Let’s talk about the best case scenario for the Cincinnati Reds during the 2019 season for a minute.
It’s mid-July, and the club has burst back into the national spotlight, with rebound seasons from Sonny Gray and Joey Votto dovetailing perfectly with Yasiel Puig crushing mammoth dingers in his contract year. Scooter Gennett’s prolonged breakout has continued, Alex Wood has proven to be the best left-handed starter the Reds have had in their rotation in years, and manager David Bell just continues to pull all the right strings. They’re in contention, and not only are they not about to trade away some of their players who are in their final year under contract, they’re even looking to add at the trade deadline - perhaps Brandon Morrow to bolster the bullpen, since he’s on the last-place Chicago Cubs in this here dream world.
That’s fun, right? And really, it even fits marginally within the realm of expectations, albeit only if pretty much everything breaks the right way for the Reds. That scenario, right there, would absolutely mean the 2019 Cincinnati Reds would have the highest payroll in team history, as they would carry their $120+ million opening day payroll (plus additions) through to the end of the season, eclipsing the 2014-2015 payrolls that sat around $115 million. Truly, it would be a sight to behold.
The reality check here, though, is that the odds of that happening are incredibly slim, especially in an NL Central that looks to be the toughest division in baseball top to bottom. So, with the club set to enter the 2019 season with a ‘record payroll’ north of $120 million that includes a laundry list of players in their final year under team control, how realistic is it to expect the Reds to hold on to all of them until the end of the season? And, if they don’t, how much below the $115 million threshold from the 2014 and 2015 seasons could they conceivably end up?
Obviously, a start to the season anywhere near as dreadful as the one last April would immediately torpedo any hope of chasing a playoff appearance. If that were to happen, it’s nearly impossible to see the Reds holding on to the likes of Matt Kemp or Tanner Roark, in particular, given their depth in the corner OF spots and in young starting pitching. Their play in 2019 would certainly dictate what type of return the Reds might expect in dealing them given their combined salaries of nearly $32 million this year, but shedding one - or both - would clearly take them out of ‘record’ territory. Total payroll numbers are murky, but Cot’s Contracts mentions the 2014 Reds with an opening day payroll of over $114 million, and the lone real trade they made to shed any salary mid-season that year was an August 31 trade of Jonathan Broxton that saved them only about a million bucks.
That, of course, doesn’t even get to the likes of Puig, Scooter, Wood, and David Hernandez, all of whom also would likely be on the trade block prior to both trade deadlines in the even the Reds sputtered to another last-place run.
Even if the Reds follow their predicted path - one that PECOTA suggests would have them in the running for a .500 season and a 3rd place finish in the Central - it’s also easy to envision them exploring trades of Kemp and Roark, especially if Nick Senzel seizes the CF job and one of Tyler Mahle, Cody Reed, Sal Romano, Brandon Finnegan, or Tony Santillan dominates in AAA Louisville and deserves a promotion. In fact, if the second half of that scenario plays true, the Reds could even conceivably try to trade Kemp/Roark even if they were leading the division as laid out in the first scenario up top.
The lone caveat that might well factor in to their decision making whether in first, last, or somewhere in between is the decision on whether or not to issue any Qualifying Offers to their would-be pending free agents at season’s end. Really, it’s only really in play for Puig, Gennett, and Wood at this juncture, though given each’s relative age and the stagnant free agent market at this time, it’s even hard to imagine the latter two being in that conversation barring massive 2019 seasons, respectively. With that in mind, it’s really hard to envision scenarios where the Reds refuse to consider offers for that trio and the rest of their players in their final years under contract given the opportunity cost and actual financial ramifications of choosing to keep, and pay, each for what may well be a pair of meaningless months in August/September.
Maybe the Reds do storm the Central and look to bolster their bullpen in July with a big name, high-price reliever. They’d still be looking to trade expensive veterans in that case. Being both buyers and sellers in July isn’t the most common scenario in the world, but it’s certainly one that we’ve seen before - the Pittsburgh Pirates played that role just last year, as did the 2004 Boston Red Sox famously while trading franchise cornerstone Nomar Garciaparra mid-year before going on to win their first World Series since the Norman Conquest. That, it would appear, is the best case for the Reds for 2019, as it would mean both a return to their winning ways, threading the needle on their notoriously tight budget, and also recouping assets for the future of the ever-turning rebuild, all while opening up playing time for the most promising younger players in the system.
None of this is meant as a true critique, mind you. Despite the emphasis owner Bob Castellini made this winter that the team would have a ‘record payroll,’ it’s 100% obvious that a) putting together a great roster and b) actually winning games is way more important than the actual bottom line, even if there’s a pretty great correlation between spending and winning games. In fact, it’d be best case scenario if the Reds can find a way to win fabulously, ship off expensive back-ups, and roll that savings into signing star-caliber players in 2020, 2021, and beyond. You’d be silly to prefer the alternative, really.
What’s been made clear this winter is that the Reds are not only trying to win now while still planning on winning in the future, and that they’ve been aggressive in their pursuits of both. That’s what really matters here much more than the actual numbers on the cheque ledger come October. It may well end up a record, but it’s increasingly likely that the end of season won’t be, but the 2019 season itself might well end up a damn more memorable one if it doesn’t than if it does.
And yes, this can absolutely be taken as a roundabout way of poking holes in the Joey Votto’s ‘albatross’ contract is hamstringing the Reds payroll argument one more time.