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Why the Cincinnati Reds have had interest in Marcell Ozuna, Nick Castellanos

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They have a crowded outfield already, so what gives?

Chicago Cubs v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

Jesse Winker has a career OBP of .370, and his career OPS+ sits some 20% above league average. Aristides Aquino obliterated baseballs at a rate few have ever seen upon his call-up last year, and once threw out roughly seven thousand baserunners from RF in a single minor league season. Nick Senzel, of course, was one of the most prized prospects in all of baseball when he made his big league debut some 9 months ago, and posted a per 162 game average of roughly a 20/20 season in a foreign position in his short rookie campaign.

Still, the Cincinnati Reds have sought to augment their outfield corps this winter, and have done so in quite the agressive manner. Manager David Bell has emphasized how much he’d like pitcher Michael Lorenzen to get more chances out there. The team pursued, and doled out some $21 million guaranteed to Japanese OF Shogo Akiyama, even noting that he’d long been a target (and therefore was no consolation prize). Then just this week we learned from MLB Network’s Jon Heyman that while Marcell Ozuna agreed to a pillow contract with the Atlanta Braves, the Reds had apparently been willing to offer him multiple years to sign this winter - and on the heels of that, Heyman relayed that the club is still pursuing OF Nick Castellanos, too.

That’s already an existing outfield glut, and we didn’t even mention Phil Ervin’s lefty-mashing, Josh VanMeter’s rise last year, Mark Payton’s Rule 5 roster status, the acquisition of Travis Jankowski, or Scott Schebler - remember him? - being out of options. So what, exactly, is fixin’ to give if all of this materializes with yet another acquisition?

There have been a few good conspiracy theories out there about it, so we thought we’d address some of those there. Perhaps create a few while we’re at it, too, simply so we can all try to wrap our heads around a potential domino effect despite pitchers and catchers being barely three weeks out from reporting to Goodyear, AZ.

Theory One: The Reds finally have money and are going to use it, dammit

The Reds spent much of the end of 2019 talking about how 2020 was uber-important, that a playoff push was in the cards, and that they had the kind of financial wherewithal to put together what should amount to a record payroll. If the tea leaves are to be believed, they’ve certainly tried to make good on that so far.

Shogo is around, Mike Moustakas and Wade Miley have been signed, and the club has improved. Still, there were very public swings and misses on Ozuna, catcher Yasmani Grandal, shortstop Didi Gregorius, and pitcher Zack Wheeler, all of whom went elsewhere on big money deals. As we sit here today, the Reds payroll is roughly $127 million, per Roster Resource, and that’s actually down from the $131 million their payroll was just last year. What if the Reds have simply reached the point where they a) finally have the money to make a luxury signing, and b) all that’s left out there is an OF bat?

Signing, say, Castellanos at this point would certainly furter log the logjam, and would create a scenario where a lot of folks who thought they had guaranteed PT suddenly don’t, on paper, but isn’t that something that good teams often do? Didn’t the New York Yankees enter 2019 with a billion OF options and block former future star Clint Frazier simply because, well, they could?

Theory Two: Four unknowns could equal four, could equal zero

For all the good things mentioned about Winker, Aquino, and Senzel at the top of this article, there are chop-downs in the quiver, too, unfortunately. They could all roll into 2020 taking the next steps in their rise to collective stardom, or the things that have kept them down to date might well all strike again.

Winker, for all his promise, had a shoulder surgery prematurely end his 2018 and a cervical strain in his neck end his 2019 in similar fashion. Despite all his promise, he’s still not topped even 390 PA in a season to date.

Similarly, Senzel has dealt with a rash of injuries in his pro career, from a busted finger to a bad ankle sprain to vertigo to the shoulder surgery that ended his 2019 season early, too. In fact, we’ve not even seen him back to smashing baseballs since that labrum repair last fall, and while all the prognoses have been positive that he’ll be fine for the upcoming season, that upcoming season is getting damn close and we still can’t guarantee he’ll be ready for the start of it.

Aquino, meanwhile, had such a volatile minor league progression that he was outrighted off the Reds 40-man roster altogether after another rough 2018 campaign, telling you where he was in the eyes of the current brass all of one full season ago. Add-in his mighty struggles in September after the breakout August, and he’s hardly a sure thing.

Then, there’s Shogo, who the team is obviously quite high on given his contract guarantee. Still, he’s making the transition to MLB from Japan for the first time, and while many players have done so to much aplomb, he’s hardly an automatic guarantee to succeed, too. Factor in that he’ll be 32 in April, and there are certainly scenarios where instant stardom isn’t involved. The financial gamble makes you want to believe he’ll be great from the start, but don’t forget the Reds have tried and stumbled with big international signings in recent memory before.

All four have immense promise, but there are certainly reasons to temper those expectations, especially with so little proven from any of them yet.

Theory Three: There’s a blockbuster trade in the works

This is the most obvious conspiracy, since it’s the one that probably makes the most sense on paper. Have nine outfielders and need help in other places? Use that outfield depth to trade for what you need!

On paper, that makes sense. The Reds could use an upgrade at SS or C, and packaging Winker/Senzel/beer/sausage/pizza/Ferragamo loafers might temp the likes of, say, Cleveland into dealing them Francisco Lindor. Backfill with an everyday OF of Aquino, Shogo, and Castellanos, and boom - this offense looks fixed, man!

The reality is, though, that Lindor is one of the very, very few players who fits the mold of both a) potentially available and b) is actually a star at SS. Part a here, though, appears to be moot now, as Cleveland manager Terry Francona effectively poo-poo’d that their star shortstop was on the move this winter. Beyond Lindor, who else is there, really? Which team has a star that they’re willing to punt on this close to the 2020 season?

The Dodgers aren’t moving Corey Seager. The Astros aren’t dealing Carlos Correa. There are no catchers who move the needle on the trade block, and the Reds are effectively flush elsewhere. So why this one makes a bit of sense, it’s just really, really hard to see it playing out.

Theory Four: The Reds are pushing the market

Here’s a fun one. What if due to their new financial clout, the Reds are simply running up the prices it’ll take their competitors to sign these guys?

“The Reds are interested” long was a bit of a ruse in the free agency world, as they simply never seemed to be serious about it. The signings of Moose, Shogo, and Miley this winter, though, have sent a bolt to the market that the Reds finally do have some clout, and if they say they’re interested, that actually means they’re interested!

Consider that one of the more likely landing points for Ozuna was a return to St. Louis - adding the Reds to that bidding mix certainly wouldn’t have made it any easier for the Cardinals to bring him back. The same can be said for Castellanos and Chicago, as the more the Reds try to drive up his price, the greater chance the suddenly penny-pinching Cubs bow out of the bidding process altogether. In other words, the Reds might not land either Ozuna or Castellanos, but they might help drive both of them out of the NL Central altogether, which is a neat way to cobble together some strength, too.

Theory Five: There’s another position change in the works

On February 21st, 2018, I wrote about how Nick Senzel playing shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds would ‘change everything.’ I didn’t even pull the idea out of the hat, either, as there’s a quote MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon unearthed smack in the middle of it that says this:

“My focus is on shortstop,” Senzel said on Tuesday. “I’ll take some reps at other spots, but I think third base is a little bit to the side right now.”

Of course, we spent all of February 2019 hearing similar things from Senzel and all those around him about the concept of playing CF, something (like SS in 2018) he’d simply never really done.

But...what if?

Transitioning from 3B to CF to SS is something that’s hard enough, but doing so in an offseason where you’ve been rehabbing a torn labrum in your throwing shoulder is a scenario that sounds comically less than ideal. Factor in that the Senzel-to-SS experiment ended nearly as quickly as it started two years ago, and there’s little to believe that’s what we’ll see come spring training. It’s fun to dream on, for sure, but this one seems just as unlikely as any.

Theory Six: There’s a less-blockbustery deal in the works

A nice, shiny Lindor would be the dream of every baseball fan on the planet. Believe it or not, there are other good-but-not-as-good-as-Lindor players out there, too, and landing them could help the Reds in 2020 and beyond, too.

Maybe that’s what the Reds have in mind. Maybe they want Nick Anderson from Tampa to help the bullpen be a lock-down force, and maybe Tampa wants Florida high school product Jesse Winker in return. Ken Giles is reportedly on the block in Toronto, and maybe the Reds would be willing to cash-in on Aquino to acquire him.

To be honest, the fact that the Reds have only addressed their bullpen with non-roster minor league signings to date is a bit curious, isn’t it?

Maybe the Reds are trying to land, say, Matt Barnes from the luxury tax ravaged Boston Red Sox, his $3.1 million 2020 salary and team control for 2021 a pretty attractive piece. Their current (or potentially growing) OF depth would allow them to make a pretty compelling offer, no?