We’re continuing with our “Three Needs” series, in which we take a look at the chief issues to be addressed for clubs that have fallen out of contention. We’ll now turn to a Reds club that has its eyes fixed on returning to the postseason. Having already pulled off a surprising mid-season strike for veteran righty Trevor Bauer, the Reds will be looking to add a few more key pieces this winter.
1. Take Heed Of Other Teams’ Ramp-Up Difficulties
When fans hear Cincinnati baseball ops chief Dick Williams speak of riding a bigger payroll to the postseason, they surely have flashbacks to the team’s recent 2010-13 inflection point. But they should shudder at the thought of what came before (nine-straight losing campaigns) and after (six straight) that four-season stretch. Williams and co. must work not only to get back to the promised land, but to create a sustainable (or at least more swiftly recoverable) means of doing so.
As they ponder the possibilities, the Reds need to be mindful of the recent experiences of the NL-rival Rockies and Diamondbacks — two clubs that have historically occupied similar tax brackets while dealing with the challenges of offensively charged home parks. While the Colorado organization successfully cracked the postseason code for two-straight seasons, its ramped-up free-agent spending — especially, on multiple veteran relievers — didn’t deliver the hoped-for impact. The Rockies have rather swiftly found themselves in a tight payroll spot. Before that, the Snakes slammed the pedal to the floor a bit too hard — the Shelby Miller trade and Zack Greinke signing — and veered right off course.
We’re not suggesting the Reds shouldn’t be excited to fling open a window of contention. But the club needs to measure its moves carefully, especially since it already parted with touted prospect Taylor Trammell in the Bauer swap. Running up payroll for a single season isn’t necessarily a problem, but the club can ill afford multiple, hefty, unproductive contracts like those the Rockies have accumulated. And it will be even more wary of Arizona-like over-exuberance that could cost a rare chance at an extended period of competitiveness.
Precisely how to navigate things will depend upon the opportunities that arise. But the Reds can look to some other National League clubs for guidance. The Braves (Josh Donaldson, Dallas Keuchel) and Brewers (Yasmani Grandal) both cashed in with expensive, one-year deals. Had they fallen flat, the clubs would simply have shrugged and moved on. If the Reds are to place a longer-term bet, it probably shouldn’t come in a bidding war on a veteran reliever. Last year’s acquisition and extension of Sonny Gray would be hard to replicate, but spreading the cost over a slightly longer term (as the Rangers have with Lance Lynn and Mike Minor) could give the team a shot at landing a high-quality player at an affordable price.
2. Pursue Upside Up The Middle
It just so happens that the Reds are less-than-settled in the middle infield. Jose Iglesias turned in a solid campaign but is a free agent. Jose Peraza can be tasked with a utility role but not trusted as a regular. The club controls the rights to Freddy Galvis, but he should be a reserve on a contender. Nick Senzel is uber-talented and capable of playing center field or second base, so there’s some flexibility to work with for the Reds. There’s at least a sturdy floor behind the dish, but the defensively renowned Tucker Barnhart doesn’t have much of a bat.
This may be the place for the Reds to strike. On the one hand, the upcoming open market isn’t laden with great possibilities. There are quite a few guys that have at times been solid or better middle infielders, but it’s awfully light on players that appear to be present-talent true regulars. And the center field market is barren. But that also reflects the fact that many teams are already settled in these areas. And there are some intriguing options, including the aforementioned Grandal as well as old friend and bounceback candidate Didi Gregorius. It’s far from clear what’ll be available via trade, but there could be some awfully appealing names dangled. The pie-in-the-sky trade candidates are Francisco Lindor and Marcus Semien, who can’t be ruled out entirely given their respective organizations’ long-view strategies. It’s much easier to envision Starling Marte coming available, and he’d be quite an interesting target with two cost-controlled seasons left on his deal. Jackie Bradley Jr. and Ender Inciarte are among the potentially available players that are somewhat interesting but lower-ceiling possibilities.
Yep, the Reds still need to bear in mind the issues raised in item #1 above. An all-in strategy to go for Semien without an extension in place would likely not be wise. But if the Cincinnati club is going to go past its comfort zone a bit, it ought to be on a player who not only has a sturdy anticipated performance floor but also carries some real star potential. There are relatively few options, so they might need to be explored early. If nothing comes available at a reasonable price, the Reds can pivot to the many affordable options while seeing if anything has fallen through the cracks (Yasiel Puig???) in other areas.
3. Don’t Forget Pitching Depth
Yeah, the Reds got really nice output from their rotation this year and picked up Bauer to help lead the charge in 2020. And they have clear need to improve up the middle and/or with a new outfield bat. But this team could easily get in trouble if it doesn’t allocate some resources to protect the pitching staff, especially with Great American Ball Park as the backdrop.
Here’s the thing to bear in mind when you start thinking about whether and how the Reds can build off of 2019: they are unlikely to enjoy such phenomenal pitching health. Aside from Alex Wood, who returned for seven starts after missing much of the season, the club’s starters were more or less always available when scheduled. And the relief corps received voluminous contributions from its best arms: Amir Garrett made 69 appearances; Robert Stephenson and Raisel Iglesias each cracked sixty innings; Michael Lorenzen threw 83 1/3 frames.
While the Reds might not feel a need to chase improvement in the pitching staff, they ought to be relatively aggressive with spending 2020 cash on depth arms. There are a range of possibilities — the acquisition of a volume swingman, risking a bit of payroll space on a few durable veteran relievers, targeting optionable arms on waiver claims — but the overarching approach must build in some contingencies. Not doing so carries significant risk. Early-season pitching additions can be exceptionally pricey and it’s a long time to wait til the trade deadline when you’re trying to break back into the postseason.