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After a somewhat average first half, the Cincinnati Reds collapsed after the All-Star break and ultimately finished last in the NL Central. The result was a second consecutive 68-94 record and a fourth consecutive losing season. The organization will now need to answer some tough questions, including what they’ll do to improve a historically bad pitching staff, and whether or not they ought to try and sell off some established players like Billy Hamilton.
- Joey Votto, 1B: $150MM through 2023
- Homer Bailey, SP: $44MM through 2019 ($25MM mutual option for 2020, $5MM buyout)
- Devin Mesoraco, $13.1MM through 2018
- Raisel Iglesias, $16.6MM through 2020 (Can opt into arbitration for next season)
- Tucker Barnhart, $15.5MM through 2021 ($7.5MM option for 2022, $500K buyout)
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via MLB Trade Rumors)
- Scooter Gennett (4.071) – $6.1MM
- Billy Hamilton (4.028) – $5.0MM
- Anthony DeSclafani (3.062) – $1.1MM
- Eugenio Suarez (3.061) – $4.4MM
- Michael Lorenzen (2.159) – $1.4MM
- Raisel Iglesias (2.154) – $2.8MM if he chooses to opt into arbitration. Otherwise, contract calls for $4.5MM in 2018, $5MM in 2019, and $5MM in 2020.
With about $68.7MM tied up in payroll commitments for the upcoming season, along with $18MM in projected arbitration salaries, the Cincinnati Reds face limited retooling options for their 2018 roster. Unfortunately for Cincinnati fans, it seems as though the small-market Reds have more holes to fill on their roster than space in the budget. Top prospect Nick Senzel is likely to contribute at some point next season (according to comments made by GM Dick Williams), but he’d only fill a hole in the lineup left by Zack Cozart, who will either depart or become expensive to retain. Within a fiercely competitive division that includes four other teams pushing to contend, it’s unlikely that a few cheap patches will vault the Reds into contention within the NL Central.
Williams has stated that the team is interested in discussing a new deal with Cozart, but the Reds won’t be the only team vying for his services. The Rays, Royals, and Padres are all in need of a shortstop for the long-term. The Orioles could take a look as well, considering incumbent Tim Beckham’s horrid September and relative uncertainty. There are plenty of teams that would be interested in using him at second base as well. His .297/.385/.548 slash line this past season and solid defense made Cozart the fourth-most valuable shortstop in baseball by fWAR. Even if the Reds are willing to shell out the cash needed to keep their All-Star shortstop, there’s still the chance he’d rather play with a more likely contender. If Cozart ends up elsewhere, former top prospect Jose Peraza seems like the best bet to take his place at short.
The first decision the Reds will need to make on Cozart this offseason will be whether or not to issue him a $17.4MM qualifying offer. The rules are different overall this season, but the implications for Cozart and the Reds would likely remain the same. Because the Reds received revenue sharing in 2017, they would gain a compensatory draft pick after the first round of the 2018 draft next June, if Cozart signs a contract with another team worth at least $50MM. The additional pick (and corresponding slot money) would be a great asset to the club’s rebuild. But for the Reds and their limited payroll space, $17.4MM could end up severely handcuffing them in a non-contending season. That salary, along with guaranteed contracts, arbitration projections and league minimum salaries for the rest of the roster, would push their payroll north of $111MM for 2018, which would fall just $4MM short of their 2015 club record payroll. Such a high payroll could hurt the organization’s capacity to fill other holes on the roster through free agency. With Peraza waiting as a shortstop option with some upside, there’s at least a small chance the Reds could decide not to take the risk of giving Cozart a QO.
Anthony DeSclafani and Brandon Finnegan should be healthy enough in time for spring training to join Luis Castillo and Homer Bailey in a rotation that struggled mightily last year; Reds starters allowed the most homers in baseball and finished with the second-highest ERA and walk rate. Robert Stephenson, Rookie Davis, Cody Reed, Tim Adleman, Amir Garrett and top prospect Tyler Mahle are internal options for the fifth spot in the rotation if the Reds don’t sign anyone. It seems highly unlikely that they’ll be involved in the bidding for a top-tier starter due to their limited payroll space. There’s a chance they could give a three- or four-year contract to a number two or three starter type, but even that seems like a stretch given the risks involved and the fact that they aren’t likely to make the playoffs in the near future. Instead, they might end up exploring veteran options like Jaime Garcia and Andrew Cashner who have some upside and could eat innings for Cincinnati on less expensive contracts.
Outside of Raisel Iglesias, the Reds’ bullpen is still a disaster. After being so bad that they literally set records in 2016, their relievers combined to post the fourth-worst ERA in the majors this past year. 16 relievers pitched at least ten innings for Cincinnati this season, and nobody outside of Iglesias contributed more than 0.50 Win Probability Added (WPA). They’re likely to sign a couple of veterans in free agency, but it’ll be like trying to cover a bullet wound with a band-aid. It’s likely that we’ll see the Reds once again churn through a large number of relievers in hopes that someone will develop into a reliable setup option. Michael Lorenzen will be worth watching; he showed some promise as a multi-inning reliever before collapsing to the tune of a 6.32 ERA in the second half.
Even the lineup isn’t a true strength. Cincinnati finished middle of the pack in most offensive categories, even while playing in one of the most hitter-friendly parks in baseball. Most of that lineup will be coming back, but it seems like the Reds will have to hope that high-pedigree hitters Peraza and Jesse Winker can take big steps forward. Even then, it’s not a sure bet that Scooter Gennett and Scott Schebler will be able to replicate their 2017 breakout performances. On-base engine Joey Votto will anchor the lineup, but they’d need a lot to break right around him in order to consistently keep up with the runs their pitching staff is likely to allow.
Should the Reds decide to double down on their rebuild, they do have some assets that could help them further strengthen their farm system. Billy Hamilton and Gennett become free agents after the 2019 season. Neither is likely to play October baseball with the Reds before then; many of Cincinnati’s best prospects are still at least two years away, and the money owed to Bailey won’t make things easy on their payroll during that time. I already wrote about a few potential trade partners for Hamilton. Finding a partner for Gennett wouldn’t be too difficult; he’s capable of playing second, third and left field and is coming off the best offensive season of his career (though his continued struggles against lefties could limit his market).
Iglesias is another piece who could bring back a significant haul… recent deals for high-end relievers like Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman and Ken Giles have all brought back top 100 prospects to the selling teams. Though Iglesias hasn’t yet established himself to the level of Miller or Chapman, it’s easy to see him fetching a return similar to that of Giles.
Breakout infielder Eugenio Suarez could fetch a good return as well. However, since Iglesias and Suarez are both under control for another three seasons, they’re less likely to be traded. Joey Votto could be a trade asset, but his contract has a full no-trade clause, and he’s plainly stated that he doesn’t plan on waiving it.
There’s certainly no guarantee that the Reds will end up trading away Hamilton or Gennett. But if they do, they could look to fill holes in the center and the infield. Phil Ervin and Dilson Herrera are next on the depth chart respectively, but there are some free agent fill-in options as well. Jarrod Dyson, Cameron Maybin and Rajai Davis are examples of free agent center fielders that might get a close look should Hamilton change uniforms. There are a few free agent veterans that could be candidates to fill in as a stopgap at second base until Senzel is ready to take a spot on the big league roster if the team decides to move Gennett, but it seems more likely they would look at internal options or waiver claims.
One big question for the Reds this offseason is whether or not they’ll attempt to unload Bailey’s contract. It’s likely they’d need to eat a significant portion of it even if they do manage to trade him, but it’s possible that a big-budget team might be willing to take a chance on the expensive right-hander. The Phillies, for example, have a lot of payroll space and could afford to take a chance on Bailey rebounding and reestablishing some value. However, it would be difficult to convince any team to take on more than $10MM of his contract. With his value at a low point, the Reds might be best served to open the season with him in the rotation, and hope he can bounce back a bit before the trade deadline. At the very least, he’s better than most of the internal options behind him, and they’d likely spend at least some money on a free agent starter if they traded him, anyway.
It’s difficult to imagine the Reds making any major splashes in free agency. They’ll might sign one or two cheap veteran relievers, but that’s not going to simply fix their bullpen. Perhaps they’ll explore the market for starting pitchers, but unless they manage to retain Cozart, they probably won’t dole out significant money to land a big-name player. Instead, we’ll probably see them make some pitching acquisitions via waiver claim and maybe even the Rule 5 Draft, the latter depending on whether or not they choose to sell off some key pieces.
While the odds are stacked against the Reds posting a winning season in 2018, there are some high-end prospects in their minor league system that are worth being excited about. The next few seasons could prove tough for Cincinnati fans if the Reds choose to have a fire sale, but there’s plenty of upside in the organization, both at the major league level and down on the farm. So, will the Reds tear down their roster even further to supplement that talent? If not, to what extent will they attempt to push through their disadvantages in an effort to win? The Reds’ offseason will be a fun one to track.