The Roster Dominos Start to Fall for the Reds

The period between the end of the World Series and the official start of free agency is usually uneventful, with teams taking care of procedural moves to get their rosters ready for the long offseason. That wasn’t the case for the Reds. On the first day of the offseason, the team traded Tucker Barnhart to the Tigers for infield prospect Nick Quintana. A day later, Nick Castellanos exercised his opt-out clause, forgoing two more years in Cincinnati and $34 million in total salary to test the market. A few days later, the Cubs announced they had claimed a surprisingly available Wade Miley off waivers. It was a pretty eventful few days for the Reds, and they now enter the offseason with a lot more question marks hanging over their roster than they had before the Fall Classic’s conclusion.

All three of these moves have significant implications for the Reds’ payroll in 2022. In a media session after the Barnhart trade last Wednesday, Reds general manager Nick Krall explained the reasoning behind that move: “Going into 2022, we must align our payroll to our resources and continue focusing on scouting and developing young talent from within our system.” That same rationale explains why Miley was so freely available to the league on waivers. While Castellanos opting out of his two remaining years with the club was unsurprising after his phenomenal 2021, his $17 million salary next year is now off the books, and both Barnhart and Miley held club options for next season — $7.5 million for the former and $10 million for the latter.

Even though those comments from Krall are couched in business speak, it’s not hard to understand the direction the Reds are headed this offseason. After a hefty increase in payroll from just over $100 million in 2018 to a non-pro-rated $149 million in ’20, the Reds look like they’re about to cut spending for the second season in a row. Even with Castellanos, Barnhart, and Miley off the roster, their estimated payroll for 2022 currently comes out to $131 million, $10 million over their final payroll figure for this season and just $17 million below the franchise high-water mark from 2020.

Given that payroll number and their comments, the Reds probably don’t have much room to add any players to address the numerous holes on their roster. They currently have just over $70 million in salary committed to five players in 2022: Joey Votto ($25MM), Mike Moustakas ($16MM), Sonny Gray ($10.7MM), Eugenio Suárez ($11.3MM), and Shogo Akiyama ($8MM). And that doesn’t take into account the 10 players due to receive a raise in salary arbitration this offseason. It’s likely they’ll try to move Moustakas, Gray, or another one of their high-priced players to free up further salary space. But this isn’t a case of addition by subtraction; the Reds are taking steps to field a team that constitutes a significant step back from the competitive rosters from the last two seasons.

After making so many investments in their roster after the 2019 season and securing a surprise postseason berth in ‘20, the Reds were hoping to build off that momentum this year. If it weren’t for the Cardinals miracle run in September to secure the second NL Wild Card spot, the Reds might have made the playoffs for the second consecutive season. Instead, it looks like they’ll be heading into an unfortunate stagnation until some of their top prospects are ready to make their major league debuts. The latest rumors have them listening on offers for Luis Castillo, a move that would signal a much more significant rebuild.

Barnhart was the second-longest tenured Reds player after Votto; he was drafted by Cincinnati in 2009 and debuted with them in ’14, serving as their primary backstop for the majority of his eight-year career. He has established himself as an adequate presence in the lineup while providing excellent defense behind the plate. His career offensive production has been 18% below league average, though that doesn’t seem so bad when considering the 89 wRC+ his peers at catcher put up in 2021. He hits for a bit of power and has shown some patience in the past — this season was the first where his walk rate dropped below league average since his initial call-up in 2014. His biggest issue at the plate has been a strikeout rate that’s increased year-over-year since 2017, from 16.1% to 25.8%.

He has historically hit right-handed pitching better during his career; his handedness split features a 55 point difference in wOBA. Of course, for most of his career, he was a switch hitter. He transitioned to batting left-handed — his natural side — full-time in late 2019. Despite giving up the advantage against same-handed pitching, his handedness split fell to just a 15 point difference in wOBA in 2021. Still, his overall offensive output didn’t meaningfully change all that much after making the switch; he had an 82 wRC+ as a switch hitter and has a 81 wRC+ as a left-handed hitter.

For the Tigers, Barnhart will likely be penciled in as the regular starter behind the plate. The Tigers had a surprisingly competent group of catchers in 2021, though they weren’t without faults. Eric Haase led the way with a 100 wRC+ and 22 home runs, but his defense left a lot to be desired. He also looked worn down towards the end of the year after catching regularly for most of the second half of the season. The other member of the Tigers catching tandem, Jake Rogers (115 wRC+), was lost to Tommy John surgery midseason and will miss all of 2022 recovering from that procedure.

In Barnhart, Detroit will have a natural platoon partner to pair with Haase and a catcher who is well regarded for his work behind the plate. Barnhart won a Gold Glove in 2017 and ‘20, and has produced positive pitch framing marks for the last three seasons. With such a young pitching staff to manage as they move out of their long rebuilding phase, the Tigers have to be thrilled with the experienced presence Barnhart will bring to the roster.

In return, the Reds received infielder Nick Quintana. He was a 2019 college draftee who struggled in his first taste of professional baseball and then lost a year of development due to the pandemic. He was ranked 13th in Detroit’s system entering 2021 but didn’t really do much to improve his standing in his second professional season, posting a .196/.329/.346 slash line (91 wRC+) in A-ball. Without strong batted ball peripherals (101 mph max exit velocity and a 5% barrel rate) to redeem his poor showing this year, he’s probably slipped to the 35+ FV tier or lower in the Reds organizational rankings.

With Tyler Stephenson’s emergence as a solid contributor in his first full season in the majors, Barnhart was a bit superfluous for the Reds, especially if they are looking to cut payroll. Miley’s departure from Cincinnati is a bit harder to parse. He enjoyed a resurgent season in 2021, pitching to a 3.37 ERA that far outpaced his still good 3.97 FIP. By WAR, it was the best season of Miley’s career since his first full season in the majors in 2012. He threw a no-hitter against Cleveland in early May and was a key member of a Reds rotation that otherwise dealt with plenty of inconsistent performers. Unfortunately, he really faded down the stretch, pitching to a 8.35 ERA in four September starts and eventually succumbing to a neck injury that had been bothering him for most of the month.

Miley will turn 35 in just a few days, so he doesn’t really fit into the Reds plans for the future, but a $10 million option for 2022 seemed like a no-brainer for a proven innings-eater coming off a fantastic season. Instead, the Reds shopped him around heading into the offseason and wound up losing him on waivers without any compensation in return. It was the ultimate cost cutting move. Not only did the Reds not want to exercise his option for 2022, they didn’t even want to pay the $1 million buyout on the option. Had they picked up his option for next year and continued to shop him around in the hopes to move him before the beginning of the season, I suppose the risk would have been finding a trading partner who wanted some of Miley’s salary to be covered by the Reds or not closing a deal at all before the beginning of next season. But cutting him loose before the market even had a chance to develop and claiming no team had interest in trading for him rings a little hollow. Obviously, the Cubs were interested in Miley’s services with his full $10 million salary, even if seven other teams — the Orioles, Diamondbacks, Pirates, Rangers, Nationals and Marlins — passed on his services before he reached Chicago in the waiver process. Perhaps that says more about the place those seven teams view themselves heading into this offseason than the desirability of Miley. Pitching is always in demand, and the Reds’ reluctance to take on the risk of having to pay even a portion of Miley’s salary screams extreme penny pinching.

For the Cubs, Miley essentially replaces the innings Zach Davies provided in 2021. He slots in behind Kyle Hendricks in the rotation and should provide the Cubs with exactly the kind of innings the Reds might need in 2022 for a division rival. Chicago also has a bunch of younger starters in Adbert Alzolay, Justin Steele, Keegan Thompson, and Brailyn Márquez who all might be looking to establish themselves in the majors next year. With Miley in the fold, the Cubs have the luxury of giving those young pitchers time to develop at the right pace without having to throw them into the major league rotation to simply fill innings during the summer.

The Reds also have a handful of young starting pitchers who could be ready to make the leap to the majors in 2022. Reiver Sanmartin made his debut in September and should have a good shot at filling the fifth spot in the Reds rotation next spring, and their top two pitching prospects, Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo, both finished successful minor league seasons at Triple-A. All three of those young arms could make an impact in the rotation next season. Moving Miley clears the way for them, even if it means the Reds pitching depth takes a significant hit. Of course, that assumes the Reds aren’t going to move any of their other starters and Gray, who is in the final year of his contract, has been rumored to be very available this offseason. If any of Sanmartin, Greene, or Lodolo take a step back next year or need further development in the minors, the Reds could be looking for a starter like Miley to eat innings for them while their prospects marinate.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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2 years ago

Hopefully, Bob is clearing the books for a sale of the team. They need fresh ownership.

2 years ago
Reply to  barry6124

Yup. The Reds have essentially had four eras since the Castellini ownership group came in…

2006-09: 304-344 (26th, down in the dumps)
2010-13: 357-291 (7th, glory years)
2014-18: 343-467 (30th, deeper in the dumps)
2019-21: 189-195 (16th, all in for mediocrity)

Looks like 2022-23 is gonna be a lot closer to 2006-09 than it is to 2019-21 & there is really no clear path back to anything resembling 2010-13 anytime soon.