The 2011 Carolina Mudcats slumped to a dismal 53-86 record, serving up nearly 100 more runs to their opponents than they could muster themselves. Neftali Soto, who has nothing to do with this article, led the club with 30 dingers that year, while Denis Phipps, who also has nothing to do with this article, joined him as the only Mudcats with at least 100 hits on the year.
To date, that club stands as only a footnote of Cincinnati Reds baseball history, just one of tens of thousands of archived pages on Baseball Reference and hardly anything more. What’s relevant here, though, is that if the Reds do indeed engage in the free agent market this winter to the level which Dick Williams alluded to earlier this week, there’s a chance the 2011 Carolina Mudcats will take on a much, much larger relevance.
Logging 42 games behind the plate for those Mudcats was one Yasmani Grandal, the Reds 1st round pick from 2010 who was shipped to the San Diego Padres in the massive Mat Latos deal before ever playing an inning with the big league Reds. He, you’ll notice, is the premier catcher on the market this winter, fresh off a 2019 season in which he posted a .380 OBP and socked 28 homers for the Milwaukee Brewers.
Those 2011 Mudcats also had a slick-fielding 21 year old shortstop at their disposal, one who picked up 35 starts at that position after being promoted mid-season from A+ Bakersfield. That was one Didi Gregorius, who has become a staple at short for the New York Yankees after the Reds moved him alongside Drew Stubbs in a deal that landed them Shin-Soo Choo - a trade that just so happened to also include current Reds starter Trevor Bauer in the three-team swap. Didi just swatted a grand slam for the Yankees in their ALDS matchup against the Minnesota Twins, and he, too, is set to be a free agent once this 2019 season wraps up.
Not only are Grandal and Gregorius familiar faces to followers of the Reds and two of the absolute premier free-agents-to-be this winter, they also play positions that where the Reds could use upgrades heading into the 2020 season and beyond. That’s not to imply that the catching situation and shortstop position were necessarily the problems in 2019, but it does imply that the overall team offense was sub-par, and both Grandal and Gregorius would offer significant improvements on paper over what the Reds otherwise have in-house.
The idea that the Reds would ever venture into free agency is one that has been a non-starter for years, frankly. The 4 year, ~$45 million deal doled out to closer Francisco Cordero over a decade ago still stands as the team’s club-record free agent contract, while the 2 year, ~$18.5 million deal given to Ryan Ludwick over a half-decade ago is the single largest one they’ve ever issued to a position player.
That’s chump change compared to the lucrative deals given out by most every other franchise, but the Reds have consistently opted to pursue two very different trends: keeping their payroll below league average, and only giving out big-money contracts to players they’ve already had on the roster - as the massive deals to Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Eugenio Suarez, and Homer Bailey exhibit.
With all of that in mind, it’s admittedly difficult to wrap your head around the idea that the Reds could, would, or should ever pursue a premier free agent, because it’s certainly a see it to believe it kind of moment.
But what if they could actually, y’know, afford to sign them both?
The Reds currently have five players with guaranteed contracts for the 2020 season in Joey Votto ($25M), Eugenio Suarez ($9.5M), Sonny Gray ($10.1M, Raisel Iglesias ($9M), and Tucker Barnhart ($4.2M), which is a total of some $58.6 million. In terms of realistic guesses on arbitration raises (and expected tendered contracts), you can add-in the likes of Trevor Bauer (~$18M), Anthony DeSclafani (~$4.5 million), Michael Lorenzen (~$3.5 million), and Curt Casali (~$1.7 million), bringing the payroll up to some $86.3 million to this point.
Jesse Winker, Nick Senzel, Phillip Ervin, Aristides Aquino, Josh VanMeter, Alex Blandino, Kyle Farmer, Luis Castillo, Tyler Mahle, Amir Garrett, Lucas Sims, and Robert Stephenson all figure to earn roster spots in 2020. Each member of this group is still yet to reach arbitration, meaning they’ll be making roughly the league-minimum salary of ~$560K. That’s some $6.72M, bringing the total payroll to this juncture to roughly ~$93 million.
Considering the Reds operated on a payroll somewhere in the $125-130M range for 2019 and are expected to increase from that amount, that’s a giant pile of money at the disposal of Dick Williams, Nick Krall, and company.
Of course, they’ll have a handful of multi-million dollar decisions to make on their own roster before ever reaching the point of considering the likes of Gregorius or Grandal. Kevin Gausman, for instance, made some $9.35M this season and will be due a slight raise on that via arbitration for 2020, should the Reds choose to keep him around. That’s a high price for a middle reliever, though, and the idea that he could be non-tendered is a very real one. That’s a similar case for Derek Dietrich, too, who struggled to replicate his May form and eventually had shoulder surgery, all that coming after he was non-tendered and only warranted a minor-league free agent deal a winter ago. Then, there are the more complicated arbitration cases of Jose Peraza and Scott Schebler, both of whom still have 3 years of team control. My best guess is that Schebler will be non-tendered after his repeated shoulder issues, and even though Peraza is a) already expensive (he made some ~$2.8 million as a Super Two player in 2019) and b) coming off an awful 2020, his youth and the upside he showed in 2018 will mean he’s kept around once more (even if that means he becomes trade bait).
Assuming the lone member of that group to be tendered a contract is Peraza - at a guess of some ~$3M - that pushes the payroll to some ~$96 million. That leaves the option the team holds on Freddy Galvis as their only other financial obligation, a $5.5M decision that looms large both a) because it’s a decent chunk of change and b) Galvis, by trade, is a shortstop, and here we are talking about the Reds willingness to spend big on a shortstop in Gregorius. Either way, my guess is Galvis will have his option picked up, since there’s still enough value in him at that rate to be flipped for something greater than zero later in the winter, if need be. (Or, he could be in the crowded conversation for the 2B mix, which is an entirely different, long discussion.)
That brings the payroll to some $101.5 million before any outside additions. If the Reds are truly committed to pushing their payroll beyond the $130 million mark, that’s certainly enough in the coffers to bring both Gregorius and Grandal into the fold, even if both land the pie in the sky level contracts that they’ll both seek.
Last winter, for instance, Grandal settled for a 1 year, $18.25 million deal from Milwaukee after reportedly getting no bigger offer than one in the vicinity of 4 years and $60 million (from the Mets) and turning that down. Obviously, he doesn’t have draft pick compensation tied to him this winter and is off perhaps his single best campaign as a big leaguer, but he’s also a year older and on the cusp of turning 31 years old. For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume he gets a higher AAV offer on a multi-year commitment this winter and signs for 3 years and $54 million, effectively the 4 year, $72 million that was more what he was seeking last winter.
That would bump the Reds to $119.5 million.
As for Gregorius, it’s hard not to bring up that he needed Tommy John surgery last fall and was limited to just 82 games this season, or that he hit just .238/.276/.441 once he returned. The slugging was still there - as it was for most every single MLB player in 2019 - but that’s a far cry from the excellent .277/.326/.486 (.812 OPS) mark he posted over the previous two seasons combined. He’ll also turn 30 in February and will likely get tagged with draft pick compensation from the Yankees after a Qualifying Offer, which could dampen his overall market. It’s a very similar situation to where Marwin Gonzalez was a year ago, frankly, as he was entering his age-30 season and free agency for the first time on the heels of .274/.349/.467 (.817 OPS) production over his previous two seasons, and he landed only a 2 year, $21 million guarantee from Minnesota in the notoriously depressed free agent market.
So, Didi becomes a bit more of a difficult bird to peg, contract-wise. Considering the Yankees have Gleyber Torres in-house to take over at SS, that might well guarantee that Didi would automatically decline the roughly 1 year, $18 million contract he’d get by accepting the Qualifying Offer. But that, in turn, would impact his overall signability in the eyes of the rest of MLB, which could suppress his market despite him being the premier shortstop available. I’ll venture a guess, though, that he’ll still be a sought-after commodity despite the fact that no other contender or fringe contender really has a glaring hole at shortstop (aside from perhaps Milwaukee), and that he’ll land something in the range of a 3 year, $39 million guarantee (just so we can make the Didi vs. Zack Cozart discussions rage on for years to come once again).
At $13 million for 2020, that bumps the 2020 Reds payroll to $132.5 million, and that’s before the idea that each of Galvis, or Peraza, or both could be shopped in the wake of such an agreement. In theory - if the bump over 2019’s roughly $130 million payroll is to be believed - that would still allow funds to add a bullpen arm, too, since that’s something the club both needs and has mentioned as a priority.
It’s worth wrapping this by pointing out that while the focus of this article was on the 2020 payroll, each of those contracts impacts payroll well beyond just 2020. Perhaps signing both would not only cause a domino effect that would see Galvis and Peraza dealt, but also Tucker Barnhart, for instance. It’s then that we begin to look further into the future of both catcher and shortstop in the organization, too, as Tyler Stephenson still looms as a potential catcher of the future but still hasn’t topped AA. As for shortstop depth, a similar future is hopeful for Jose Garcia, but he’s still years away, too. In other words, neither signing would truly be blocking the next great in-house stars at those positions, which is a key consideration in each and every major free agent signing.
It’s a strange new world for these Reds, and even having this kind of discussion seems like a foray into the unknown. That said, this time a year ago the idea that the Reds would roster the likes of Yasiel Puig, Sonny Gray, Alex Wood, or Trevor Bauer seemed outlandish, too, and the Reds didn’t just get one of those stars, they landed all of them. These new Reds intend to do serious work, and if they’re to be believed, it’s possible for them to legitimately chase not just one, but two of the premier free agents on the market this winter.
By the way, did I mention that the manager of those 2011 Carolina Mudcats was none other than current Cincinnati Reds manager David Bell?