I don't suppose I'm going out on a limb when suggesting that an MLB team fresh off a 98 loss season isn't exactly aiming to win a lot of games immediately when their subsequent offseason moves include trading away two All Stars and making Blake Wood the lone player signed to a big league contract. That's exactly the course followed by the Cincinnati Reds since the end of the 2015 season, however, which means that if big league wins are the only things that make you sleep easy at night, you're going to have quite a restless time between now and October.
Between the 25 players in the big league dugout, the protected players on the 40-man roster, and the hundreds of minor leaguers down on the farm, the Reds lay claim to a lengthy list of contracts that can, and should, be viewed as assets. They're managed much like stocks or bonds, and next to the deep pockets of each team's ownership they serve as the only other currency for teams to use whenever they choose to interact with each other. Making sure they're in the best scenario, performing their best, and are on the best projected path to reach their peak value is a vital part of each team's daily operations, and when there's little to no chance of hanging a World Series banner in the big league park, that becomes the top priority for each of baseball's franchises.
For the Reds, the 2016 season will provide a chance for several of those assets to see significant gains in value, ways which - if achieved - the team can call the season a success. Here are four of those.
Devin Mesoraco having a bounce-back season
We're likely never going to see a month like Mesoraco posted in April of 2014, one where he hit a ridiculous .468/.509/.787 to kick off his All Star season. Given the hip issues he's been facing, we're also not likely to see him ever catch 140 games in a season like he and the team spoke of prior to 2015. But if Mes can show he's healthy again after labrum surgery to help fix those hip problems and approach even the .837 OPS he posted from the beginning of May to the end of the 2014 season, the Reds will suddenly have again a middle of the order bat at a premium defensive position.
Mes is in his prime age 27 season, and has as much as 3 years and $25.475 million left on the contract he signed after his breakout 2014, meaning he's got tremendous value if he can return in any capacity similar to what he was before the hip surgery. If he does, the Reds either have a cog at catcher and a reasonably priced star in the middle of their order, or they have a very valuable trade chip to help facilitate their massive rebuild. He's virtually an untradable asset right now, so that projected leap is massive in the grand scheme. So in that regard, a .260/.340/.460 season with 450 PAs would be considered a massive success for the Reds.
Jay Bruce recouping his fallen trade value
Considering Bruce made his big league debut less than a year after Mesoraco was drafted out of high school, it's hard to believe they're only a year apart in age. The two are similar in their current trade values, too, since the .170/.213/.339 Bruce hit over the final 235 PA of his 2015 season torpedoed what, to that point, had been a renaissance year for the Reds RF after knee surgery and an awful 2014. With a year and a minimum of $13.5 million guaranteed on his current contract, that's made moving Bruce a hard task for the Reds front office, though it's clear they don't view him as a key piece of the next great Reds team.
All that makes it easy to forget that after a 2 for 4 day on August 1st of last year - the day after he was not moved at the July 31st trade deadline - Bruce was hitting a robust .260/.342/.492 with a career-best single season walk rate, the kind of numbers that had rumors of Zack Wheeler being a viable return for Bruce in trade. The shorter amount of team control and poor finish to the season may mean a repeat of that won't make him quite as marketable, but a first half of 2016 like his 2015 first half would make him much more than a mere salary dump. And, in doing so, Bruce would give the team that much more leverage should they choose to move him.
Homer Bailey finishing 2016 sans arm surgery
Remember when Homer Bailey had surgery to repair a torn flexor mass in his throwing arm in 2014? It was the arm surgery he had before he had Tommy John surgery in 2015, both of which ended those respective seasons. The result has been Bailey being worth only 1.3 bWAR over those two seasons at a cost of $19 million in salary, and he enters the 2016 season with at least 4 years and $86 million left on his massive contract extension.
When Bailey's healthy, he's got an enviable repertoire on the mound that's been good enough to throw a pair of no-hitters, and while he may be overpaid, he'd still be worth a huge chunk of that contract if he returns in May and shows he's back to normal. That would go a long way towards providing valuable innings to a staff that's currently devoid of an innings eater, which is exactly what the team had hoped he'd provide when they signed him in the first place. If not an ace, an anchor.
Jose Peraza justifying the Reds' desire of him
The Reds reportedly had a trade in place with the Los Angeles Dodgers that would've brought them Jose Peraza in return for Aroldis Chapman. When that fell through in the wake of Chapman's domestic violence issues, the Reds then looped in the Chicago White Sox to acquire Peraza & others while shipping out Todd Frazier.
That's a lot of effort and a lot of proven talent the Reds were willing to move in order to get Peraza in the system, effort that's been largely criticized as being misguided given the cost.
None of that is to suggest that it's Peraza's fault, though, and while he may not end up carrying as much value as the Reds think he does, he still is a player any team would appreciate having in their system. A big 2016 season would go a long way towards changing peoples perception of him, however, and that's something that would make losing Frazier get pushed farther to the back burner. It would also mean the team would have a dynamic, top of the order speedster atop their lineup, one who may actually project to hit enough to get on base at a clip commensurate with what MLB leadoff hitters are expected to provide, which is something the team has lacked aside from Shin-Soo Choo for the better part of a decade.
Sure, if each of those four things go as planned, the Reds will win a few more games in 2016 than they otherwise would have, but the more impactful effects from that scenario would be felt farther down the line. It would add flexibility both with the roster and the payroll - baseball currency, if you will - and do a hell of a lot to help the Reds expedite their climb back to the top of the NL Central.