If you squint hard enough, you can begin to see the plans the Cincinnati Reds had in mind for 2016 by looking back through the moves they've made since the end of last season. On paper, they were both simple and obvious. The concept was to shed older, expensive players that weren't under contract far enough to have an impact the next time the team projected to be good, and for them receive young, controllable players that would form the next potent core. Payroll had been operating at its peak, and there was nowhere near the monetary flexibility to add enough to make winning in 2016 viable, especially given the stiff competition in the NL Central.
If you can't win in the near term with resources maxed out, why not use those resources for a term where winning is more realistic? That M.O. was easy enough to decipher, and it's one we've been keenly aware of dating back to last year's July trade deadline.
So, why am I bringing it up again now?
With Opening Day now officially a week away, the team has until Sunday to finalize their 25-man roster, and it's the first chance we'll have to see how dedicated the Reds will be to their original theory since their plans hit numerous bumps along the way. At the crux of it all will be Jose Peraza, the talented 21 year old that was - in the Reds' eyes at least - the single biggest piece brought into the fold in the midst of all that shipping out.
The decision whether to keep Peraza on the 25-man roster to begin the season will have numerous ripple effects, all of which will reveal at least a little bit of the thought process of the team's front office. First and foremost, it's clear that the team has pinned their hopes on his current and future success, as they made two separate deals to acquire him in the first place. Initially he was part of the original deal that would've sent Aroldis Chapman to the Los Angeles Dodgers, and after that fell through he became the centerpiece in return when the Reds traded Todd Frazier to the Chicago White Sox in a 3-team deal. His low K, high contact bat skills paired with speed and versatile defense obviously appealed to the Reds, enough so that they showed their hand in chasing him with multiple established trade pieces. Pair that with the multiple attempts at trading Brandon Phillips - the incumbent at the very position Peraza is most suited for - and it becomes evident that the team didn't just have high hopes for Peraza's future, they intended for him to make an immediate impact at the start of the 2016 season.
So far, the team has to appreciate what he's shown them in Cactus League play. Entering Monday, he's hit .294 and swiped 6 bags, and he's shown enough with his glove to be slotted in at each of SS, 2B, and CF. Considering he spent the bulk of 2015 at AAA, the idea that he's big league ready isn't one that appears too far fetched, which means the team's initial opinion of him is one that has every reason to be justified (whether he alone was enough of a return for Frazier, or not).
The problem, though, is that he's very well blocked at each position where he's played so far. And, it's going to test not just the team's opinion that he's ready for a big league role, but test the team's initial goal of accumulating as much young talent for roster depth as possible.
Phillips' presence at 2B and very public unwillingness to be moved (thanks to his 10/5 veto rights) means PAs at the keystone will be tough to find. In CF, Billy Hamilton is almost all the way back from shoulder surgery, but while he'll need occasional rest, he's still a young player who the team hopes can blossom, and taking PAs away from him on the regular likely isn't the best way to augment his development. At SS, Zack Cozart is returning from major knee surgery and will also need periodic rest, but he brings far too much to the table to sit regularly and still maintain value with a salary in his range.
That would leave LF as the only real spot to get Peraza consistent PAs, but it's such a move down the defensive spectrum at this early stage of his career that it hardly makes sense to see the Reds try it.
The second issue at play when considering Peraza's Opening Day roster status is how it would impact the other players vying for big league jobs. Even if the team opted - whether formally or informally - to carry him as an infielder, the crowded OF battle could stand to unwittingly be thinned should he make the team from day one. With Jake Cave being a Rule 5 selection and Yorman Rodriguez out of options, the team risks losing the services of either (or both) by not having them open the season on the 25-man roster, and with Jay Bruce, Hamilton, Adam Duvall, and Scott Schebler all in the mix for OF spots, there's a very real chance one of them gets squeezed. Add Peraza to the mix, and the team's original goal of collecting young, big league ready players would get tested by the loss of either Cave or Yorman to the numbers battle.
Third, and perhaps most important, is the issue of Peraza's service clock, something that's much more pertinent to players who reach the majors at age 21 than for those who don't until they're 25 or 26. Peraza will turn 22 in a month, which means his 2016 season will count as his age 22 season, and at this point he only has 42 days of big league service time under his belt. It takes 172 days to count as a full season, which means if he's rostered for 130 days in 2016 and sticks with the team from that point forward, he'll be a free agent after his age 27 season. Were Phillips gone and everyday PAs existed at a position where he profiles well, it's a choice the Reds would likely weigh accordingly; however, forfeiting team control of him in his age 28 season for an additional month of sitting on the bench and rotating through a utility role (all while perhaps losing either Cave or Yorman) seems like an odd choice to favor, at best.
Truly, the complicated-on-paper position player roster decisions facing the Reds really aren't that complicated at all. They all stem directly from Peraza, and whether the team wants to hand him the reigns immediately with enough wiggle room to play regularly at the big league level, or not. If they do choose that path, they'll add another layer of expectations on the kid on top of those from the Frazier trade, and they'll do so while likely waving goodbye to depth pieces with plenty of team control left. Or, they can opt to start him in AAA, free up the roster to keep the most amount of players in the system, and make it clear that they'd rather have him around in his prime on winning teams than get an extra six weeks of sporadic play at the big league level in a lost 2016.
Hopefully, the prudent decision will happen, and Peraza will start the year in Louisville, even though that'll mean that the biggest name brought in during the rebuild won't be on display for the fans to see just yet.