There we were, there we all were, staring intently at a scenario that seemed so incredibly straightforward. We'd watched as the movings and shakings of real life had pointed us in this very specific direction, as the general consensus around us had dictated that there would be one outcome, a predictable outcome, and that we'd get there quite quickly.
Everything seemed obvious. How things would finish were foregone conclusions, and the writing on the wall had been vetted to the point of it being deemed conclusive. Everyone involved knew who would be left standing when the dust settled. We all knew how things were supposed to turn out last night, right up until the point where the completely unexpected came true.
Yes, the Fake Cincinnati Reds turned out to be buyers in this year's SB Nation Winter Meetings Simulation, as they eschewed the expected sell-off and rebuild and instead focused on finding ways to make the team competitive enough to win while the best player they'd had in a generation was still in uniform.
For the third, fourth, or sixth year in a row, the Red Reporter brain trust participated with representatives of the other MLB sites on our network in a simulation of how this particular off-season would play out. We had real, live rules and restrictions, suggested budgets, and operated for three full days in and around each other in attempts to reconstruct our roster in a way we saw fit. Once again, our good friends at Royals Review hosted us, and their fearless leader Max Rieper served as both commissioner and agent/rep for all free agents involved, leading to an interesting dynamic that was both entertaining and informative throughout. (Thanks again, Max, for yet another iteration of this great project.)
Before I get deeper into the inner-workings of our process and the actual moves we made, it's worth pointing out a few key intricacies to this here simulation.
First - and most important - is that it's a one-year simulation, in the sense that all the moves we make only really get one year to play out, since this time next year when we tackle it again we'll be given the real Reds roster at the time, not the one we'd assembled in this particular simulation. So, if we make a move that backfires, we're reprieved, but if we likewise make a shrewd acquisition, there's no real long-term ability to enjoy it. That inherently places more importance on the year 2017 than years beyond, which means more teams put a focus on "winning now" than happen in real-world scenarios.
Second, there's a byproduct of intricacy one: prospects who are more than a year away from the big leagues don't carry nearly as much value as they otherwise would. For teams with rosters set up like the current Reds, guys like Tyler Stephenson, Nick Senzel, and Aristides Aquino don't move the needle in trade discussions as much as they would in real life, since none fit in to that 2017 mindset I mentioned previously. They still have value, sure, but by the time they actually reach the big leagues, we'll have re-done this simulation one, if not two times, rendering them more fodder than they are in real life.
Third, there's a pile of inflation built in, which makes some equations you'd think to be simple way more complex. Each team's "recommended budget" is essentially a $10 million bump in payroll from the previous year, which means there's an extra $300 million floating around in this sim that may not actually be there. So, free agent contracts skyrocket, and teams can also suddenly absorb trading for players with huge contracts that wouldn't fit the constraints in actual baseball.
All three of these are on display in the moves we made, which I'll now detail below (in chronological order to help reveal our thinking at the time).
Fake Reds trade OF Adam Duvall to the Milwaukee Brewers for SP Jimmy Nelson, RP Corey Knebel, SP Phil Bickford
I think I mentioned that we Fake Reds ended up buyers in this simulation, but I sure didn't mention that we did not start out that way. In fact, the first move we made was to cash-in on Adam Duvall by trading the OF slugger to Milwaukee for Nelson, Knebel, and Top 60 overall prospect Bickford. Duvall's second half swoon concerned us, and between needing a spot in the OF for Jesse Winker and what we thought was a damn solid offer, we opted to pull the trigger to move him.
In Nelson, we landed an innings-eating starter, a guy somewhat akin to a righty version of Brandon Finnegan who came with 4 full years of team control. Adding him would presumably also let us cash in on Dan Straily after his breakout year, and that's kind of what we had in mind. In Knebel, we got high-strikeout reliever to help a bullpen that was beyond awful in 2016, and one also making league minimum with 4 full years of control, too. Add-in Bickford, a former San Francisco Giants 1st round draftee who lands on several overall Top 100 prospect lists, and we thought it quite a solid rebuilding return, especially since it paved the way for Winker to play.
Fake Reds trade SS Zack Cozart to the Seattle Mariners for IF DJ Peterson, SP Nick Neidert
This move dovetailed nicely with the Duvall deal, as it sent away Cozart - who will be a free agent after the 2017 season - for two prospects that could contribute in the future. It also opened up a full-time spot for Jose Peraza, which was also a primary goal.
Peterson, a 1B/3B guy who may end up positionless, is a classic change of scenery pickup, a former consensus Top 100 prospect and 1st round pick who has sputtered in the upper minors but is still just 24 years old. Neidert, on the other hand, owns an impressive 0.97 WHIP through his first 126.1 professional innings pitched, and is still just 19 years old.
It was at this very point of the simulation that we reached a predictable, yet still painful fork in the road.
There were no Todd Fraziers, Aroldis Chapmans, Johnny Cuetos, or Jay Bruces yet to trade away in this fake world, no more peak-age stars that other teams could roll into their win-now strategies. We were saddled with Brandon Phillips, whose 10-5 rights prevented him from being able to be traded in this simulation, and both Devin Mesoraco and Homer Bailey were too pricey and too injured to be worth anything to anyone at this particular juncture.
And, well, we'd received countless emails about Joey Votto's availability, since he was not only a world-beating baseball thunderstud, but also the one piece remaining on our roster that was both movable and dissimilar from the rest of the pieces we'd put together.
These other fake teams wanted Joey Votto on their team, man, and wanted him something fierce. The Boston Red Sox asked about him, as did the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers. But what made the largest impression on us was the persistence of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who mentioned they were trying to free up salary to trade for Votto, and that they'd be willing to make a blockbuster deal without us having to assume any of Votto's large salary.
So, we listened to Pittsburgh's offer. Then, we started to negotiate, and negotiate we did for the better part of a full day, at which point we reached an agreement that was set to alter the face of both franchises in a massive way.
The Fake Reds agreed to send 1B Joey Votto and SP Brandon Finnegan to Pittsburgh in exchange for OF Gregory Polanco, SP Tyler Glasnow, IF David Freese, IF Will Craig, and SP Nick Kingham.
That's Polanco, a former Top 10 overall prospect fresh off a 20 dinger 24 year old campaign. It's Glasnow, current consensus Top 15 prospect who made his big league debut in 2016. It's Freese as filler, but reasonable productive filler. It's Craig, the Pirates' 1st round pick from this year's draft, and it's Kingham, also a Top 100 prospect who projects as a mid-rotation starter.
We were sad, but excited. We'd just overhauled everything, sold the best player we'd seen play for the Reds since Barry Larkin, but received a haul that would power the franchise forward. And we'd done it without eating a dollar, or so we thought.
We then found that fake Votto and his fake agent wouldn't waive his no-trade clause, despite the fact that the team around him was clearly in rebuild. After all that effort and all that made sense, we weren't able to move Votto now, or ever, and the deal was officially dead.
So, we walked back to that painful fork in the road and took the exact opposite path.
Fake Reds sign RP Neftali Feliz to 2 year, $12 million contract (with mutual option for year 3 or $1.5 million buyout)
Fake Reds sign RP Santiago Casilla to 2 year, $18 million contract
I mentioned above that there was plenty of free money in this simulation. While we'd initially chosen to follow the path of the real Reds, rebuild, and shed cash, the realization that we had Votto kicked us into looking to add value with that money. The top end of the relief market was just silly - Kenley Jansen signed for 6 years and $140 million with the San Francisco Giants - but we think we managed to find two former closers who would help bolster what was a serious problem for the Reds in 2016.
Feliz had struggled with injuries since winning the AL Rookie of the Year Award in 2010, but his fastball velocity was up a full 3 mph in 2016 from its low in injury plagued years in 2013 and 2014, and only a freakish spike in his HR/FB rate in 2016 kept him from posting an otherwise stellar year. We bought in to the hype that he's back and healthy, and added him.
In Casilla, we landed another dependable RHP for the bullpen, one who posted a career-high 10.1 K/9 in 2016 and has thrown at least 48 IP in each of the last 10 seasons. That not only solidified our bullpen, but also allowed us to get creative in making a major win-now addition.
Fake Reds trade OF Billy Hamilton, SP Brandon Finnegan, RP Michael Lorenzen, RP Blake Wood, and C Tyler Stephenson to the Pittsburgh Pirates for OF Andrew McCutchen, RP Antonio Bastardo
Yep, that Andrew McCutchen.
With Duvall gone, we knew we needed to add some power back to the lineup, and while we kicked tires on numerous other OF possibilities - Christian Yelich, Michael Brantley, Anthony Rendon, among others - we came back to negotiating with Pittsburgh since we knew they were trying to move salary from the Votto negotiations.
In the process, we landed McCutchen, the former NL MVP who admittedly is coming off his worst full season in the big leagues.
Still, we're buying into the idea that he didn't merely forget how to be one of the most dynamic players in all of baseball, and that 2016 was more a blip than an indictment for the 30 year old. And even if he's not the 7 WAR dynamo from 2013-2014, he's still got enough left in the tank to approach that for the 2 years remaining on his very reasonable contract.
Trading Billy Hamilton hurt, of course, but we may well have sold high on him after his offensive improvements during 2016, and he has reached arbitration eligibility - meaning he's no longer cheap. Finnegan became somewhat redundant thanks to Nelson's acquisition, and we're still super stacked with SP depth to buttress losing him. Losing Tyler Stephenson, while a name-brand loss, didn't matter to this one-year simulation in our minds, as I detailed earlier. Blake Wood was a throw-in to reduce the overall salary intake by $2 million, and is effectively replaced one for one by Bastardo. That leaves Lorenzen, who was probably the toughest pill to swallow in this transaction, but is one whose loss is lightened given the serious bullpen additions we made prior to this trade.
All told, we added a potential superstar in McCutchen, and did so without trading away any of Nick Senzel, Jesse Winker, Cody Reed, Amir Garrett, or Robert Stephenson. For that we are pretty satisfied.
Did we recreate the Chicago Cubs with these moves? No, no we did not. But what's lost in the Cubs' creation of a megateam is that four other National League teams can still make the playoffs despite their dominant on-paper amalgamation, and we feel we did what we could to reach that level, not just for 2017, but 2018 as well.
After adding both Ryan Hanigan (on a minor league deal) and Coco Crisp (at 1 year, $2 million for OF depth), we ended up with a roster built as such:
SS Jose Peraza
LF Jesse Winker
1B Joey Votto
RF Andrew McCutchen
C Devin Mesoraco
CF Scott Schebler
3B Eugenio Suarez
2B Brandon Phillips
IF/OF Arismendy Alcantara
OF Coco Crisp
C Tucker Barnhart
IF Dilson Herrera
OF Steve Selsky
RHP Anthony DeSclafani
RHP Homer Bailey
RHP Dan Straily
LHP Amir Garrett
RHP Robert Stephenson
LHP Cody Reed
RHP Jimmy Nelson
RHP Neftali Feliz
RHP Santiago Casilla
RHP Raisel Iglesias
LHP Tony Cingrani
RHP Corey Knebel
RHP Jumbo Diaz
RHP Antonio Bastardo
RHP Keyvius Sampson
LHP Wandy Peralta
All told, I think it can be considered a reasonable success, one that at least makes some sense given the parameters in place. Our "recommended" budget was set at $99 million, and while we exceeded that by a bit, we still managed to come in below the actual Reds budgets from the 2014 and 2015 seasons, which we felt was within reason given the objectives.
Yes, there are flaws with it. We're again depending on Devin Mesoraco to be healthy, something the real Reds are facing, too. The same can be said for Homer Bailey, but there's serious upside in play with both of them should they actually resemble their healthy former selves. McCutchen falls into that category, too, as a bounce back play with perhaps more upside than any player traded during this simulation.
Much needed bullpen overhaul? Check. Opening playing time for top position prospects through trades? Check. Adding a potential superstar to the lineup without sacrificing any of our top 5 prospects? Check.
Now we get to wait for months before we can find out if any of our inclinations were remotely well-founded.
[For a complete recap of all the moves made by all 30 teams, check out this post from Royals Review detailing them team by team.]