Scott Kazmir didn’t pitch at all in the big leagues during the 2017 season. Not once, and it became the third season since 2011 in which he threw 1.2 innings or fewer. Adrian Gonzalez played a little bit, but the Los Angeles Dodgers probably wished he and his -1.2 bWAR self actually hadn’t. And then there’s Matt Kemp, who somehow managed to be even worse than Gonzalez last year, his -1.3 bWAR sunk by an oafish -2.2 dWAR in left field.
A season-long DNP and a full two and a half wins below replacement for those three in 2017 cost a mind-bending sum of $61,198,666, combined. Yet on the heels of such a collectively awful calendar year, all three managed to find themselves in the same transaction this week, as each was part of the massive five-player trade between the Dodgers and the Atlanta Braves. Actually, the fact that those three players were able to be moved overshadows the fact that Brandon McCarthy - a 33 year old who made $11.5 million while failing to top 92.2 IP for the third consecutive season - was also a big part of that deal, as well.
It’s the most recent case of accounting gymnastics, a trade between two GMs who were former colleagues that kicks some future money down the road to free up money for today. (You see, Reds fans, there’s this thing called the “luxury tax” that kicks in when an MLB team reaches a season payroll somewhere around $197 million, and the race to escape the penalties for exceeding that number cause some big market teams to pursue creative ways to move massive amounts of money around in increasingly creative ways.) So, because Kemp is the lone member of those four high-priced players with guaranteed money in 2019, the Dodgers essentially chipped in about a $4.5 million tip for Atlanta’s willingness to more in 2018 and none in 2019 to help LA get their current year commitment under that luxury tax threshold.
This trade is the latest in a string of transactions that has seen players with huge dollar contracts get moved as teams continue to find ways to reposition themselves. The San Francisco Giants, for instance, are reportedly interested in Tampa stalwart 3B Evan Longoria despite the 32 year old having some $85 million guaranteed his way (at least) through the 2022 season. Zack Greinke, too, has seen his name pop-up in potential trade discussions despite just now entering the third year of the 6 year, $206.5 million deal he signed with the Diamondbacks. And, of course, there’s Giancarlo Stanton, who has already been moved to the New York Yankees despite having well over $200 million (and an opt-out clause) remaining on his record-breaking deal.
None of those moves or rumors has anything directly to do with the Cincinnati Reds, of course. However, in light of the increased willingness for teams to move and swap players with giant contracts, perhaps it’s worth revisiting the Reds’ payroll - specifically, the 2018 edition that has Homer Bailey and Devin Mesoraco set to make some $34.125 million combined. For a team that’s on a shoestring budget even with those two healthy, having them consistently be injured is the kind of thing the Reds can ill-afford to continue to face while trying to emerge from their multi-year rebuild. Three specific questions arise when focusing on those two Reds.
Can they actually be traded?
I think both Homer and Mes have shown the kind of top-end production often enough in their careers to suggest that yes, some teams might be willing to take a flier on them. The injury history Kazmir has slogged through for years didn’t prevent him from being moved, though he’s undoubtedly had a career that - at least by bWAR - has far eclipsed those of both Bailey and Mesoraco. And, of course, he was packaged in a deal with clear future Hall of Very Good member Adrian Gonzalez and some current, more useful assets.
There would certainly need to be a lot of money either eaten by the Reds or taken on in return, but I think Bailey’s peripherals and rediscovered velocity in 2017 might be enough for someone to actually have interest in him (if money was no obstacle). And in Mesoraco’s case, the fact that he’s only owed money through 2018 could make him a flier acquisition for a team that has additional catching depth.
Is it worth it for the Reds to try moving them now?
Suppose the Reds found a taker for Bailey, for instance, with some combination of a dud contract coming back and millions of minimum $49 million he’s due by 2020. Are the Reds in a position to move on without him?
As things currently stand, Bailey’s the only pitcher on the roster with a 200 inning season under his belt, and the only other pitcher who has even sniffed that mark - Anthony DeSclafani - did so three years ago and has routinely been sidelined on the DL since. If the Reds were to move Homer, they’d likely still need to backfill their rotation with an innings eater, and that would almost certainly come at the price-point where that pitcher had almost zero upside. Bailey, while pricey as all hell, at least comes with the upside of a former top prospect who has a pair of no-hitters to his name, one who has long been thought of as a pitcher with the potential to lead a rotation, not just be the caboose. Selling low on him now after waiting (and paying him) for years of arm rehab would certainly free up some cash, but it would be unlikely to be enough to warrant jumping ship on him before he has the chance to show in 2018 what he’s got after finally having an offseason of good health.
Mesoraco, on the other hand, looks set to be a backup to the newly extended Tucker Barnhart even if he manages to stay healthy in 2018. At over $13 million, that’s a damn pricey bench bat. If a team with an established catcher and, say, the ability to use a DH in their everyday lineup came calling, cutting bait with Mes might be exactly the kind of move the Reds should be exploring in the current landscape. Eating money like the Reds did to move Brandon Phillips just last year might be worth it just to save even $2-3 million right now.
Is there any other bad contract out there that the Reds could take on and make work?
If eating money to move Bailey or Mes for a mid-tier prospect isn’t a deal that’s doable, perhaps moving one to another team with a player in a similar situation could be something the Reds should explore. Kazmir, for instance, would’ve been an interesting swap for Mesoraco, especially if the Dodgers truly are shopping Yasmani Grandal and turning over the everyday catching duties to Austin Barnes.
Finding a high-priced bounce-back candidate isn’t exactly obvious at the moment, especially not one in a position where the Reds have a need. Pitching, obviously, would probably be where you’d first look, but you quickly find yourself in James Shields territory and there are rabid dogs all over that post-apocalyptic hellscape.
Ubaldo Jimenez has a house there, at least until the termites finish chewing it to bits.
Jordan Zimmermann isn’t quite there yet - and isn’t too far removed from being a damn fine pitcher - but he’s got the kind of money left on his deal that would make the Cincinnati pocketbooks shudder with fear. To a similar (albeit slightly lesser) extent, Ian Kennedy, Wei-Yin Chen, and Phil Hughes are in that boat, too.
The one player who might - with special emphasis on might - be a high-dollar fit would be Yankees OF Jacoby Ellsbury, but even that would take some incredible tinkering. After the acquisition of Stanton, an outfield of Stanton, Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, and Brett Gardner seems to be obviously preferable, and that doesn’t even get to the presence of top OF prospect Clint Frazier. While kicked down the pecking order in New York and still owed nearly 69 million un-nice dollars, Ellsbury did at least post 1.7 bWAR and a .348 OBP in 2017 and has a track record of solid defense in CF despite now being 34 years of age. Considering the Reds are getting serious interest in trading Billy Hamilton and have almost zero CF depth in the minors, taking Ellsbury on at a serious discount could potentially be a reasonable fall-back plan - if, that is, the Yankees had interest in using Mesoraco to back up Gary Sanchez and occasionally DH.
It’s a reach to think that either Homer or Devin could get moved, since finding the appropriate market shrinks the potential landing spots and return down to near zero. Though, I suppose, it’s a reach for the Yankees to assume they’d be able to trade the likes of Ellsbury elsewhere without eating a good bit of money in the process, too. What is clear now in this age of big contracts being moved is that if Bailey or Mesoraco come out of the gate playing anywhere near their best ball in 2018, there will absolutely be a chance they can get moved at some point during the season - if the Reds are willing to get as creative as some other clubs.