The main goals of rebuilding in any sport are pretty straightforward. Teams simultaneously want to get younger, to move players who will be too old or too unproductive when the team gets around to being good again, and to get anything of value for players whose contracts are at their end. And, by doing so, they hope to accumulate a wealth of talented, team-controlled young players who will peak at the same time.
That's the premise under which the Cincinnati Reds have been operating since the winter after the 2014 season, and it's why Jay Bruce, in particular, has had his name splashed across the wires in trade rumors all this season.
We get caught up in fanning through prospect lists at times like these, aiming to uncover the exact up and coming future star that will fit perfectly in future lineups. I've spent way too much time in the last two weeks staring at the AA Tulsa Drillers roster - and no, it's not just because Daniel Corcino is there, healthy, and finally pitching with command of the strike zone. It's because the Los Angeles Dodgers have consistently come up as a potential destination for Bruce, since their outfield has been injured and ineffective for much of a season in which they have grand playoff plans.
What if what the Dodgers want to trade isn't a portion of their AA, or even AAA roster? What if, as FOX's Ken Rosenthal suggests, it's actually Yasiel Puig, the current face of that underperforming outfield, that they're looking to move?
Sorting out the details of what a trade that would send Bruce to LA and Puig to Cincinnati is difficult enough (and I'll get back to that), but wrapping your head around why they'd have interest in Puig at all is probably tougher. After busting down MLB's doors in 2013 with a 159 OPS+ season in which he finished as the runner-up in the NL Rookie of the Year voting (and received a few down-ballot MVP votes), he has seen his production largely crater. He's hit just .256/.321/.409 since the beginning of last year (good for just a 101 OPS+), and his offensive prowess isn't the only way in which he has struggled. He played in just 79 games in 2015 after battling persistent hamstring injuries, and a similar injury sent him back to the DL for 18 days just this past June.
His reputation, his odd and often ill-advised on-field displays, and a fierce media spotlight makes it seem as if he's been around forever, and that, in turn, makes it seem on the surface that he's not exactly the kind of player the rebuilding Reds should target. But then you realize that he's several months younger than Billy Hamilton and a full eight months younger than Anthony DeSclafani - a player whose trade value we looked at just yesterday. Puig is under contract for two more years at a total of $17.5 million, but he's under team control and arbitration eligible for 2019 as well before he could reach free agency.
So, in at least two ways, an addition of Puig would tick the boxes of a rebuilding move. It would get the Reds younger, as he's still just 25 years old. It would add a talented player with at 3+ years of team control, too. It would add guaranteed salary, to be sure, but at a rate lower than what they've been paying Bruce and to a player with multiple 5 WAR seasons already under his belt. And if 2018 is really the season that the Reds are eyeing to be their return to winning baseball, he'd be potentially a fixture in the middle of that lineup.
For as much upside as he offers, however, there's every bit equal risk. The injury issues are impossible to ignore, especially for a team that has lost season after season to extended and expensive players like Homer Bailey and Devin Mesoraco. And while the makeup issues may have been somewhat overblown, the decline in his overall production even when healthy is enough to question whether he'd be worth adding in the first place - especially when it's almost certain the Dodgers will ask for a return as if he was still that perennial 5 WAR player.
That's probably the rub. Although both Bruce and Puig have similar skillsets (and, oddly, somewhat similar career arcs over the last handful of years), a one for one trade of the two isn't anywhere close to realistic. Bruce, even if he maintains his offensive production from this year and his defense begins to grade out better, is four years older with two fewer years of team control to his name. That means the Reds would have to add something significant to even begin the conversation, and for a rebuilding team bent on hoarding prospects, that's something that would almost assuredly be a dealbreaker.
There is some recent history of the Reds and Dodgers jumping in on large deals, and it wouldn't be at all surprising to see this balloon into a three-team deal akin to the one that saw Todd Frazier leave town last year. A team with a more immediate need for Puig being looped into a deal that sends Bruce to the Dodgers isn't that hard to fathom, in much the same role as the Chicago White Sox this past winter. Maybe Cincinnati could pry Alex Verdugo away in the deal, or pluck Victor Robles from the Washington Nationals should they be up for Puig as the third team in a massive deal.
This is, for now at least, the same Reds front office that added a veteran in Scott Rolen during their previous rebuild, however, and they also added some "questionable makeup" when they brought in Mat Latos in a 2011 blockbuster deal. So, there's at least a sliver of precedent that adding a player akin to Puig isn't out of the question. But yes, I'll have to pick my jaw up off the floor if it happens by the end of the month.