It seemed innocuous enough at the time. The Pittsburgh Pirates had turned to lefty Francisco Liriano for the Bottom of the 7th inning, and out came lefty-masher Phil Ervin to pinch hit for the lefty-swinging Scooter Gennett. Phlerv, of course, has been as red hot as any hitter in baseball of late, and certainly deserved the opportunity to do what he does best.
I’m not sure any of us really thought that Gennett was being pulled because he was being traded. I mean, the thought sure crossed a few synapses, but he’d been out for most of the entire year with balky groins and hadn’t really hit at all since returning, and at $10 million for this season wasn’t exactly a cheap pickup for anyone looking for a pure rental bat. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what was going on, as we later found out that Gennett had his medicals cleared and was off to San Francisco for no more than a PTBNL.
It capped a truly remarkable two-day stretch of action for the Cincinnati Reds front office. We found out late last night that they’d shipped off top prospect Taylor Trammell, slugger Yasiel Puig, and lefty pitching prospect Scott Moss for a year and two months of Trevor Bauer. Earlier today, they flipped Tanner Roark and some cash Oakland’s way for former 2nd round pick Jameson Hannah, a reasonably promising CF prospect. And, in a matter of roughly 16 hours, they’d completely altered the course of the franchise once again.
The reality is, though, that most of this has gone exactly according to plan. These 2019 Reds were supposed to be better than the bottom-feeders they’d been during the bulk of their deep, dark rebuild, and that’s exactly what they were. They were exciting, albeit still not good enough to get over the hump just yet, which is pretty much exactly what every projection and prognostication before the season suggested they would be. And given that they brought in an arsenal of players set to be free agents at the end of the season, the writing was on the wall from day one that if they weren’t in the thick of the race for the 2019 playoffs at the deadline, those pieces would be shipped out with an eye again on the future.
So far, we’ve seen exactly that. Puig, Gennett, Roark, and Matt Kemp have all been jettisoned, and odds are the same would have been true for David Hernandez had his shoulder issue not popped up at the worst of times. The Bauer acquisition, even while costly as all hell, is certainly a move with the 2020 push in mind, even though he’ll obviously get work in for the remainder of this season.
The question, though, is whether the openings the Reds created by shipping out players who don’t figure to be around beyond this year truly alters the course of the 2019 season, and that’s what remains to be seen.
On the pitching side of things, you can absolutely make the argument that the Reds not only still have a formidable staff, but they now have one fully equipped to make a shock run over the final 56 games of the season. Bauer slots in next to Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray atop the rotation, with now-healthy Alex Wood in the mix next to Anthony DeSclafani, who’s been on quite the tear recently. They also held on to every single bullpen arm, and hopefully a return to health will make that unit again a bruising one down the stretch.
Out on the diamond, it’s obvious that losing Puig will hurt, given that he’s been the single best hitter on the Reds after his abysmal opening month. Still, there’s an opportunity for the Reds to give his plate appearances to the likes of Ervin, Josh VanMeter, and perhaps even Aristides Aquino, the former toolsy prospect who is absolutely mauling AAA pitching after having been DFA’d off the 40-man roster previously in his career. That next to Nick Senzel in CF and Jesse Winker in the other corner does, at least on paper, have a chance to provide the kind of production this season that could keep the Reds afloat. And on the infield, Scooter’s departure should give a chance for Jose Peraza to get back to regular playing time, and considering he, too, has taken off after a brutal start that’s a promising thing. VanMeter, too, should be in the mix for some 2B time, as his versatility will get him ample looks.
There’s a chance those young players fall back to earth, of course. A very good chance, actually. But there’s also the chance that the Reds find out even one of them is a legitimate big leaguer during this stretch, and that will help them in their decision making as they head into a vital 2020 season.
I say 2020 is vital for a reason, of course, and that’s due in large part to the banking on Bauer being his 2018 self and not what he’s been the rest of his career. His 2018 was legitimately brilliant, and was the kind of performance that would, and should, garner the kind of prospect haul it took to land him last night. That said, while his 2019 season has been good, it’s been far from the kind of ace-level stuff that might warrant what it cost to acquire him. Trammell has had a similar slump this season, and that’s certainly a reason why he was moved, but in selling low on the Reds top trade chip they also bought at a premium a pitcher whose value is nowhere near what it was this time last winter. His 4.17 FIP this season mirrors the 4.20 FIP posted by Roark, for instance, while his 2.0 bWAR sits well behind both Castillo and Gray at the moment.
That’s who the Reds used their best chip on, and between now and when he reaches free agency at the end of next season, the Reds will likely owe him somewhere in the range of $25 million total, with perhaps $18-20 million of that next year. That’s quite a large portion of the payroll for 2020 that once looked like it would be freed up by the shedding of so many 1-year players from the 2019 roster, and if the young position players talked about above don’t seize those openings, the Reds will once again be looking to fill as many as four key positions - RF, 2B, SS, and C, a spot they tried hard to upgrade this last winter to no avail. And, they’ll be doing so without Trammell, their best position player trade chip, while the rest of their farm system suddenly looks rather shaky.
Jonathan India, their 2018 1st round draft pick, has been sort of fine so far in 2019, but he’s hardly shot up any prospect rankings with his performances to date. Hunter Greene is out for all of 2020 in all likelihood after having Tommy John surgery. Tony Santillan has struggled mightily at the AA level, the owner of a 4.84 ERA and unsightly 1.60 WHIP to date. Meanwhile, both Tyler Stephenson and Jose Siri have had the same kind of offensive evaporation at AA Chattanooga that plagued Trammell, while their teammate T.J. Friedl is out for the season with a busted ankle. That doesn’t even touch on the struggles of Vlad Gutierrez, either.
In other words, the Reds used their single biggest trade chip to push for a 2020 run, and they don’t have much of a farm system left to make the kind of big-splash trade to fill other holes - ones they pretty well acknowledged existed earlier this summer when they revealed they were open to adding a ‘controllable hitter’ at some point. Given that the one true time they’ve ever dipped into free agency was over a decade ago to sign closer Francisco Cordero for a relatively meager $45 or so million, it’s going to either take a series of crafty trades for buy-low guys this winter akin to last winter - which hasn’t pushed the Reds over the top - or a complete change of philosophy to dip into the free agent market should the young, relatively unheralded crew of VanMeter, Ervin, Aquino, and Peraza hit the ground running the next two months and beyond.
The Reds were obviously attempting to be opportunistic at this deadline, buying when they saw a price they felt was reasonable while selling players who weren’t going to be a part of the future - at least, not unless they circle back and pay them as free agents this winter. In the process, though, they neither fixed what has ailed them in 2019 nor solved what appear to be the voids they’ll need to fill for 2020. On paper, that is, as there’s certainly a chance they’ve managed to thread the needle with aplomb.
I’ll certainly be crossing my fingers.