The Cincinnati Reds payroll topped out at a club record $115 million back in 2015, which just so happened to coincide with the rebuild we’ve been slogging through ever since. Player salaries generally escalate with experience, of course, so when a team trades away their pricey veterans in a youth movement, that coincides with a commiserate slash in payroll. While that’s a bit of a chicken/egg argument - was slashing payroll the motive, or was the motive to actually get younger? - what’s undeniable is that the Cincinnati payroll bottomed out at just over $89 million in 2016 and sits at just $95 million during this, the 2017 season.
As the team was losing (and was constructed with “losing” an agreed upon part of the rebuild), that payroll cut made sense. If losing 90 games is part of the process, why throw more money away than is necessary in that effort? But with the 2018 season the pre-agreed upon season where the Reds make a concerted move back up the NL Central ladder, discovering how much money they’ll have in their war chest seems an exercise worth digging into. So, here’s a breakdown (with some estimates) of what the 2018 Reds will be looking at in terms of player payroll before any outside moves are made.
Players Under Existing Contracts (4) - $64.3 million
Joey Votto ($25 million), Homer Bailey ($21 million), Devin Mesoraco ($13.1 million), Raisel Iglesias ($5.2 million)
Arbitration Eligible Players (7) - $21.4 million (estimated)
Scooter Gennett ($5.5 million, Arb2), Billy Hamilton ($4.5 million, Arb2), Eugenio Suarez ($3.5 million, Arb1), Anthony DeSclafani ($2.5 million, Arb1), Tucker Barnhart ($1.8 million, Arb1), Michael Lorenzen ($1.8 million, Arb1), Blake Wood ($1.8 million, Arb3)
Pre-Arbitration Eligible Players (14 at $545,000) - $7.6 million (estimated)
In other words, if the Reds filled out their 2018 roster using only those players currently in the system, they’d enter the year with a payroll of $93.3 million.
A few items are worth spelling out here.
First, the arbitration salaries are estimates based on player performance and comparable players who have recently gone through the arbitration system, and there’s surely going to be some wiggle room when those numbers actually shake out.
Second, there are a lot more arb-eligible players in this year than in recent seasons. That means that despite the salaries of Scott Feldman, Zack Cozart, Drew Storen, and Brandon Phillips - some $24 million of 2017’s total payroll - coming off the books, raises to the arb-eligibles eat up almost all of that “freed up” money.
Third, there’s not an obvious non-tender name that jumps out in that arb-eligible group, but there’s certainly the chance that Blake Wood gets non-tendered after this season instead of being paid around $2 million. He’ll be 32, and while some of his peripherals (3.56 FIP) suggest he’s been a bit unlucky with a 4.95 ERA and 1.54 WHIP, it’s a scenario I could certainly see materializing. That’d shed some money, of course.
With those hard numbers now in front of us, we can begin to look into what the Reds might have to spend going forward.
It’s worth noting that, at the time, the club record payrolls that hovered around $115 million in both 2014 and 2015 might not be sustainable. The ownership group and then-GM Walt Jocketty hinted at the time that those numbers reflected the absolute top-end of what they were able to be spending, which was reflected in how bargain-basement deals (looking at you, Skip Schumaker) were the only ones made to bring in players from outside the existing roster. So, while it’s easy to assume that the same ownership group would be again willing to go that high, the actual ceiling might be slightly lower than that this time around - not to mention that the slashed payrolls of the last two years might’ve been deliberately to offset losses from those free-spending seasons.
However, a few things besides “winning” and “the players on the roster” have changed since then. For one, the Reds negotiated a new TV deal prior to the 2017 season, one which increased from $30 million the annual revenue the team receives, as COO Phil Castellini told The Enquirer’s Zach Buchanan last October. Exactly how much additional revenue they’ll get from the deal hasn’t yet been hammered out, but it surely impacts the bottom line in a larger way than it did from 2007-2016.
Also, the recent partial purchase of MLB’s Advanced Media by Disney will create a windfall in the neighborhood of some $36.7 million per team, according to an Awful Announcing report. Some of that will likely help augment team payroll, too, as Bob Castellini relayed to Buchanan earlier this month, though the exact amount obviously hasn’t been hammered out publicly yet.
It’s also important to note that the team has spent vigorously in both the draft and the international free agent market over the last two years, money that’s not cited on active roster payroll. Signing the likes of Alfredo Rodriguez and Vlad Gutierrez could’ve sapped cash that could’ve otherwise been used on future payroll, for instance, and while the perks of drafting 2nd overall in back to back years is that you get to draft top talent, it also comes with a lot higher signing bonus requirements than when you’re picking, say, 27th.
Finally, it’s worth emphasizing that while 2018 has routinely been cited as the year the Reds get back on track, this rebuild became as thorough as it has been specifically so that there’s sustained success, not just a one year go-for-it opportunity. In other words, just because the Reds might have $25 million in space underneath their absolute 2018 payroll cap, that doesn’t mean they’re going to add $25 million worth of payroll via trade or free agent signings. Only Wood and Mesoraco are in the final years of their contracts, and while that’ll lop off some $15 million from payroll after the 2018 season (if they aren’t re-signed), the huge number of arbitration-eligible players receiving another round of salary increases will offset that and then some. So even if the Reds did add $25 million in payroll for 2018, unless every penny of it was on 1-year contracts, the payroll ceiling would already be busted by 2019 aside from selling off experienced parts (or 2015 all over again).
Still, it stands to reason that the Reds, as currently constructed, can keep their core intact and still add pieces this offseason, and can do so without the need to shed salary to facilitate a move. Whether that’s a trade for an established pitcher or a decent foray into the free agent market remains to be seen, but it’s clear the Reds should be able to be aggressive should they pinpoint a player they’d like to add.