There’s a common vacuum-sealed thought process in the baseball world that goes something along these lines:
Teams trying to win cash in prospects for good big leaguers. Teams aiming to rebuild trade their expensive veterans for prospects with an eye to the future.
Again, in a vacuum these things are largely true. We witnessed over the last half-decade as the Cincinnati Reds shed their stalwarts for other teams’ farm systems, their reboot a thorough strategy to be good further down the road. Then, we witnessed their work over the last calendar year attempting to emerge from said reboot, flipping high profile prospects to bring in more established veteran depth, finally with an eye towards winning in the now.
The thing is, though, that teams attempting to win on a consistent basis don’t always fall into those binary molds. Considering it’s been so damn long since the Reds maintained a streak of competitive baseball season over season, that’s an easy thing to forget. A closer look across the baseball landscape over the last calendar year shows that while the all-in, all-out model holds true at the extremes of teams’ baseball life cycles, those teams aiming to consistently win year in, year out, often do so with the kind of roster maintenance that aims to split the middle.
Namely, they often trade players off their active rosters despite the knowledge that those players could help them at the time. That’s because those players, while valuable to their current team, also carry tremendous value to other clubs, and could help patch things in other areas on the roster.
A quick glance at the clubs that did well enough during the 2019 season serves to highlight just how prolific those kinds of deals can be. Despite winning 90 games in 2018, the Tampa Bay Rays traded Mallex Smith on the heels of an impressive 3.5 bWAR season, his 4 years of team control heading to Seattle to help address their catching depth. The Los Angeles Dodgers, juggernauts that they are, obviously were still willing to move Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood, Kyle Farmer, and Matt Kemp while still aiming to compete, while the Washington Nationals - the NL champs - made a similar move with veteran starter Tanner Roark. The St. Louis Cardinals used Luke Weaver as a major piece in the deal to land Paul Goldschmidt, while Oakland flipped promising lefty Emilio Pagan to land Jurickson Profar. And while Cleveland’s 93 wins weren’t good enough to sneak into the playoffs again, their winter featured a bevy of moves off their active roster, with the likes of Yan Gomes and Edwin Encarnacion shed while Carlos Santana returned - and that doesn’t even get to the mid-year Trevor Bauer deal.
I’m sure you’ve heard of former New York Yankees starter Sonny Gray, too.
The 2019-2020 Reds offseason is set to begin in two weeks or so, and given the litany of comments from Dick Williams about a 2020 playoff run being a must, it’s set to be a very active one. And while the likes of Taylor Trammell, Jeter Downs, and Josiah Gray no longer highlight the team’s once-lauded farm system, the fact remains that this Reds offseason doesn’t have to depend solely on trading what’s left of the farm for established talent and/or splashing cash to add much-needed talent via free agency. There are players on the active roster right now who, while attractive as pieces of the current and future versions of the Reds, would also be very attractive as trade chips to address other areas of need on the Cincinnati roster.
If the Reds are truly going to consider a run at Yasmani Grandal in free agency, for instance, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Tucker Barnhart’s name again come up in trade rumors the way he was in the Reds pursuit of J.T. Realmuto last winter. If Alex Wood and the Reds are indeed interested in a low-risk reunion for the 2020 season, that could mean that Anthony DeSclafani - fresh off a solid, healthy season finally - or even Tyler Mahle could end up being moved to help find some offense.
Are those the kinds of players who, on their own, could help land another team’s superstar? They aren’t, but they each hold significant value as secondary pieces, as would, say, Jesse Winker if the Reds are indeed intent on bringing in a more proven piece in the OF. So while the Reds farm no longer boasts a Top 10 overall talent like Nick Senzel or a toolsy Top 20 overall lottery ticket like Trammell, a piece like these off the active roster paired with one of the better prospects still in the system is still a very viable way to seek upgrades to places where there are obvious needs. Factor in that the Reds seem willing and able to help backfill by spending in free agency, and the current Reds might have more trade chips this winter than you otherwise thought.