The 2015 World Series wrapped over the weekend when the Kansas City Not-Reds dropped the New York Also-Not-Reds to claim their first title since 1985, but it's taken little time for baseball to turn its eyes to the 2016 season.
The Cincinnati Reds made their first series of moves yesterday when they waved goodbye to Skip Schumaker and Burke Badenhop, bought Sam LeCure another bus ticket to Louisville, and moved a hoard of players from the 60-day DL back onto the 40 man roster. That came on the heels of Brayan Pena, Sean Marshall, and Manny Parra each becoming free agents as soon as the World Series ended on Sunday. The Reds are not alone, either, as major contract decisions have been taking place with every team, including the Philadelphia Phillies declining to pick up Cliff Lee's $27.5 million option while the Boston Red Sox opted to exercise the option held on Clay Buchholz.
For the Reds, this winter figures to be the first time in a handful of off-seasons where near-term additions will be the focus. Rather, finding ways to build for another successful run in the future seems to be the team's MO, as the trades of Mat Latos, Alfredo Simon, Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, and Marlon Byrd in the last calendar year will confirm.
Without attempting to discern which direction the Reds will take, let's first take a look at the basics.
C. Trent Rosecrans of the Cincinnati Enquirer noted yesterday that the flurry of moves left the overall Reds 40-man roster with 34 players on it, meaning there are obviously open spots for future additions. Your first inclination may be that there are now 6 free agents floating around out there that the Reds could add, but keep in mind they've got more administrative moves to make before that can be done. First and foremost, they've got to protect players from the upcoming Rule 5 draft, which means they'll need to add several minor leaguers to the roster to keep them from being eligible to be plucked by any of the other 29 MLB teams when that draft goes down in roughly three weeks. The legalese for these moves is slightly complicated, but the gist is this: players drafted out of high school must make a team's 40-man roster within five seasons or will become eligible to be picked, while players drafted out of college have four seasons to make that list.
Both Robert Stephenson and Sal Romano were taken out of high school in 2011, which means they'd be eligible to be selected should they not be added to the 40-man. I expect both to be added, and I'll also expect to find Seth Mejias-Brean added, too, since he was selected out of the University of Arizona in 2012. That would leave the 40-man roster at 37.
As for the team's payroll, it will take a bit of heavy lifting to see the 2016 number anywhere close to the $115 million from 2015 or the $114 million from 2016. And, for a team that's probably going to do a lot of losing, that's not necessarily a bad thing. The Reds are on the hook already for 2016 obligations to Joey Votto ($20M), Jay Bruce ($12.5M), Brandon Phillips ($13M), Homer Bailey ($18M), Todd Frazier ($7.5M), Devin Mesoraco ($4.9M), and Raisel Iglesias ($2.5M), which adds up to a cool $77.4 million. Assuming they choose to tender contracts to arbitration eligibles Aroldis Chapman ($11.5M), Zack Cozart ($3.5M), and J.J. Hoover ($1.5M), that would bring them to $93.9 million with only 10 of the needed 25-man roster accounted for.
Those 15 spots could very easily be populated by pre-arbitration eligible players, of whom the Reds have quite a large amalgamation. Without splitting hairs over which of those made the cut or ended up in the minors, that decision would add roughly $8.5 million (given that they'd each make a shade over $550,000), which would bring the grand payroll total somewhere in the neighborhood of $102.5 million.
Walt Jocketty is many things, but he's possibly most noted for being a GM who plays his cards very, very close to the vest. When he heads to the GM Meetings next week (and eventually the Winter Meetings in a bit over a month), he'll have a strategy in mind, but we're not going to really know much at all about it.
And, he'll have options. Plenty of them, really.
There's a new TV contract the Reds are trying to negotiate - one that's up after the 2016 season - and he may think that making a big splash is exactly what the team will need for leverage in order to get the most lucrative deal possible. So, perhaps he hangs on to Aroldis and Bruce and packages two or four or six of the near-MLB arms he's acquired to bring in a LF. If revenues stand to increase with the new deal and payroll has been $12+ million higher than it currently projects, perhaps that's the agenda aggressive owner Bob Castellini will put on his plate. It may be delusional, but it's not terribly out of character.
With that in mind, the Reds could also jump into the deeper end of the free agent market for the first time since they signed Francisco Cordero for an ungodly amount of money almost a decade ago. There's the aforementioned payroll gap, Walt's previous comments about pursuing veteran pitching to help eat innings, and a free agent class that's as deep and talented as perhaps any we've seen in recent memory. Add in the fact that the Reds' 1st round draft pick is protected due to how awful they were in 2015, and the idea that the team could chase a player who was good enough to decline a Qualifying Offer isn't terribly crazy given Bob's tendencies, either. (Considering the team owns a Competitive Balance pick that acts effectively as another 2nd round pick, losing their 2nd round pick to sign a big-ticket free agent becomes that much more palatable, too.)
Of course, there's also the rational expectation, and that's one that sees Walt trade both Chapman and Bruce, shed salary to use for future moves, and continue to stockpile young talent that will peak in another year or three when the juggernaut Cubs, Pirates, and Cardinals see a hopefully inevitable swoon. That's not in line with what Castellini has espoused in the past, but it's one that likely gives the team its best chance at becoming relevant both soon and in reasonable perpetuity. Shedding those two contracts would free up somewhere in the $24 million range, and it would also bring the 40-man roster down to just 35, meaning there'd be spots should those trades net established, near-majors ready prospects akin to Stephenson.
When you're bad, you've traded away former stalwarts, and compiled plenty of big league unknowns, there's plenty of flexibility that comes with newfangled low expectations. The Reds have options galore, and regardless of what that means for the 2016 win total, they'll be making plenty of interesting moves in the coming months.