Over the last 863 innings he has pitched, Johnny Cueto owns a 2.73 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, a stupid good 143 ERA+, and a pair of Top 5 finishes in the National League Cy Young Award voting. He turns 29 in a week, and if things hold true to form, he'll be a free agent at the end of the 2015 season.
Over the last 817.1 innings Max Scherzer has pitched, he's posted a 3.52 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, a rock solid 117 ERA+, and a pair of Top 5 finishes in the American League Cy Young Award voting. He turned 30 in July, and if things hold true to form, he'll be cashing payroll checks from a $210 million contract given to him by the Washington Nationals when Bryce Harper's kids will be draft-eligible.
The lede I've buried is that Scrooge McDuck has dived into piles of money smaller than what Johnny Cueto will get offered soon, and even if the Cincinnati Reds wanted to keep him around past 2015, they probably couldn't do so. Frankly, a quick bit of math suggests that they may not even be able to keep Mike Leake - also a free agent after 2015 - around past this season, either.
If we roll the clock forward to November 2015, each of Cueto, Leake, Manny Parra, Brayan Pena, and Sean Marshall will have become free agents, which is a sizable chunk of 2015's payroll that will no longer be on the books. The Reds will hope that Marlon Byrd will have had a successful 2015 season, of course, but they'll also hope he did so in 549 PA or fewer so as to not have his $8 million option kick in for a 2016 season that will see him turn 39 years old. For the sake of the sanity of the entire fanbase, we'll also assume that the team opts to buy out Skip Schumaker's 2016 option for $500K rather than pick up him up for $2.5 million, though with the current management of this franchise that may not be a given.
If those things happen - and there's a realistic chance of each doing just that - that's roughly $36.675 million worth of 2015 salary obligations that won't need to be met by the Reds in 2016.
"Great," you exclaim as you zoom over to MLB Trade Rumors' 2016 free agent list. "After they put half of that to a Cueto extension, which awesome players should the Reds target with all that freed-up cash?!"
Before we get ahead of ourselves, that freed-up cash was eyed by Walt Jocketty years ago, and most all of it has already been allocated.
Joey Votto's salary jumps from $14 million in 2015 to $20 million in 2016, and Homer Bailey's makes an even larger jump from $10 million to $18 million. Both Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce get raises combining for $1.5 million, and the recent extensions signed by Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco account for a nearly $5 million total increase. Aroldis Chapman's 2015 salary has yet to be set, but a typical arbitration year raise will see him make over $10 million in 2016, or roughly a 3ish million dollar raise over this season. Sam LeCure and Zack Cozart will also get raises from an additional year of service time in arbitration years, and both Burke Badenhop and Raisel Iglesias will see their 2015 salaries more than double for 2016.
Under the cheapest, most penny-pinching replacement plan possible - meaning if the Reds choose to replace each of those vacated roster spots with pre-arb players making the league minimum or close to it - the 2016 payroll already sits at roughly $107 million dollars, barely $10 million less than is already allocated to the team's record 2015 payroll. Signing even Leake would blow 2016's payroll past 2015's number, and that would still leave the bullpen devoid of any experienced lefties and carrying a minimum of two rookies. That's a team with Jesse Winker in LF, Yorman Rodriguez as the 4th OF, Tucker Barnhart as the backup C, and potentially both of Robert Stephenson and Michael Lorenzen filling out the rotation, yet it's also one that still seems to be facing a payroll crunch. That's with seven rookies!
2016 is the last season where the Reds will operate on their current TV contract, though, and there's been serious speculation that the club may see more than double the current revenue from the next deal they're expecting to land. But has that money also already been allocated? Wasn't that expected revenue increase a driving factor in Votto's heavily deferred contract, Bailey's heavily deferred contract, and the near 50% increase the payroll has already seen from 2010 to 2015?
The Reds waved goodbye to both Bronson Arroyo and Shin-Soo Choo after 2013 in order to make enough room on the ledger to facilitate 2014's minuscule moves among a burgeoning payroll, and they were forced to jettison both Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon this past winter just to create enough wiggle room for 2015's payroll to squeeze by. Barring a major increase in team salary planned for 2016 (or a major salary-dump trade of Chapman, Bruce, or Phillips), it seems that parting ways with at least one of Cueto and Leake isn't just likely, but may be a foregone conclusion.