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Can the Cincinnati Reds shed payroll and still contend in 2021?

Odds are that’s exactly what they’ll try.

Milwaukee Brewers v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

It is neither an exhaustive nor all-inclusive list, but nevertheless, you’ll find a brief list below this of things that are not very fun to do, ranked from not fun to least fun.

  • kicking a trailer hitch with your shin because you didn’t see it
  • waiting in line at the DMV in the rain in the middle of a pandemic
  • writing about how a big league baseball team can save money by shedding payroll

Not an all-inclusive list, but a thorough one nonetheless. And since you’re reading a baseball blog, you can likely guess which one is about to follow...

With all due respect to Bill Dance and the wonderful world of Bill Dance GIFs, we’re going to talk Cincinnati Reds payroll today, and it’s not going to be nearly as fun as this time last year.

Fall of 2019, if you can scrap the resin off your eyes and peer back that far, was a completely different world for us all. Pandemic, politics, conflagrations aside, it was at least an era that mimicked what we’d been used to for most of our lives, and on the baseball side of things, that meant actually consuming baseball. Going to games. Paying out the ass for parking, beers, hot dogs, and pretzels. Seeing the sport played in the cathedrals that have been built across this continent to house it, participating as a vital cog in the revenue-generator that has become Major League Baseball.

With those tenets in place, the Reds invested heavily into their club a year ago, doling out over $150 million in new contracts to free agents to augment what they’d already been building for years. And while the 2020 season was delayed and truncated, the Reds even doubled-down on that investment while fans remained away, adding more payroll at the trade deadline for their push to return to the playoffs.

The Reds leaned hard into expanding payroll at what seemed like the optimal time, only to have their models derailed by a massive loss in revenue. Two important parallel points come into play after pointing that out. The first is that despite their significant cash infusion, the Reds payroll barely climbed out of the league’s cellar, as it still remained below average among the 30 franchises and smack dab in the median in that regard. The second is that the team’s ownership group, which has seen the value of the franchise reach billion-dollar status since taking over, could absolutely move some money around and make a cash infusion into the Reds to keep their payroll for 2021 at 2020 levels, or even take it beyond those.

The reality is, however, that the second point has almost zero chance of actually happening. You, theoretical billionaire, could absolutely sell a vacation home, liquidate some stock, refinance some outstanding loans at lower rates, spin-off an unprofitable subsidiary, and throw $30 million at almost any problem. But how likely are you to actually go through with that all, especially if you’re of the mind that this fanless revenue-drop is more a one-time event than a years-long problem?

Every gut instinct I have tells me that the Reds ownership, along with almost every single other ownership group in baseball, is going to temper their spending habits this winter. While it’s a different animal, the sports world just saw overall transfer spending across FIFA’s top leagues drop some 30% year over year, shedding nearly $1.9 billion from exchanges this time in 2019. And while I don’t think that means every single team at every point in the contending life-cycle will slash payroll in equal swaths, I absolutely think it will force teams into spending less on fringe, peripheral, insurance players, and perhaps curtail the number of clubs dipping into the deepest ends of the spending market.

I do not anticipate the Reds will have a firesale. Not at all. In fact, I’d be surprised if almost every single player who already has a guaranteed contract isn’t back next year, while the arbitration-eligibles will have a similar, familiar fate. That said, it’s worth reconciling a pre-2020 existing fact with one that 2020’s foibles will also exacerbate, as they combine to create a pretty distinct spot within baseball’s 30 franchises where the Reds will likely reside this winter:

It’s possible to lop off payroll, or simply wave goodbye to it, while still having every intention of being a playoff-bound club.

It’s not a fun concept, but it’s there. It was there for the Los Angeles Dodgers this time in 2018 when they opted to move Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood, and Matt Kemp for the shell of Homer Bailey and prospects. It was possible this time last year when Atlanta waved goodbye to Josh Donaldson and Dallas Keuchel. It happened last winter in Milwaukee when they overhauled their roster more than any club in baseball, losing Mike Moustakas, Yasmani Grandal, Zach Davies, Trent Grisham, and others. Each of those three clubs went on to the playoffs after those moves.

For the Reds, like every franchise this winter, there’s going to be a need pinch pennies that they’d prefer not to pinch, but ones that might be pinchable. It might mean the non-tenders of Travis Jankowski and Robert Stephenson, or putting Raisel Iglesias on the trade block as he enters his final year of guaranteed money (with Archie Bradley now in the fold). It might mean turning to the Driveline braintrust to find the next Trevor Bauer instead of forking out tens of millions to keep the current one around. It’s going to mean belt-tightening somewhere, I’m pretty sure.

Again, this is not going to be an exclusively Reds-centric measure. Teams across the baseball landscape are going to be faced with this head-on this winter. That’s not to suggest there won’t be any expenditures, of course, as clubs will still invest millions upon millions to get better prior to 2021, it’s just that they might be doing so in more of a one-in, one-out approach than they otherwise would.

It’s worth pointing out that spending money does not always correlate directly with success, either. The combined bWAR accrued by the four players in whom the Reds invested in free agency last winter - Moustakas, Nick Castellanos, Wade Miley, and Shogo Akiyama - was 0.3, or less than Kyle Farmer or Tejay Antone provided on their own. There is obviously the hope that in a full, normal season those investments provide significantly more than that, obviously, but it’s also a clear reminder that just because certian players are making tons of money doesn’t mean they’re automatically the best players on the team.

Maybe the Reds do find a way to dole out $35 million a year to keep Bauer. But maybe to do so they have to trade Eugenio Suarez for some shiny new pieces, flip Iglesias, and bet on an unproven Jonathan India. Maybe they let Bauer, and Anthony DeSclafani walk, and bank on Tyler Mahle, Antone, and Michael Lorenzen to help round out the rotation in his stead, their advancements in their first year with Kyle Boddy and the Driveline team just a signal of things to come.

There are endless permutations with the current roster, but what I’m just about certain of is that there is not the kind of money pool under GABP than includes simply keeping the band together as a viable option, nor will that be the case for most every team out there. The Reds are going to have to get creative in how they navigate it this time around, since there’s not going to simply be the cash-splash option we saw this time last year, even with the return to the playoffs in 2020 now in the books.