Walt Jocketty and his Jitterbug are undoubtedly going to be busy this winter.
The GM of the Cincinnati Reds has a bevy of crucial decisions to make before the 2015 squad heads to the Land of the Endless Strip Mall for spring training in February, and a myriad of moving parts will make each shot he calls more difficult than the average fan will give him credit for. There's a payroll crunch, a series of injuries to vital players, a crucial need for offense in an offensively depressed era, and a handful of key pitchers facing free agency that need their contracts either extended or pawned off. There's a top-heavy farm system that may need to be bolstered, yet there are openings on the major league roster that must be filled without forming blockades. There's a coaching staff that will need evaluation in its second year (under hopefully healthier circumstances), an owner bent on maintaining the success seen earlier this decade, and a city starved for a deep run before the current core begins a full decline.
And, of course, there's a National League Central Division that is poised to be the deepest, most talented division in all of baseball in 2015.
The Reds have backed themselves into an interesting corner, albeit one that doesn't completely prevent them from improving the club with the upcoming season in mind. The following is a list of the most important specifics Walt will have to navigate in order to make any sort of major move this offseason.
The 2014 Reds had the highest payroll in the NL Central at roughly $114 million, and the departures of Ryan Ludwick, Jack Hannahan, Ramon Santiago, and Jake Elmore won't shave any significant amount off that number. Factor in the arbitration raises due to Mike Leake, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Todd Frazier, Devin Mesoraco, Chris Heisey, Aroldis Chapman, Logan Ondrusek, and Zack Cozart, and the 2015 payroll will likely exceed the previous year's number even without a significant outside addition.
Jocketty is on record stating that the team won't be after any high-dollar guys, meaning any significant addition will either need his existing salary to be partially covered by the trading team, his existing salary to be cheap, or his salary addition to be offset by the trade of one of the high-dollar players currently on the Reds. Given the recent history of Walt's moves, that suggests that a trade will be the way the team looks to augment the poor offensive performance of 2014.
The Starting Rotation
The Reds have cultivated an army of arms in recent years, a far cry from the days when Paul Wilson started on Opening Day and Todd Van Poppel was being counted on for double-digit starts each season. If no moves are made, the club will reach Goodyear in February with each of Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake, Alfredo Simon, Tony Cingrani, Daniel Corcino, David Holmberg, and Dylan Axelrod under contract and having made multiple starts for the team in 2014. Robert Stephenson will potentially be in the mix, too, after having been ranked by some as the top RHP in the minors prior to 2014, as will well regarded arms like Michael Lorenzen, Jon Moscot, and Ben Lively. The club also invested heavily in Cuban defector Raisel Iglesias, and the 7 year contract they signed him to included intentions on trying him out as a starter.
There is no denying that there's depth. The question, however, is whether there's too much depth for the 25 man roster and payroll to agree with one another for the 2015 season.
Each of Latos, Leake, Simon, and Cueto are entering their last years under contract in 2015, meaning Walt will face decisions surrounding each's place in the team's future plans, and soon. If any is deemed to not be a fiscally prudent piece long-term, the only way to maximize their value on the trade market would be to move one - or more - before the season in order to keep any potential Qualifying Offer (QO) on the table (since players traded in-season aren't allowed to receive QO's at the end of the season). With the likelihood of each being signed to long deals virtually nil, this is the most feasible set of trade bait Walt will have to work with.
However, the elephant in the room is the projected health of the rest of the staff, since Bailey was shelved with forearm surgery in September, Cingrani missed the bulk of the year with shoulder issues, and converted reliever Simon pitched over 110 innings more in 2014 than in either 2013 or 2012. How much those three can be counted on will weigh heavily on any decision to move any of the SPs.
Finding a Bat in a Batless Market
League-average OPS in 2014 was just .700, the lowest such mark in over 20 years. League-average slugging percentage was a paltry .386, also the lowest such mark in over 20 years. While the Reds' bats were busy sleepwalking their way to being the worst hitting team in baseball this side of the San Diego Padres, most every other team was also busy having seasons much worse than those they'd had in recent memory, too.
Offense is down across the board, and MLB has entered into an age that is being dominated by pitching, defense, and creative scouting that has made any player who can get on base with any sort of power a prized commodity. Unfortunately, that's the exact commodity that the Reds will be targeting this Winter, and thanks to the existing contracts and pieces on the squad, the only real position where the team can add that mythical bat is in LF, further limiting the pool of players that they may be able to pick off.
Adding to the dilemma is the pitching scenario mentioned above. If one of Latos, Leake, or Cueto is the trade chip that Walt plans on using to add a bat, that means the trade partner must be on the market for just a single year of a high-caliber, high-priced arm, something only teams intent on winning and contending in 2015 will be focused on.
But how many teams have enough offensive depth to sacrifice a bat capable of helping a team contend in 2015 to pick up a pitcher that can only help them win in that year and that year only? If contending in 2015 is the Reds' partner's focus, why give up an asset so scarce for the very year you need it?
A conundrum, indeed.
To summarize, the Reds need a cheap bat for LF that can help their 2015 offense improve from the 2014 doldrums but not be under a pricey, long-term contract that would block stud prospect Jesse Winker down the line. They need to trade pitching to get that bat, but preferably pitching that is tied to salaries high enough that trading them would free up the space to pay the acquired bat. They also need to find a team that already has enough offense and figures to be just a pitcher away from a 2015 run, but also a team that doesn't want a pitcher that is under contract for a lengthy period of time.
Simple enough, right? Fortunately, Walt Jocketty has shown a willingness to be creative with his trades, and he's pulled off a pair in recent years that may well serve as a blueprint for what we'll witness this Winter, too. Namely, a three team trade.
Finding a third team that has a mind to either shed payroll or add minor league depth - or both - would let the Reds shed a pitcher for a bat, a second team shed prospects for a pitcher, and a third team shed a bat for prospects, things that all happened in some fashion when Cincinnati picked up Shin-Soo Choo for 2013 and traded Ryan Hanigan prior to 2014.
And that's where I expect Walt will aim. It won't be Giancarlo Stanton or Ryan Braun in LF, and it won't be a trade of Johnny Cueto for a pair of Top 30 prospects, either. Rather, I think he'll trade one of the pricey arms nearing free agency, acquire an established-yet-not-sexy bat to play LF for a year or two max, and find a third team that has a built-in replacement for that bat and a want for two to three prospects to build depth and shed payroll.
Something like this, for instance:
- The New York Yankees acquire RHP Mat Latos from the Cincinnati Reds
- The Cincinnati Reds acquire OF Matt Joyce and RHP Alex Colome from the Tampa Bay Rays
- The Tampa Bay Rays acquire C Gary Sanchez from the New York Yankees