After coming up short in this year’s Wild Card race, the Reds’ offseason has mostly continued along sour lines for the team’s fans. On the first day of the offseason, Tucker Barnhart was sent packing to Detroit. Shortly after that, GM Nick Krall said that the club “must align our payroll to our resources,” seemingly forecasting a gloomy winter of budget cuts in Cincinnati. That was followed by Nick Castellanos opting out of his contract and rejecting a qualifying offer. Then, Wade Miley was claimed on waivers by the division-rival Cubs, despite Miley having a $10MM club option for 2022 — an eminently reasonable salary for a pitcher who was worth 2.9 fWAR (per FanGraphs) or 5.6 bWAR (according to Baseball Reference).
In the four weeks since that time, all of the rumours surrounding the club have been about other teams circling their rotation like vultures, trying to acquire Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray or Tyler Mahle. It’s fairly logical that teams would come calling for those three talented arms, as they all come with two years of inexpensive control and pitching is simply always in demand. However, if you’re the Reds and you want to shave money off your payroll, a preferable option might be someone whose name hasn’t come up in trade rumors at all: Mike Moustakas.
“Moose” has two years remaining on the four-year, $64MM deal he signed two years ago, then the largest free agent signing in Reds franchise history. (That mark was tied the following month with the deal for Castellanos.) Moustakas will make $16MM in 2022, $18MM in 2023 and then Cincinnati holds a $20MM club option for 2024 that comes with a $4MM buyout.
That $16MM salary for 2022 makes him the second-highest paid player on team, trailing only Joey Votto. Moving that contract could therefore save about as much money as moving two of their three in-demand starters, given that Gray will be making $10.7 million this year, and Castillo and Mahle are projected to earn arbitration salaries of $7.6MM and $5.6MM, respectively. It also makes sense to move Moustakas given that his incumbent position of second base has been taken over by Jonathan India, who had a breakout season in 2021, earning himself the NL Rookie of the Year award in the process.
The trouble for Cincy is that trading Moustakas now would be selling low, as he just had an injury-ravaged campaign that was his worst in years, maybe the worst of his career. The infielder made multiple trips to the injured list due to issues with his heel, resulting in 62 games and 206 plate appearance. Even when he could take the field, Moustakas didn’t look like his old self. From 2015 to 2020, Moustakas hit .262/.326/.490, which amounts to a wRC+ of 113 and 12.5 fWAR. In 2021, he slashed a meager .208/.282/.372, producing a wRC+ of 70 and negative 0.4 fWAR — both career worsts.
Trading players when their value is low is generally unwise strategy, but for a Reds team on a limited budget, it might be the least-bad option they have. On paper, they currently have a platoon at third base, with Moustakas sharing time with Eugenio Suarez. However, Suarez is also coming off a down season and doesn’t have injuries to blame for it (although he could blame the team’s ill-advised attempts to turn him into a shortstop at the age of 29). Suarez has three years and $35MM left on his deal, with a salary of $11.3MM in 2022. That means the club currently has over $27MM dedicated to third base, between Suarez and Moustakas. For a club looking to cut costs, that seems even less wise than trading low on one of them.
Despite coming off a terrible campaign, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that another club could see the reasons for optimism. At 33, Moustakas is not too old to return to his previous form, as evidenced by his teammate Votto, who just had a tremendous year in his age-37 season. If he can return to health, he could be seen as an intriguing buy-low candidate. However, would a team give up anything of value for Moustakas while Kyle Seager is just sitting there on the open market?
Seager is less than a year older than Moustakas, has never had serious injury issues, and MLBTR predicts Seager for a deal in the range of two years and $24MM. Brad Miller, Josh Harrison or Jonathan Villar represent even less-expensive third base options on the open market. Win-now teams would also presumably be more interested in a trade candidate like Matt Chapman, assuming Oakland follows through on their planned selloff.
That means the Reds would almost certainly have to sweeten the pot of any Moose-based deal, perhaps including prospects. For a recent example, the Brewers recently traded Jackie Bradley Jr., who was also coming off arguably the worst season of his career. They had to include a pair of prospects, but still got a useful player out of the deal in the form of Hunter Renfroe.
The Reds’ front office seems to be stuck between a rock and a hard place, as while they weren’t good enough in 2021 and need to improve, they haven’t been given enough money from ownership to do so. On the other hand, Cincinnati also has too much young talent to go into a full rebuild, with India, Tyler Stephenson, Vladimir Gutierrez, Lucas Sims, Jose Barrero, Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo forming a nice core of cheap and controllable players, alongside veterans like Votto, Suarez, Jesse Winker, and the rotation trio of Castillo, Gray and Mahle. Finding a version of the Renfroe trade could be their best path to supplementing a talented roster, instead of subtracting from it by trading one of their starting pitchers.
Perhaps a team like the Nationals would be interested in Moustakas and a couple of prospects? After all, they’ve just undergone a big selloff and seem unlikely to be aggressive in returning to contention in the short term. After running payrolls near $200MM in many recent years, the Nats are only projected at $118MM for 2022, according to Jason Martinez of Roster Resource. They could easily take on the $16MM owed to Moose and have him off the books by their last year of control over Juan Soto in 2024. Moustakas would also give Washington a fallback option in the event Carter Kieboom continues with his struggles at the MLB level.
The Diamondbacks have a tall hill to climb in order to return to being competitive, as they are staring up at the Dodgers, Giants and Padres. They only have about $85MM on the books for 2022, per Martinez, but have had payrolls in the range of $130MM in recent years, per Cot’s Baseball Contracts. They currently have Josh Rojas penciled in at third base, but he’s actually played at second more often so far. If the long-rumored Ketel Marte trade ever comes to fruition, Rojas could take over at second with Moose at third.
The Rockies are interested in adding a third baseman, as evidenced by their rumored interest in Kris Bryant. But if Bryant goes elsewhere, why not take on Moustakas and hope that he can use the Colorado air to get back into a groove at the plate? As notable as Moustakas’ salary is, his $16MM figure is certainly lower than what Bryant will earn in free agency.
And let’s not discount the possibility of a competitive team believing enough in a Moustakas bounceback to look for this kind of a deal. After all, the Red Sox just made it at far as the ALCS in 2021, but they’re now taking on extra prospects and crossing their fingers in the hope of Bradley rebounding from a brutal offensive year. Bradley comes with a higher floor than Moustakas because of his excellent glovework, but still, the logic is similar. Buy low on a big leaguer and make a wish, while filling out your team’s prospect pipeline. Even if the Reds can’t get themselves an exciting return on a deal like this, the real return would be hanging onto Castillo, Gray and Mahle for another couple of runs at the NL Central while the Pirates and Cubs are retooling.