’s gotten some outfield reps, but there’s no telling whether or not he’ll be deemed ready to contribute in the season’s first half, and that’s to say nothing of his injury history.
Frankly, it’s not hard to see where an upgrade would go, if one is pursued. Hamilton and Schebler just do not profile as first-division regulars. Each is a useful player — the former, a potentially dynamic reserve; the latter, a sturdy piece — but neither has shown the capacity to sustain significant production. Whether Winker can do so remains to be seen. Regardless, all three are either left-handed hitters or, in Hamilton’s case, a switch-hitter who’s best utilized against right-handed pitching. It’s a situation that cries out for a high-quality, right-handed hitting addition. Perhaps it’s too pie-in-the-sky to suggest A.J. Pollock, but he’d be a nice match who’d push Hamilton out of everyday duties in center (if not onto the trade block) while representing a multi-year solution up the middle. In that scenario, Senzel would be free to finish his development and step in at second for a departing Gennett.
That’s the sort of move a clear contender would consider. Whether it’s one this club will or should pursue is surely debatable. There’s a difference, after all, between a season of positive momentum and one of serious contention. While the Reds are certain to improve on their win totals from the past four years, their division is stacked with formidable foes in the form of the Brewers, Cubs and Cardinals. Each of those teams not only places a heavy roadblock upon the path to a division title, but they’ll downright make it difficult for the Reds to eke out interdivisional wins. Cincinnati will need to face those clubs a total of 57 times in 2019, and without a major facelift and some significant luck they probably won’t be considered favorites to win any individual games against their intimidating foes.
With that in mind, the Reds would be irresponsible to cash in too many of their prospect chips in an aggressive win-now push. Rather, we’re more likely to see them make future-oriented moves that improve the team now without jeopardizing their long-term outlook. Spending money is something of a different question, though there too it’s necessary to keep the future spending power in mind. Perhaps taking a shot at a controllable, buy-low trade target such as Michael Taylor or Keon Broxton is likelier than pursuit of Pollock, for instance. The Reds did quite well, after all, to score Gennett under similar circumstances. Of course, that move was made two seasons back, and fans wouldn’t be wrong to feel that the team ought to have greater urgency now than it did then. After all, Gennett, like Hamilton, could be dealt away or reach the open market without ever having been a significant part of a winning Cincinnati ballclub.
Even if they won’t be favorites to play into October this year, Reds fans have quite a fun winter ahead of them. After all, the long-suffering Cincinnati baseball fans can finally sense the other side of the rebuild materializing on the horizon. What’s more, the moves made and players acquired this offseason will (hopefully) help bring the next contending Reds team into focus. Expectations should remain tempered, but it’s finally a fun time again to be a Reds fan.