The Reds Aren’t Done Yet

Before the 2020 season, the Cincinnati Reds were a team on the rise. For two straight seasons, they’d built for the present, acquiring a dynamic pitching staff and attempting to rebuild their once-potent lineup. 2020 was going to be their year, the last year before Trevor Bauer’s free agency and the first with Mike Moustakas, Nick Castellanos, and Shogo Akiyama in tow.

The year didn’t work out particularly well for them, though. Their pitching was excellent, but the offense sputtered, and they scored a literal zero runs in their two playoff games, one of which went 13 innings. Just like that, the season was over. The team has been busy so far this offseason — they non-tendered Archie Bradley and Brian Goodwin, extended Bauer a Qualifying Offer before seeing him leave, and traded relievers Raisel Iglesias and Robert Stephenson. They’re also reportedly open to dealing Sonny Gray. Is the Reds’ brief run over?

I’m not so sure. Yes, the Reds have gotten worse this offseason. There’s no arguing that. Their Cy Young winner left in free agency (assuming he doesn’t return to Cincinnati, which seems unlikely). They traded their closer to save $8 million. They might be trading one of their other two great starters to save a little more money. That all sounds bad, no doubt.

Heck, though: you can make anything sound bad by describing it that way. The Cubs non-tendered two high draft picks who both contributed in 2020 to save a few bucks. The Cardinals declined an option on Kolten Wong that would have been a bargain — they explicitly stated that it was entirely to lower their payroll commitments for next year. The Brewers didn’t want to pay Corey Knebel, so they sent him to the Dodgers, who very much wanted to pay Corey Knebel.

All of these are active money-saving moves. The Reds’ three rivals for NL Central supremacy (sorry, Pirates) aren’t just shopping players or letting free agents leave in free agency — they’re getting rid of players with team control remaining to save on salary. Let’s take a look at the Reds’ moves and remaining roster to see what looks like cost-cutting, what looks like good baseball sense, and what the Reds’ 2021 outlook looks like.

Trevor Bauer

I’ll make this one short — this doesn’t reflect badly on the Reds at all, as far as I’m concerned. They traded for a player who was vocal about not accepting an extension and reaching free agency, which is completely reasonable; the price for two years of Bauer was Taylor Trammell, a few months of Yasiel Puig, and a low-level prospect.

After a few months of meaningless baseball in 2019 (where he experimented with sticky substances), Bauer was better than advertised in 2020. He was the best pitcher on the staff, and while the expanded and expansive playoffs meant that the Reds would have qualified regardless, it doesn’t make the decision to trade for Bauer any worse.

Regardless of the decision-making behind it, however, the Bauer trade was made with the expectation that he’d be gone after this year. Treating Bauer’s departure as a sign of the team taking a step back misunderstands the trade. Whether they replace him or not is a separate question, but players leave in free agency all the time. The Reds won’t replace Bauer’s production for his salary — $17.5 million before pro-rating — but that’s what they signed up for when they acquired him.

Archie Bradley and Brian Goodwin

Cincinnati traded for Bradley and Goodwin at this season’s trade deadline. Neither cost much — per Eric Longenhagen, the total outlay was two 40 FV prospects, a 40+ FV prospect, and a 35+ FV prospect. They subsequently non-tendered both players. Were these non-tenders solid strategy or desperation payroll shedding?

Bradley put together a solid 2020, but his star has diminished in recent years after excellent early returns on his tenure as a reliever. Depending on which projection system you prefer, we think he’ll be replacement level (Steamer) or quite solid (ZiPS) in 2021. Of note, his velocity cratered this year — he averaged 94.4 mph on his fastball, down 2.1 mph from his 2017 peak. His 9.1% swinging strike rate was also his lowest since he was a starter in 2016. If you want to believe he’s on the way out, in other words, the signs are there. He stood to receive between $4.5 and $5 million in arbitration, hardly a back-breaking sum, but I’m open to the argument that he would be the team’s fifth- or sixth-best reliever this year.

As for Goodwin, he was a strange fit even at the time. Coming into 2020, the Reds had too many outfielders. The universal DH seemed like a blessing — how else could you fit new acquisitions Castellanos and Akiyama into an outfield that already had Jesse Winker, Aristides Aquino, Nick Senzel, and Phillip Ervin in the fold? Injuries and ineffectiveness left an opening in center, however, and Goodwin contributed enough with the glove and bat to find consistent playing time there in September.

At roughly $3 million in arbitration, Goodwin was relatively affordable. Without the guarantee of a universal DH, however, it would be hard to find him playing time, even with Ervin now in Seattle and Aquino more of a question mark than he was before the year. Truthfully, though, Goodwin isn’t an everyday outfielder; he’s more of a platoon bat, and Akiyama is already a lefty-hitting center fielder. If Senzel handles center against left-handed pitching, where would Goodwin play? I don’t think non-tendering Goodwin was anything other than a baseball decision.

Raisel Iglesias

Iglesias was awesome in 2020. He struck out a career-high 34.1% of opposing batters, walked a career-low 5.5%, and generally looked like an archetypical shutdown reliever. Every team in baseball would be improved by adding Iglesias, who has one year and $9.125 million left on his contract before he becomes a free agent. Trading him for Noé Ramirez feels like a clear step down — and it is a clear step down. Ramirez will be on the fringes of the bullpen, rather than at the front of it.

Why make this trade, then? It’s reasonable to wonder if the Reds could spend money more efficiently than a high-leverage relief arm. At the moment, Michael Lorenzen slots into the rotation, but he’d be better served in a relief role, in my eyes at least. Cincinnati’s bullpen was a weak point in 2020, but bullpens are constantly in flux, and the Reds have a bevy of interesting arms that could break through any day.

Money is always limited, and spending on a reliever when the team could spend a similar amount of money to get a starter and keep Lorenzen in the ‘pen would hardly count as giving up. This is the trade that most looks like capitulation so far, but trading your moderately priced closer isn’t a teardown. It’s a strange move, for sure, and one that often accompanies a teardown, but as a one-off it hardly changes their expected talent level for next year.

Robert Stephenson

I think I just like this trade for the Reds, period? Jeff Hoffman is intriguing, likely out of the bullpen rather than in the rotation, though like Lorenzen he could probably handle either. Stephenson is a slider machine — he threw 65% sliders in 2020 — who is a completely fine middle reliever but might have plateaued. Hoffman might be better now, he’s controllable for longer, and look, good luck predicting the Rockies. Given the opportunity to get younger and cheaper, the Reds took it, and that just seems like business as usual.

Sonny Gray

Uh, yeah, trading Gray would be bad. It’s not easy — read, essentially impossible — to get win-now value in a trade where you give up the best player, and Gray would definitely be the best piece moving in a trade he’s involved in. Gray has three years left on his contract (including a $12 million club option for 2023), all of which are bargains on the team side. Project him for something like 10 WAR over those three years, and that’s both an excellent pitcher and a ton of surplus value. Even if you go a little lighter on the projection — say 8 WAR to account for a lot of aging — it’s clear that Gray is a valuable piece.

Teams can move good players and still try to compete, but if the Reds are moving Gray in an attempt to save money, they’ll have to accept prospects instead of currently good players. There simply aren’t a lot of players who are better than Gray while also making less than him, and all of those players are tremendously valuable. Sure, Juan Soto is better and cheaper than Gray, but so what? No one the Reds could feasibly acquire in exchange for Gray will fit that bill.

If the team does move Gray, I’ll take back my current optimism about Cincinnati. Until their talk turns into action, however, I think their offseason mostly makes sense. As fun as it is to want every team to just add, add, add indefinitely, it’s rarely a reasonable plan. The Reds set their sights on building a contender for 2020 and succeeded. They’ll need to adjust the roster to keep that going in 2021, but what they’ve done so far — moving money out of the bullpen — seems like a sensible move in a vacuum.

The current climate of spending being what it is, I understand the impulse to be skeptical of their longer-term goals. Saving in the bullpen is the first step in a reallocation of resources, but it’s also the first step in tearing down to save money. It’s easy to wonder which of the two will happen, and to be clear, I’m not ruling out the second.

Per RosterResource, the team projects for a $123 million payroll in 2021 after trading Iglesias. That would be roughly equivalent to their 2019 payroll, though about $20 million less than their pre-COVID projected 2020 payroll. That feels like a reasonable level for them, particularly if they add a bargain free agent or two. You don’t have to give teams the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their spending intentions, and in fact it’s often wrong to do so. In this case, however, I’m willing to wait and see what’s coming next for the Reds.





Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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vslyke
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Member

If you’re going to claim that Hoffman might be better than Stephenson, you need to provide some evidence of that. I don’t really see any basis for that claim.

Indymets
Member
Indymets

Perhaps Hoffman has the potential to go deeper into games. I didn’t watch the Rockies much, but Stephenson’s future seemed to be as a reliever.