Since his first call-up to the Reds in 2007, Ryan Hanigan has been about as dependable a player as a catcher could be. He's stayed relatively healthy, he's walked more than he's struck out, he's been an on-base prowess in the bottom half of the lineup, he's handled the pitching staff extremely well, and he's provided top-flight defense in managing the running game. Slyde will tell you how excellent his catcher ERA has been, too.
He has also done that while accounting for virtually nothing in terms of payroll.
Hanigan signed a 3 year, $4 million contract following the 2010 season where he hit .300/.405/.429 in 243 PA, and while he's yet to equal any of those levels of production (aside from PAs, which he's topped in each year since), he's still managed to accumulate 4.5 fWAR in the two full seasons, 2011 and 2012, since inking his contract. That 3 year deal gave him a slight raise for his final pre-arbitration year and bought out his first two arbitration-eligible years for roughly $3.45 million, and he's been a steal of a bargain throughout.
That contract is up after the 2013 season, however. The Reds still control his rights for the 2014 season (as he'll be arbitration eligible for the 3rd time), so they'll be facing a multifaceted decision at some point soon (likely this offseason): do they extend him, or do they trade him?
I said multifaceted in the last paragraph, and that's not just a random big word I plucked out of a dictionary to make my paper look longer before I turn it in; Hanigan's situation has a lot of moving parts. I'll try to break those down as best I can.
While Hanigan has provided consistent OBP since signing his contract, his overall OPS, OPS+, ISO, and wOBA have been falling consistently since his breakout 2010 campaign, and while I'm certain the injury issues he faced at the start of the 2013 contributed to his poor start to the season, I can't honestly say they were the only reasons his overall production has dipped. His SLG had dipped below his OBP, and that's never a good sign for any player, much less one approaching what could be the biggest single-season contract of his career.
While Hanigan has posted fWAR totals of 1.8 and 2.7 in 2011 and 2012 respectively, he's going to have to have a hell of an offensive turnaround to reach those levels this year given his DL stint and lack of offensive production. It's likely that he'd be offered around $3.5 million in arbitration next season, which would place him in the top half of all MLB catchers in terms of 2012 salaries. The Reds would be forced to decide whether Hanigan would be capable enough offensively in 2013 to warrant that salary, and they'd also be facing the decision to play him, or to play Devin Mesoraco.
To say the Reds have invested as much in Devin Mesoraco as in any other player aside from Joey Votto isn't really that hyperbolic. After using a Top 15 pick on Mesoraco in the first round of the 2007 draft, the Reds were patient in his promotions while watching him initially struggle, and they ultimately traded away another highly regarded former first round pick (Yasmani Grandal) who had the exact same ETA in Cincinnati. They obviously believe in him despite his slow transition to the majors, and at some point, he'll get his opportunity to have the bulk of the playing time.
I would have to imagine that if Hanigan's decline continues through this season in similar fashion to in seasons prior, Mesoraco will begin to get the 'bulk' of the catching duties beginning in 2014. In Cincinnati under Dusty Baker, of course, bulk generally just means 3 of the 5 starts through the rotation, but it still would mean close to 400 PAs. The question becomes, then, if Hanigan isn't good enough to be your starting catcher, is it worth paying your backup catcher as if he's one of the top 15 catchers in baseball? As recently as last season, that would make him the highest paid backup catcher in all of baseball.
Hanigan has consistently been the go-to catcher for Bronson Arroyo, too, and with Arroyo also set to depart Cincinnati at season's end, the Reds may also feel more comfortable in not needing Hanigan around.
So what do the Reds do? What should they do?
I have a hard time detaching emotion from decisions like these even when I'm just moderately fond of a player, but when the topic in mention is one of my favorites it becomes even harder. Ryan Hanigan has always been exactly what I'd hoped I'd be as a baseball player: he walks more than he strikes out, he plays fantastic defense, he's a communicator, and he thinks about baseball like this. So I'm envious of him, I'm envious that the Reds have had him and had him cheaply, and I want to see Ryan get his due while winning games on my favorite team.
But when I remove emotion from the equation, I see a player that the Reds should trade this offseason. I see that other teams need players like him, I see a pitching staff that has matured to where they don't depend on him as much as in their formative years, and I see Devin Mesoraco as being capable of stepping forward in 2014. I see the list of catchers that will be Free Agents this offseason, and there are potential cheap backups galore (as we've seen with Dioner Navarro and Miguel Olivo).
I also see things like this, and I see the dates next to these as late 2012 and early 2013. The great Warren Buffet famously noted, "Be greedy when others are fearful, and fearful when others are greedy," and to me, this seems a similar situation to the latter. People see now what he's done and see what he's capable of, and if trading him is a way to get an impact piece for the 2014 (and beyond) Reds, I think it may be time to do just that.