The Toronto Blue Jays finalized a deal with the San Diego Padres this morning that sent Melvin Upton, Jr. and some $17 million north of the border for a prospect MLB.com ranked as the 18th best in a not strong Toronto farm system. If that's any indication of the current going rate for veteran outfield bats in the current market, the Cincinnati Reds may find themselves in a bit of a quandary for the next five days in their efforts to trade Jay Bruce.
It's becoming increasingly clear that the recently successful model used by the Kansas City Royals - one with heavy emphasis on a stacked bullpen - is driving the prices for relievers sky-high (as evidenced by the Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman trades and the asking price for current Royals closer Wade Davis), while the market for outfield bats has taken a serious back seat. The Blue Jays were one of the most mentioned potential trade partners for Bruce, too, so the Upton, Jr. acquisition likely sweeps one more potential suitor off the board. Barring massive moves and a three team trade that creates an outfield opening on a contender that doesn't currently exist (or a timely injury), the list of teams that are currently in the OF market is rapidly being outnumbered by the number of available peers of Bruce on the open market.
Both the San Francisco Giants and Washington Nationals have been kicked around as potential landing spots for the Reds' RF, but the Giants have seemingly chosen to weather their injury storm instead of make a rash move, and the Nationals ideally want a player who can cover CF moreso than RF. That leaves the Los Angeles Dodgers and Texas Rangers as the two most likely landing spots for Bruce, albeit ones that aren't exactly perfect fits, either.
Pinpointing the Dodgers' M.O. is nearly impossible, as the financial backing they have, their rich farm system, and Andrew Friedman & Co.'s boldness creates endless scenarios that could possibly materialize. They've been both connected to adding Bruce, an outfielder, while simultaneously shopping Yasiel Puig, an outfielder, all while juggling DL stints from Joc Pederson and Trayce Thompson and the up in the air return of Andre Ethier. On paper, there's a fit today, but there's also the likelihood that a month from now Bruce could be the team's 5th outfielder, and if that's the case, it's hard to envision the Dodgers coughing up a dazzling prospect to meet Cincinnati's asking price under that potential scenario.
And that ignores that Los Angeles is looking to add a pitcher first, with injury issues plaguing their entire rotation.
As for the Rangers, the actual level of interest in Bruce is up for debate at this point. One week ago, our friends at Lone Star Ball checked in on the idea of adding Jay's bat to their lineup, ultimately concluding that a boost to their OF might actually be something worth emphasizing. That, of course, came before the season ending injury to their everyday DH, Prince Fielder, and the return to the DL of Shin-Soo Choo - this time with a back issue. The first place Rangers have been reportedly targeting starting pitching (which contender isn't, really?), but it's hard to think they'll want to count solely on a stretch run OF of former SS Ian Desmond, Ryan Rua, and rookie Nomar Mazara (assuming the injury prone Choo gets much more time at DH after returning).
Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News noted as recently as Sunday night that the two teams hadn't had any substantive talks, however, about either Bruce or their reported interest in Reds' budding ace Anthony DeSclafani.
While Bruce's market has been slow to develop, the floodgates have opened, releasing numerous other qualified OFs onto the open market, too. Carlos Beltran and Brett Gardner appear available from the New York Yankees, interest in Colorado Rockies OF Carlos Gonzalez has heated up, Josh Reddick of the Oakland A's is absolutely available, and there's a very real chance the Chicago White Sox look into shopping the likes of Melky Cabrera (and even former Red Todd Frazier). For the same reason Bruce's market is so small (so few contending teams), the market for each of these players could be, too, meaning what once appeared to be a seller's market is now firmly in control by the buyers.
What Bruce has going for him, though, are two things. For one, he's still just 29 years old, making him the same age as Reddick and younger than every other name listed. He also comes with a rather cheap $13 million option for 2017, a price tag cheaper than that of Gonzalez and Cabrera, a total amount of guaranteed money less than Gardner, an amount on-par with Frazier's projected arbitration salary for 2017, and a year more team control than that of pending free agents Beltran and Reddick.
It's obvious that the Reds are trying hard to trade Bruce, and to his credit, his play of late can only be helping their cause. However, Cincinnati does have the option of holding on to him past the August 1st non-waiver deadline, picking up his option, and attempting to trade him when there are more teams interested and the projected free agent OF market is as weak as expected. That's a huge risk, of course - one The Enquirer's Zach Buchanan looked at last week - as Bruce's disastrous 2nd half sent his overall value into the toilet. As streaky as he's been in his career, trusting Bruce to sustain what he's shown so far is a gamble the Reds may not want to take.
There is a third option, however.
If Upton, Jr. - who has been worth 1.9 bWAR this year after a resurgent 2015 following two awful years - can only net the 18th best prospect from a weak system despite having team control through 2017 (and the Padres paying plenty of his salary), the Reds might choose to reassess their valuation of Jay. Bruce's horribly rated defense has sucked the air out of his bWAR (just 0.9 to date), and while his bat has turned around after a similar two years of awful performance, buyers still may be as skeptical of him as they were of Upton. If that's the case, the Reds can choose to both hold on to Bruce until the end of 2016 and decline his option at the end of the season...if they're willing to then extend him a Qualifying Offer for the 2017 season.
Bruce's option sits at $13 million, and the 2017 QO salary is likely to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $16.5 million. So, for a roughly $3.5 million gamble, the Reds could choose to put the ball in Bruce's court, giving him the opportunity to enter free agency as a 29 year old OF in a year where free agent OFs are almost non-existent, or accept coming back to a team that will spend another year actively trying to trade him. If Bruce continues to hit the way he has so far this year, it'd be almost a no-brainer for him to decline the offer and enter free agency, and that would net the Reds a draft pick near the back of the first round - the same spot where they've selected Michael Lorenzen, Todd Frazier, Alex Blandino, and Taylor Trammell in recent years. If the Reds feel that gives them a better shot at getting a prospect return significantly better than what the Padres received for Upton, Jr., perhaps it's worth the gamble that Bruce would actually accept. And, of course, if Bruce's second half of 2016 goes like it did last year, there's no necessity to decline the option in the first place.
A trade of the stalwart RF still seems like the most likely outcome in this rebooting scenario, but the Reds front office does at least have a gambling opportunity on the table should things not materialize the way they'd like. That decision just might be the final one Walt Jocketty makes while still wielding baseball operations powers.