When Can Cincinnati Paint the NL Central Red?

Elly De La Cruz
Sam Greene–The Enquirer

To put it charitably, it’s been a rough 18 months for fans of the Reds. Finding themselves surprisingly in the wild card race in July 2021, the team’s front office bravely ran away at the trade deadline, choosing only to improve the bullpen depth slightly. The downhill slope has only grown steeper since then, as the organization chose to go into full fire sale mode, trading practically every player with a significant contract who drew interest from another team. The exodus of talent had immediate results in Cincy: the team lost 100 games for the first time since 1982, when Reds GM Dick Wagner conducted his own fire sale on the dried-up husk of the Big Red Machine.

For anyone who may have thought that Cincinnati’s suddenly hard-line approach to spending was a temporary rebuilding strategy, ownership has done its best to disabuse fans off the notion. Bob Castellini was reportedly one of the owners who didn’t want to raise the luxury tax threshold at all, and he’s spoken repeatedly about the team’s finances. Club president Phil Castellini, during a lunch with a Reds booster group, gave a confusing presentation about how awful it was to own a baseball team, complete with a bizarre presentation that either made myriad mistakes or simply made up playoff projections from this very site. Most prognostications have the Reds challenging the Pirates for fourth place in the NL Central in 2023.

Against this backdrop, not all is doom and gloom. Despite the disappearance of talent at the major league level, there are a lot of interesting players in the minors. The farm system improved to eighth in the league in our late 2022 rankings, and five prospects made our recently released Top 100 Prospects list. The 2023 ZiPS projections for the Reds are bleak, but it’s more optimistic about the state of the farm system, ranking seven Cincinnati prospects in its Top 100. Overall, 11 players made the Top 200 in the ZiPS prospect list, including a ludicrous numbers of shortstops (five).

ZiPS Top Prospects – Cincinnati Reds
Player Position ZiPS Rank FanGraphs Rank
Elly De La Cruz SS 14 6
Noelvi Marte SS 15 94
Matt McLain SS 30 Unranked
Spencer Steer 3B 51 47
Edwin Arroyo SS 58 52
Allan Cerda CF 73 Unranked
Christian Encarnacion-Strand 3B 96 Unranked
Connor Phillips P 160 Unranked
Andrew Abbott P 170 Unranked
Jose Torres SS 190 Unranked
Chase Petty P 196 Unranked
Alejo Lopez 2B 211 Unranked
Michael Siani CF 223 Unranked
Rece Hinds RF 254 Unranked
Tyler Callihan 2B 308 Unranked
Ivan Johnson 2B 322 Unranked
Jay Allen II CF 335 Unranked
Matheu Nelson C 362 Unranked

There’s not a whole lot of pitching on this list, but the good news is that the Reds already have some promising arms on their roster. ZiPS thinks that the three front-end starters — Hunter Greene, Graham Ashcraft, and Nick Lodolo — will all make positive contributions in 2023, and odds are they’ll be even better come ’25 or ’26. Before and after a shoulder strain that cost most of his August, Greene was dominant in his 35 1/3 second-half innings, with a 1.02 ERA, 1.70 FIP, 13 strikeouts per game, and a walk rate cut in half from before the All-Star break. The last may be the most important; it doesn’t take a whole lot of innings to establish an improved (or worsened) walk rate. Lodolo, meanwhile, barely needed a half-season to put up 2 WAR, and Ashcraft and his high-90s fastball ought to have some strikeout upside.

If we construct a roster based on who is under contract or team control, you can cobble together most of a pretty interesting 2025 roster. Now, not all of these players will actually be on the roster in two years; the idea is to get the baseline for a team with the players the Reds currently have.

C Tyler Stephenson
1B Christian Encarnacion-Strand
2B Jonathan India
3B Noelvi Marte
SS Elly de la Cruz
LF Spencer Steer
CF Matt McLain
RF Allan Cerda
DH Jake Fraley

C Mat Nelson
IF Edwin Arroyo
OF Michael Siani
OF Stuart Fairchild

SP Hunter Greene
SP Nick Lodolo
SP Graham Ashcraft
SP Andrew Abbott
SP Connor Phillips

RP Alexis Díaz
RP Tejay Antone
RP Justin Dunn
RP Reiver Sanmartin
RP Ian Gibaut
RP Connor Overton
RP Joel Kuhnel
RP Ricky Karcher

You can no doubt quibble with any of these choices, because this is highly speculative. Maybe the shortstops sort themselves out in a different way, assuming that some aren’t directly traded for outfield help. Perhaps the Reds stick with Nick Senzel through his free-agent season, but I personally feel that he’s a prime suspect to be non-tendered after 2023. There are myriad choices that can be made differently, but generally speaking, if you can only make the 2025 Reds using in-organization players, the basic framework is likely to be something in this ballpark.

I did this with the Pirates last week (and the rest of the league), and I only got the Bucs to 76 wins in 2025. But the Reds have a sunnier baseline; with all teams under the same constraints, they “start” 2025 with a baseline projection of 85 wins. That’s not to say that will be the projection, only where the team stands in talent in 2025 compared to the rest of the league. And an 84-win team in the NL Central is a contender, unless someone decides to go all-in, Padres-style, in the next couple years.

This is where Cincinnati hits an important decision point. If a team like this looks to be a contender in 2025, would there actually be investment in the roster in free agency to get it over the top? The lack of this was the crucial element that doomed the good 2010s Pirates teams. Will the Castellinis, if they’re still the owners, stick to their financial guns when there’s a real chance at playoff contention? It doesn’t really make sense to spend a lot on the Reds as they’re currently constructed, but what happens when there’s a compelling reason to? I don’t know the answer to that question, though I’m cautiously pessimistic.

There’s a lot to not like about the Reds right now. But there’s a lot to like about their future, if ownership is willing to allow that future to fully bear fruit.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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airforce21one
11 months ago

Dan,

In your opinion, does the team ownership need to spend more money on the team, or less?

luke
11 months ago
Reply to  airforce21one

Read the article. That’s what the entire thing is about.

baubo
11 months ago
Reply to  airforce21one

When people talk about bad owners in other sports, it’s almost always because they’re clueless, too hands on, too attached to players, etc. Sure, there are a few outliers, like Dan Snyder, but overall everyone spend money. Hell James Dolan the laughingstock of the NBA pays his players handsomely and never cared to penny-pinch. Or just look at the other Cincinnati team that’s also considered inept by its fanbase over the years, and it’s still so much better than the Reds even pre-Burrow. It’s only baseball where inept = cheap.

So essentially my point is, when will people start clamoring for a specific player/owner split of the Baseball-Related-Income that the other major sports have? Instead of keeping on prodding big teams like the Red Sox and the Yankees to spend obscene amount of money and small teams to spend modicum amount of money, wouldn’t it be better to just FORCE every team to spend a good amount of money? And we can judge owners by their actual ineptness instead of just by how cheap they are?

wokegraphs
11 months ago
Reply to  baubo

Dan brings up a real-world example of a recent small market owner not investing enough when his team was good: Bob Nutting of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

sadtrombonemember
11 months ago
Reply to  baubo

Because neither the owners nor the players will agree to it? Too many owners would lose out under that system because it would include collective revenue sharing. And from the players’ perspective they don’t trust the owners to report revenues properly. These proposals also always come with a cap anyway, which the players view as a non-starter. The players for a while actually had a goal of rolling back revenue sharing, which I think is a terrible move for them and for the game but it tells you where they are.

baubo
11 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Eh, I’m pretty sure owners once proposed the idea of salary cap which essentially means revenue sharing and salary floor due to how the system has to work.

Players obviously don’t agree to it… but that’s the thing, right? Why are players complaining about a free market system they themselves advocated, when free market means owners can choose to not pay for player services? Its clear from other major sports that owners all show they’re all clearly rich billionaires when they’re forced to spend money. It’s only when they don’t need to spend, that they choose not to spend.

ballskwokmember
11 months ago
Reply to  baubo

The issue is that the market is not entirely free. The only reason the Reds, Pirates, A’s etc. are able to operate without spending significant money is because of the remnants of the reserve system that set a low cost for 0-3 year players (and still limits the cost of 4-6 year players). Without that, the stingier owners wouldn’t really have a choice not to spend something more than what they do. That said, I’m not totally sure it would be preferable for the league or the players for there not to be some limits on wages for incoming players. It would potentially compress salaries for the top level players in FA, and it might cause some real challenges for smaller market teams without more significant revenue sharing. The ultimate results for player salaries may be sort of similar to a cap and floor system.

sadtrombonemember
11 months ago
Reply to  ballskwok

This is why I’m in favor of going to arbitration after two years of service time and/or raising the minimum salary. If you want teams to spend more, that is the way to do it.

Lanidrac
11 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

But then they’d just cut back even more on free agent spending to make up for those losses.

sadtrombonemember
11 months ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

Some would, like the Rays, but I actually think most of them would not. Most of these teams are not quite as rational as we make them out to be.

Lanidrac
11 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

No, most teams are quite rational when it comes to managing their revenues versus expenses. Given holding reveune, a significant incease in expenses in one area usually means a necessary decrease of cutting expenses in other areas in order for the bottom line to remain intact.

It’s similar to how when the pandemic dropped revenues and the Player’s Union foolishly threw the upcoming free agency class under the bus by refusing to accept further 2020 salary pay cuts, most teams naturally dropped payroll significantly over the 2020-21 (and even 2021-22 to a degree) offseason in response.

The only way to force the small market teams to spend more on the Major League payroll is to have an explicit salary floor, and even then they’ll probably cut expenses in other areas like analytics, scouting, development, international signings, etc., although that would still likely be an overall improvement to MLB’s economics and competitive balance.

Last edited 11 months ago by Lanidrac
tbwhite67member
11 months ago
Reply to  ballskwok

No. Other sports have rookie contracts which are much cheaper than veteran contracts. The problem is you can’t have an all rookie NFL roster because there is a salary floor. It’s only MLB where some teams spend 10 times as much as other teams, and it ain’t because 60 years ago there was a reserve system.

Lanidrac
11 months ago
Reply to  ballskwok

They might spend a little more, but without that seniority salary system they would *never* be able to put together a competitive team! It’s a necessary evil to allow the small markets one good way to occasionally put together a window of contention via cheap, young stars that they draft and develop.

Last edited 11 months ago by Lanidrac
Roger McDowell Hot Foot
11 months ago
Reply to  baubo

I’m basically agnostic on this idea since it depends so much on the details (what split, exactly?) but it’s probably worth noting that baseball has, by most accounts, the strongest union and the most player-friendly revenue split of the major sports right now, under the current arrangement. (Probably by a lot.) Seems unlikely as a matter of labor relations that you could get the owners to agree to the fixed-split, fixed-spending deal and essentially lock in the players’ gains up till now — but also, if the players have been (in aggregate) better off than other athletes under the current non-fixed spending regime, why would they want to change it?

baubo
11 months ago

Splits are negotiated in the CBA. I think it’s 50/50 in NBA and like 52/48 in the NFL. So there’s no set amount it’s just whatever you can negotiate for.

And you’re right that supposedly baseball union is the strongest. But what has it done for its players? In terms of overall player salaries it’s still roughly 50/50 split with the owners. But baseball has by far the most difficult path to earnings of all major sports, up to unlimited years in the minors and 3+ pre-arb years in the majors before salary reaches over a million. I don’t think people have done studies but I’d bet MLB has easily the biggest players salary disparity in all of major sports.

So really from a player’s perspective it’s the haves and have nots. If you can be Gerrit Cole you’re golden. If you’re Gavin Lux though and have season-ending injury one year before your arbitration… your future earnings can get screwed dramatically.

Roger McDowell Hot Foot
11 months ago
Reply to  baubo

Totally agree that improving non-stars’ situation ought to be the front-burner problem for the MLBPA (though I think they’ve gotten better on it in the past 5 or so years already — negotiating fairly big increases in the minimum salary, etc). But I’m not clear why we should think that the negotiated-revenue-split thing would affect it one way or the other.