We’re a little more than six weeks away from the trade deadline, and it appears July is going to be a month of difficult decisions for the Reds front office. Cincinnati sits at 32-31, third place in the NL Central. They’re slightly ahead of the Cardinals and five games back of the Cubs and Brewers, who are tied for the division lead. With the Giants surprisingly leading the star-studded Dodgers and Padres out west, the two wild card spots will be hard to come by in the National League.
By most measures, the Reds look like an average team. Their record is marginally above .500, while their -10 run differential is eighteenth among the league’s thirty clubs. FanGraphs’ rest of season projections have the Reds playing at an 80-82 pace; when coupled with their current record, they’d land right at 81-81 if they perform at that projected level from here on out.
Finishing .500 wouldn’t be enough to make the playoffs, but the Reds also aren’t that far away from the postseason picture. The Cubs and Brewers have played well to this point but each has some obvious deficiencies on the roster (starting pitching for Chicago, the bottom of the lineup in Milwaukee). It doesn’t seem either team will run away with the division. Indeed, FanGraphs’ playoff odds give the Reds a 14.6% chance of making it to the postseason- unlikely, but not out of the question.
It’s possible the team will just define itself one way or another in the coming weeks. They still have 40 games to play before the July 30 deadline. If they go 25-15, they’d look like legitimate division contenders. A 15-25 swoon would make them an obvious seller. But what if Cincinnati plays .500 ball over the next month and a half- as they have so far and as the projections expect them to the rest of the way? The Reds would still be a long shot at that point, with playoff odds likely a bit lower than they are now (since they’d have even less time to make up ground on the teams in front of them). But they wouldn’t be completely out of contention, and selling at the deadline would be a tough sell to the fanbase.
Cincinnati suffered through six consecutive losing seasons from 2014-19. The organization made a concerted effort to end that run late in the 2019 season, acquiring Trevor Bauer with an eye towards 2020 and signing Mike Moustakas and Nick Castellanos the following offseason. They did snap the streak of below-average records in last year’s shortened season, but it took a playoff expansion for them to get into the postseason, where they were swept by the Braves without scoring a run. (That marked the 25th consecutive season since the Reds last won a playoff series, the longest active draught in MLB).
They’ve already lost to Bauer to free agency, and Castellanos could soon depart himself. The 29-year-old is having a fantastic season, sitting on a .361/.416/.635 line with 13 home runs in 255 plate appearances. Given that level of performance, it’d take a massive collapse or injury for him not to opt out of the remaining two years and $34MM in guarantees on his contract. Castellanos opting out wouldn’t preclude the Reds from re-signing him, of course, but it’s not clear ownership would be willing to sign off on another significant outlay.
The Reds slashed payroll from $147MM in 2020 (prior to prorating) to $122MM this season on the heels of last year’s revenue losses. Next year, they’ll still be on the hook for substantial salaries to Joey Votto ($25MM), Moustakas ($16MM), Eugenio Suárez ($11.286MM) and Sonny Gray ($10.867MM), per Cot’s Baseball Contracts, before accounting for arbitration raises for a group including Jesse Winker and Luis Castillo. Unless ownership is willing to again increase spending on player payroll, it could be tough to commit to a raise for Castellanos.
If the Reds aren’t going to re-sign Castellanos, there’s a case they should field offers on him this summer. As the sport’s third-best qualified hitter (behind only Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Winker), he’d draw no shortage of interest. Castellanos would almost certainly command a prospect return greater in value than the compensatory draft pick the Reds would receive if they allowed him to depart as a free agent after making a qualifying offer. Trading away one of the game’s top bats would be a tough sell to a fan base that has seen very little recent success, though, particularly if the Reds remain only a handful of games back in the division race.
Maybe the team’s performance will make the Reds direction obvious by July 30. If they continue to play at the level they have been, however, their front office will have some very difficult decisions to make.