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So, what the heck do the Cincinnati Reds do now?

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An offseason with a laundry list of questions is now in focus.

St. Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds

The Cincinnati Reds traded their top rated prospect for an ace, and he aced. They had already made under the radar moves to land two other ace-caliber aces, both of whom largely aced, too. They spent up to $149 million on free agent bats. They even swung a deadline deal for perhaps the best relief arm on the market, all for a 2020 season that had been earmarked for years.

It did not work. It did not work in epic fashion, really, as the Reds crashed out of the playoffs in immediate and historic fashion, failing to score even a single run in 22 excruciating postseason innings. Their 2020 season is now officially in the books for good, with 31 wins and 31 losses recorded by their name.

If you’re still in the mood to play what if about this season, I won’t blame you one bit. Despite their flaws and foibles, this club entered the playoffs on a stretch of playing the kind of ball the back of their baseball cards suggested had been possible all season, and was built to make a run deeper than they did. The fact is, their stumbles early in the year cost them any chance to host home games in the postseason, and an offense that was the single worst road offense among the 16 teams that made the playoffs played true to form once in Atlanta.

The 2020 Reds were a good club, one better than any Reds team we’ve seen in a half-dozen years. They still weren’t good enough, however, and didn’t land the kind of breaks they needed to prolong their outside chance at success this year. And now, they have even more pieces to pick up.

Trevor Bauer, of course, is the biggest piece they are set to lose. He’ll head into free agency with his 30 year old season on the horizon, and will surely do so after the Reds issue him a Qualifying Offer, which he’ll surely decline. It remains to be seen whether he sticks to his paintball-nuts promise to sign only lucrative 1-year deals as a free agent, ones that could see his single-season salaries break records while assuming huge risks on his own arm, but whether it’s a year at $40 million or a long-term deal akin to the one signed by his former UCLA teammate Gerrit Cole, bringing Bauer back will represent the single largest financial outlay for a 2021 Reds payroll if he were to return.

It’s worth bringing up that bubbling subplot here, I suppose. The Reds entered the 2020 season with a team-record payroll before the pandemic prorated that down, but it still remained slightly below-average and merely an on-median salary compared to the rest of the league. The question heading forward, of course, will be just how much the Reds will commit to spending next year and beyond given the lack of revenue-generation from fans in stadiums this year, and whether even getting back to the ~$145 million they’d expected to spend in 2020 is within reason.

Let’s work our way to a 2021 baseline payroll first.

The three players from the final 2020 roster that are reaching free agency are Bauer, Anthony DeSclafani, and Freddy Galvis. They accounted for $17.5 million (Bauer), $5.9 million (Disco), and $5.5 million (Galvis) of the 2020 payroll, or $28.9 million total. Add-in the $1.825 million the club paid to Pedro Strop, who was DFA’d, and that’s $30.725 million that’s off the books from the ~$145 million outlay they had for the total 2020 season.

A good portion of that will be consumed back by arbitration raises, however. Luis Castillo, Jesse Winker, and Amir Garrett will lead the pack of Reds entering their arbitration years for the first time. Archie Bradley, Brian Goodwin, Michael Lorenzen, and Curt Casali are among the Reds who’ll receive significant pay raises as they enter their latter years of arbitration. There’s enough of a pay-bump from that group year over year that will make doing nothing this offseason but keeping that core intact and bringing back Bauer alone raise the 2021 Reds payroll well above where it was in 2020, in all honesty.

And that doesn’t do a thing to address an offense that just ranked 23rd in all MLB in team wRC+, one that had the worst team batting average of any MLB team in a century.

Barring a major restructuring - we cannot, will not use the word reboot with a straight face here again - the Reds have good sized, guaranteed dollars committed to each of their 3B, 2B, 1B, C, LF, and RF, with RF Nick Castellanos the lone wild card of that group thanks to his ability to opt-out after this year. Given the financial climate around the game, another opt-out in his contract after the 2021 season, and his -0.2 bWAR campaign this year, I’m guessing he will not opt-out this fall. That leaves a very small amount of flexibility with which to add significant offensive production, as only CF and SS remain spots where there is little money committed already.

Of course, Nick Senzel and Jose Garcia are the presumptive futures of those positions, and there’s still ample upside for those spots in-house already. That means that barring a significant shakeup, adding offense at any position will either involve redundant spending at a position, or blocking an existing, promising young piece, neither of which are hallmarks of franchises as historically frugal as the one in Cincinnati.

Even finding ways to dump money this winter won’t necessarily be easy, either, as few of the Reds with existing big money on their contracts possess enough value to get anything of significant value in the trade market. None of Shogo Akiyama, Mike Moustakas, or Castellanos did enough in their first years under contract to suggest they’re underpaid and could return significant value if moved on already, and we’re all aware Joey Votto and his $25 million per year isn’t getting moved anywhere, either. Eugenio Suarez is pretty much the only one who even sniffs adding more value than he is due in dollars at the moment, and even he had a relatively down year.

On the flip side, the biggest money currently tied up in the pitching staff is largely in pieces other clubs might see as a bargain, at least aside from Wade Miley. Sonny Gray has proven to be a steal at ~$10 million a year, and it’s hard to see the Reds trading him with Bauer likely to leave, too, even though he’d return a good haul in younger, cheaper talent. Raisel Iglesias just turned in perhaps his best season as the Reds closer and would have some value on the trade market, but he’s hardly overpaid when compared to back-end arms across the league.

The reality is that the Reds, at the moment, pretty much look like an as-is club that didn’t achieve what they wanted this year, look likely to lose their best piece, and don’t have a lot of financial or roster flexibility to replace it in full. For that to be a viable strategy heading into the 2021 season, the front office has to be sold on the idea that the lack of achievement wasn’t due to inability, it was due to underachieving, something that might well bounce-back in a 2021 season with a bit more luck.

I’d like to think this is an era where the Reds continue to push their chips all-in. I’d like to think if Dick and Nick went to Bob Castellini asking for $40 million more to spend, he’d give them the PIN number in a heartbeat. I’m just simply unconvinced that’ll be the case this winter, especially given the pandemic and financial clouds hanging over everything.

That isn’t me saying the 2021 Reds cannot be contenders, though. I’m of the opinion that there absolutely was some bad luck and underachievement across the board this year, and that several of the players who played that bit this year can be much better next year. Maybe you do sign Didi Gregorius for SS and hope Kyle Boddy and the Driveline team can replace Bauer with the emergence of Tejay Antone, Tyler Mahle, and the next wave of revolutionized arms in the system, and maybe that’s good enough. Maybe you get Marcus Semien on a pillow deal after his subpar 2020, and that allows enough money to then backfill the rotation on a non-Bauer arm in a year when the starting pitching market is so robust there could be bargains.

Regardless, the Reds enter a winter with a solid foundation, but with the need to address a glaring issue while also losing the biggest piece of their biggest strength. Do they chase their ace at the expense of an already weak offense? Will they address offense at the expense of losing perhaps the first Cy Young Award winner in team history? Is there a thread the needle way to somehow do both on a shoestring budget?

I’d hoped to not have these thoughts flood my mind for at least another week or two, but here we are. The 2021 Reds will be the next Reds we get to watch, and there’s going to be a lot of work needed to make them look better than what we just watched in 2020, which we obviously learned yesterday simply wasn’t good enough, again.