Over the next few weeks, The Point of Pittsburgh will be evaluating the 5-year outlooks for each team in the National League Central. First up are the Cincinnati Reds.
In baseball, you really want to be in one of two places. You either want to be competing for a playoff spot or you want to be building towards competing for a playoff spot. The Cincinnati Reds find themselves in a third spot — a weird limbo where they’re neither competitive now nor do they appear to be fully committed to a re-build that will enable them to be competitive in the near future.
The Reds are paying nominal lip service to a rebuild. However, their prime trade asset (Aroldis Chapman) ended up being a salary dump, as the four players they got back were mainly organization filler and not impact prospects. After Chapman rehabbed his image with the Yankees, they flipped him to the Cubs for a very high-impact prospect in SS Gleyber Torres and some other interesting pieces.
When the Reds are making trades, like Todd Frazier to the White Sox, Aroldis Chapman to the Yankees, and even Dan Straily to the Marlins, they seem to be focusing on low-upside/MLB-close prospects in quantity, rather than impact prospects in quality.
How bleak is the future for the Reds? Let’s take a comprehensive look at the organization from the Major League product down to the minors to determine how long it will be for good times in the Queen City again.
Last 3 Opening Day Payrolls (via Cot’s Contracts)
- 2014 — $114.2M (76-86)
- 2015 — $115.4M (64-98)
- 2016 — $89.9M (68-94)
The Reds acknowledge they’re in a downturn, so they’ve cut payroll accordingly. What remains to be seen is where the payroll capacity will land when they potentially get good again. This past fall, the Reds signed a new long-term local TV deal, but the terms of the deal have (surprisingly) remained completely under wraps. I constructed a model for future TV deals based on metropolitan size, so I can speculate that they’ll be getting $27.4M per year, but that’s just my estimate.
The problem for the Reds is that their top three contracts are all problematic in different ways. The largest belongs to 1B Joey Votto, who remains an excellent player. However, he’ll need to remain an excellent player for a long, long time, as he’s under contract through 2023 (his age-39 season) at an average salary of $25M starting in 2018 (he’s making $22M this year). The second biggest contract belongs to RHP Homer Bailey, the nominal ace of the Reds that has not been healthy since signing his mega-deal. He still has 3 years/$63M remaining on his deal through 2019, with a $5M buyout in 2020. And he’s already starting off this year with an surgery to remove bone spurs in his right elbow. Their third-largest contract is to C Devin Mesoraco. It seemed like a good deal at the time, but Mesoraco has been beset by hip and shoulder injuries ever since signing it. He’s due $7.3M this year and $13.1M in 2018 and has only played 39 games since signing the deal in 2015.
Joey Votto is clearly a cornerstone and developing into a franchise icon, even if their own play-by-play announcer doesn’t like him much as a player. But that’s it. The rest of the players are either complementary types like defensive wizard CF Billy Hamilton, who can’t get on base enough to fully utilize his blazing speed, or RHP Raisel Iglesias, who appears to be staying solely in a closer role from this point out, or the rest are just average-at-best players.
2017 Top 100 Baseball America Prospects
- 3B Nick Senzel (#9, projected 2017 level A+)
- LHP Cody Reed (#69, projected 2017 level AAA/MLB)
- LHP Amir Garrett (#81, projected 2017 level AAA)
Here’s the rest of the Cincinnati Reds’ Top 10, as per Baseball America.
Nick Senzel is a prospect with a lot of burn behind him. The 2016 1st-rounder has landed in the Top 10 overall after a sizzling .329/.415/.567 debut in Low-A. I’m still waiting to see how he responds to a more challenging assignment over a full season in 2017 before I get too excited. He could be a cornerstone, but it probably won’t happen for at least 2-3 years. Remember, OF Jesse Winker had a similar hot start to his career until his power disappeared last year. To contrast, he’s a corner OF while Senzel can provide more value as a 3B, but the point still stands.
RHP Robert Stephenson has also plateaued. Once viewed as a future #2, he’s been unable to reign in his walk rate. His stock has also dropped in the past couple of years.
- 2017 ($92M committed salary) — The Reds were able to dump 2B Brandon Phillips on the Braves, but are paying his full $13M to do so. This gives them a chance to get Dilson Herrera and Jose Peraza some playing time. Once SS Zack Cozart departs after this year, whether through a trade or as a free agent, they can fully evaluate them and Eugenio Suarez. The Reds really need Homer Bailey to come back healthy and try to give them some value on his huge contract. The Reds have a whole rotation of young arms to evaluate (Finnegan, DeSclafini, Stephenson) to gauge their seaworthiness in this non-competitive year. Jesse Winker may see his Cincy debut in the middle of the year if he can demonstrate enough power. I would look to move CF Billy Hamilton and his two remaining years of control after this season is over to try and replenish the farm.
- 2018 ($64M committed salary)– The Reds still will have $64M of committed salary next year after Phillips goes off the books. Cody Reed and Amir Garrett should be getting regular turns in the rotation to evaluate their long-term potential with the team. The Reds will still be a pretty bad team on paper, but might be in the mid-70’s of wins.
- 2019 ($54M committed salary)– Mesoraco’s contract is off the books and this is Homer Bailey’s final guaranteed year, as well. The Reds would love to trade Bailey and his 1-year commitment wouldn’t scare teams off, providing he’s healthy and useful. 3B Nick Senzel should be on the precipice of his debut this year. RF Aristides Aquino could also see his debut, if he keeps his strikeouts under control while he’s bashing home runs. The Reds will still be in the mid-to-low 70’s of wins, but this is the first year I could see there being a glimmer of hope for a critical mass of players starting to form. Maybe if one of the plethora of young arms shows well in 2017/2018, they’ll consider signing them to a team-friendly deal. If Raisel Iglesias is a top-tier reliever, I’d look to move him after the season to recoup some value on his one remaining year of team control.
- 2020 ($35M committed salary) — How is Joey Votto and his $25M of salary looking at this point? He’ll be 36 this season and hopefully for the Reds there are no cracks in the veneer, because he’s still here for three seasons after this one. While it’s impossible to say how their farm system is looking at this point, I’d like to think that with a few judicious trades here and some strong drafting there that the Reds can start to supplement what could be their next core group of Senzel/Winker/Aquino, plus whatever arms have made it through the meat grinder and determined to be keepers. The Reds would be well-served to try and lock in one or two more guys on team-friendly deals, as they have just Votto’s $25M on the books after this year.
- 2021 ($25M committed salary) — This is Brandon Finnegan’s last year of team control, so if he hasn’t been determined to be a key future piece by now, he’ll probably be traded for something to recoup value. Votto and his deal need to keep trucking along. If the Reds can use 2020 as a showcase for their hopeful ascension to winning ways, some key free agents could be signed for what may be their first legitimate chance at a Wild Card in the next five years.
If you’re a Reds fan and you’ve gotten this far, I congratulate you. If you’re a Pirates fan, you are probably just soaking in all the schadenfreude of seeing another franchise aimlessly drift along, as the Pirates did for so many years. Of course things can change rapidly. One or two prospects could appear out of nowhere or a shrewd trade can bring an influx of talent to the system. But it appears at present that the Reds just don’t have that many interesting pieces to trade and two salary albatross contracts that will prevent them from properly rebuilding.