2014-2019 Cincinnati Reds: bad.
2020 Cincinnati Reds: good, or at least they’re supposed to be.
So far in the limited time we’ve had since the end of the 2019 regular season, all we’ve heard from the Reds brass is that a playoff push in the 2020 season is something they consider a must, particularly in comments from Dick Williams to various outlets (including to The Athletic’s C. Trent Rosecrans.)
On the ‘front office effort scale,’ that certains seems to jive with the new-look Reds we’ve seen develop over the last calendar year. This time last October, the idea that the Reds would land the likes of Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood, Tanner Roark, Sonny Gray, and Trevor Bauer, among others, seemed like a mere pipe dream, but despite the team on the field’s inability to get over the winning hump, all those acquisitions actually happened. So, when we read about the team’s willingness to spend more, make moves, and make 2020 a priority as much or more than ‘rebooting,’ it sounds more and more real by the day.
With that in mind, we here at RR are going to continue to try explore the non-Reds on the baseball landscape and try to figure out not only who might be a great fit with the current roster, but also might be more attainable than you’d initially think.
Today, that starts with current Tampa Bay Rays OF Tommy Pham.
Tommy Pham (31) - OF, Tampa Bay Rays
2019 Stats: .273/.369/.450 in 654 PA; 21 HR, 33 2B, 25 SB, 119
2020 Contract Status: Arb-2, free agent after the 2021 season
After toiling as a shuttle-bus guy for the St. Louis Cardinals bouncing between the bench in Busch and AAA Memphis, the former 16th round draft pick from Durango High School in Las Vegas, NV, burst onto the scene with a classic Cardinal-y breakout in the 2017 season. At 29 years old and having never once cracked a Top 100 overall prospect list, Pham swatted 23 homers, swiped 25 bags, and hit .306/.411/.520 (144 OPS+) en route to an 11th place finish in the NL MVP voting. He’s dealt with an eye disease that impacted his vision throughout his career, but it wasn’t until finding the correct kind of contact lenses that he was finally able to unlock that kind of potential. That 2017 output was good for a 6.2 bWAR season, and with his advancing age and the 2018 Cardinals seemingly going nowhere at the time, he was eventually flipped to the cost-conscious Tampa Bay Rays, who viewed a player of that caliber making league-minimum a crucial find that fit their model.
While Pham has not yet reached the heights of his 2017 breakout, he’s still been rock-solid ever since. His 2018-2019 seasons combined sport a stellar .273/.368/.456 line with 42 total homers and 40 steals, doing that all while both of his home parks ranked in the bottom half of home run environments by park factor. To top it off, he’s done all of that while playing a decent enough OF defense, and has logged some 1566 career innings in CF, to boot. Considering the injuries and unproven nature of each of Jesse Winker, Nick Senzel, and Aristides Aquino - as well as the concept that Senzel could eventually return to the IF at 2B - and Pham becomes a pretty obvious fit for the Reds both offensively and defensively.
The question, of course, is whether or not the Rays would consider moving him, but if you’ve ever once followed the Rays transaction history, that probably shouldn’t be much of an issue for a reasonable price.
For one, the Rays opened the 2019 season with a payroll barely topping $60 million, which was by far the lowest in MLB. Dating back to the 2013 season, they’ve never once had a payroll higher than 27th in the league by season’s end, and their continuing ballpark and attendance issues don’t figure to be improving in the near future. And while their guaranteed payroll figure of some $59.3 million in the 2019 season is set to drop to just over $36 million 2020, they do have 9 arb-eligible players that project to earn some $27 million total in 2020, with Pham’s $8.6 million estimate (per MLB Trade Rumors) the highest of that bunch.
For reference, $8.6 million would’ve been the second highest salary on the Rays last year behind only Charlie Morton, and is set to be the third highest salary on the Rays in 2020 if they make no additional moves. That’s no bank-breaker, to be sure, but it is expensive given their usual payroll history and stands out even more when you consider that Pham was already their oldest regular position player last year.
If Pham’s production stays at a level anywhere close to where its been over the last trio of seasons, he’d in essence be due somewhere in the range of $20 million total over his 2 years of team control. And for the same reason that would be a very reasonable, rational addition to the Reds, that makes him a reasonable, rational player for the Rays for the near future, especially given their 96 win season this year. That said, they traded Mallex Smith off a rather brilliant season in 2018 after they won 90 games, flipped promising rookie Jake Bauers in a 3-team deal that same offseason, and moved Christian Arroyo - the prize of the Evan Longoria trade to San Francisco - this season, too. In other words, they’re opportunistic movers and shakers, and don’t merely ‘hold good players when trying to win’ if there’s a deal that suits their present and future likings.
While the Reds have certainly thinned their prospect ranks in deals over the last calendar year, there would still appear to be ample depth both in their minor league system and off their current big league roster to make a move for a guy like Pham. That could include a prospect package highlighted by Florida native Jonathan India, for instance, or even burgeoning catching prospect Tyler Stephenson - especially if the Reds really are set to pursue Yasmani Grandal in free agency this winter. Considering the awful production the Rays got from Mike Zunino (44 OPS+) and the departure of Travis d’Arnaud to free agency, perhaps even Tucker Barnhart could be viewed as a good secondary piece in the deal, too, if the Reds truly are into a complete overhaul of their own catching depth.
Regardless, a pair of things hold true about this concept. For one, the addition of Pham would be a boon to the Reds offensively and add depth at a position where there are still many unknowns. Secondly, it would neither break the bank nor vanquish the farm despite costing a decent bit, which would allow them to continue to pursue other additions for a 2020 squad that they want to upgrade at every opportunity. Factor in that he’s gone on record as having issues with the way the Cardinals handled him, he might well even thrive on the opportunity to stick it to his former club, as well, something that I’m sure the Reds would have quite an interest in, too.