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Will a ‘record’ Cincinnati Reds payroll extend beyond the 2019 season?

There’s been talk of a big budget, but so much of it is all tied solely to 2019.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds - Press Conference The Enquirer-USA TODAY Sports

Tanner Roark is a useful arm, one who is a definitive improvement for the Cincinnati Reds in both the ‘has been’ and ‘should be’ departments for the 2019 season with little to no risk. Similary, both Alex Wood and Yasiel Puig would be legitimate additions to the 2019 Reds roster - they were both linked to the Reds in trade speculation at the Winter Meetings in a deal that would move Homer Bailey and sink the Los Angeles Dodgers below the luxury tax line. Even Matt Kemp, who was also rumored in that Bailey rumor rumor rumor, showed a bit of bounce-back in 2018, and could conceivably keep that going for a time in 2019 with Great American Ball Park as his home.

It may well be the case that the Reds have had their name connected with more players potentially on the move this winter than any other MLB squad. They’ve been linked to New York Yankees starter Sonny Gray, as well as veteran hurlers Mike Fiers and Anibal Sanchez in their quest to get the pitching as they barrel towards what they insist will be a record payroll.

Two things in particular stand out to me in this wide net of cast rumors. The first, obviously, is that the Reds do appear committed to bringing in experienced, non-cheap help to inject some life back into the roster. The second, though, is that it’s likely that every single player listed above will again be a free agent in 10 months when the 2019 season ends - and that’s quite the interesting wrinkle into this insistence that the 2019 season will be one of a record payroll for these Reds.

After the non-tender of Billy Hamilton, the renegotiated contract for Raisel Igleias, and the acquisition of Roark, the Reds 2019 payroll sits at an estimated $103.63 million for the 2019 season, if our math and MLB Trade Rumors’ arbitration model is to be trusted. The current record for single-season payroll in Cincinnati Reds history was set in the 2015 season - the year in which the current rebuild escalated rapidly in large part due to those financial issues - and came in at some $115.37 million, per Cot’s Contracts. There have been several instances in which a payroll in the region of $130 million for the 2019 season has been kicked around, including from The Enquirer’s John Fay. Those two numbers would suggest that the Reds could have as much as some $30 million left to spend in this particular offseason, which is enough for the 2019 payroll to even accommodate the lone free agent to whom they’ve been specifically connected who is expected to land a long-term deal - Dallas Keuchel.

The thing that continues to be in the spotlight for me, I think, is the precise definition of record payroll that the ownership and front office continue to reference. For exercise, let’s just create a fantasy world for this Reds offseason that at least connects many of the dots we’ve seen outlined in speculation above. Say they manage to land Sonny Gray from the Yankees and do so in a deal similar to the Roark acquisition, meaning they don’t really move established payroll to do so. Gray is estimated to earn $9.1 million in 2019, his final year of team control, and his addition to the active roster less a league-minimum salary player who’d otherwise be in that spot would raise the 2019 payroll to right around ~$112 million. Then, if the Reds signed Keuchel for the estimated 4 year, $82 million deal suggested by MLBTR, their 2019 record payroll would land at some $132.5 million, or right about where the estimated money bump has been speculated to end up after all.

That would cobble together a 2019 Reds team that would, on paper, be significantly improved from their string of last place finishes in the NL Central. A starting rotation of Keuchel, Gray, Luis Castillo, Roark, and Anthony DeSclafani (or Tyler Mahle) sounds pretty cromulent, the bullpen would return as a strength, and top prospect Nick Senzel would get free reign in CF in the wake of Billy Hamilton’s non-tender. There’s even a slight chance that club tops the .500 mark, challenges for a Wild Card, and maybe even sneaks into a late-season division run. However, despite that multitude of would-be additions, it’s still likely that the powerful Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals (with Paul Goldschmidt) still end up better teams than those fantasy 2019 Reds, and that’s the point where this entire article is focused.

Yes, it is nice to see veteran additions to the current Reds. Yes, Roark, Gray, Keuchel, etc. would put a few more butts in seats in 2019, as would a full-time opening for Senzel for us to dream on. It would make for a record payroll, to which pundits could point and reference and cite as the Reds legitimately trying. But if spending that extra $30 million neither gets them to the postseason in 2019 nor brings in a bevy of established players beyond 2019, it pretty much leaves them right back in the same position in October 2019 where they are currently.

That brings me to the projected 2020 payroll of the Reds in that particular fantasy scenario, and whether the claims of creating a record payroll are merely referencing a 2019 burst or something the club intends to make sustainable.

10 months from now, Roark’s $9.8 million and Gray’s $9.1 million come off the books in this scenario, as do the significant amounts currently due to Homer Bailey ($28 million, including the $5 million option buyout), Scooter Gennett ($10.7 million), and David Hernandez ($2.5 million). Jared Hughes, too, could leave, but we’ll assume his $3 million 2020 option is picked up (since so far it appears to be a great bargain). And since the Reds proactively locked up Iglesias, Tucker Barnhart, and Eugenio Suarez to savvy extensions, we know that trio’s collective salary only increases by a total of $6.25 million in 2020 over what they were set to make in 2019.

We’ll also assume continued production and tendered contracts to arbitration eligible players like DeSclafani (~$4.5 million for 2020), Michael Lorenzen (~$3 million), Scott Schebler (~$2.7 million, Jose Peraza (~$6 million), Curt Casali (~$1.5 million), and Wandy Peralta (~$1 million) - and estimated raises that come with such things. That core, along with Joey Votto, Keuchel, and remaining active roster spots made up of league-minimum guys (a la Castillo, Senzel, Mahle, etc.) only brings the total committed payroll for the 2020 Reds to around $97 million.

In other words, if the record payroll concept is one that the Reds are trying to stick to for a sustainable run to get them out of the doldrums of the rebuild and isn’t just a one-year thing for the 2019 season, the Reds would stand to have in the range of $30-35 million to spend again this time next year when such new, prominent free agents like Madison Bumgarner and Gerrit Cole will be on the open market. And, that’s the case even if the fantasy 2020 Reds we put together isn’t precisely a one-for-one with what actually happens, since a similar story would ring true even if the Reds managed to dump Homer and a prospect to the Dodgers for Kemp and Wood, for instance - all would come off the payroll at the end of the 2019 season in that scenario, too.

There have been a few rumors connected to players the Reds would control beyond the 2019 season - Marcus Stroman and J.T. Realmuto being the ones most often cited - but even those two only come with team control through the 2020 season, and adding their expected salaries to that 2020 total above would still leave room again for significant additions again this time next year, too.

The Reds have an army of really, really smart folks in their front office, which leads me to believe this is all quite calculated. Add pieces for the 2019 season that make the team better for now, and be willing to soak up some short-term salary to do so. Add a big fish piece (like Keuchel) if you can manage it, but don’t sign long-term pieces with huge committed dollar amounts if they aren’t the right fit. Expect improvement in 2019 with those moves, but know you’ve got a pile of reserves again this time in a year to continue to address issues, and use that reserve pool to give another year of hopeful improvement to the likes of Mahle, Senzel, Castillo, and the young core around whom they are still intending to build.

Maybe that’ll need to be relief pitching. Maybe it’ll need to be a CF if Senzel takes over at 2B. Maybe, just maybe, it’s in extensions to one or two of the players only under contract for 2019. It could be any, none, or all of those things, but the Reds won’t already be on the hook for it right now - and they’ll have another year to determine where it should be best spent.

That’ll lead to a record 2019 payroll one way or another. It might well lead to another one in 2020, but doesn’t automatically guarantee it. I think that’s actually a positive.