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Cincinnati Reds rumors - A look at the long-term payroll possibilities

Looking down the road while spending someone else’s money.

Cincinnati Reds v Cleveland Indians Photo by Ron Schwane/Getty Images

As the turkey thaws in the fridge and visions of gravy-covered everything begin to creep into my head, my thoughts began to turn to how the Cincinnati Reds might try to navigate this thing called ‘winning baseball’ beyond just this year.

We know, or have heard, at least a few main tenets regarding where the Reds are at this very moment, so let’s lay those out first.

  • Trevor Bauer won the Cy Young Award, is a free agent, and is going to cost a lot of money.
  • The Reds need a shortstop in the worst way, but there are a shocking number of high-quality shortstops available either as free agents now, or on the trade block since they’ll be free agents in a year.
  • The Reds are willing, reportedly, to consider trade offers for Sonny Gray despite him being largely awesome and completely affordable on his long-term deal.
  • Prior to the proration of payroll in the shortened 2020 season, the Reds were set to have a club-record payroll, and while it might not be quite as high in 2021 as it was supposed to be last year, money is reportedly a bit tight until fans get back in the stands.

That’s a good number of subplots to manage while trying to improve upon a club that played 62 total games in 2020 and lost just as many as they won. So, let’s try walking through what might be the overriding premise under which the Reds front office is operating, using those bits as clues to piece this together.

Losing an ace while needing a shortstop when only star shortstops are the main source available means replacing either, or both, is going to be pricey as hell. Sonny Gray, while wholly underpaid relative to his performance at the moment, is still set to make up to ~$33 million over the next three seasons, and while that’s cheap relative to what his market rate would be, that’s still $33 million they could spend elsewhere. On top of that, while the Reds have numerous 30+ year old players on their roster signed to long-term, big-dollar deals, Sonny is pretty well the only one who played well enough in 2020 to make moving him right this minute something other than selling low.

(Think about it - would you get anything close to maximum trade value for any of Eugenio Suarez, Mike Moustakas, Wade Miley, or Nick Castellanos right now? Methinks not.)

So, while moving Sonny would leave another hole on the roster, what the Reds would likely be doing in the process of moving him would be to address, even indirectly, their other immediate problems. We can rest assured the Reds won’t be moving him for a down the road primary piece, as it’s simply irrational to spend so much money on so many parts to win now just to move an ace-caliber pitcher for a far-off prospect to save some coin. No, what the Reds would be looking for is either a direct, cheaper replacement, prospects they could immediately flip for a shortstop via trade, or some crazy convoluted combination of all of that - they are notorious for swinging huge, three-team deals after all.

What’s incredibly pertinent to note, however, is that while the money is set to be quite tight this winter and in to 2021 until fans/revenue return, the Reds longer-term finances get very interesting very quickly. What I’m referencing directly is exactly how much money the Reds could have coming off the books at the end of just next year.

Here’s a list of the following Reds who are set to reach free agency at the end of the 2021 season, with their 2021 salaries listed with them:

Nick Castellanos ($14 million, has an opt-out clause for after 2021)

Raisel Iglesias ($9.125 million)

Wade Miley ($8 million, with $1 million option buyout)

Archie Bradley ($5.7 million estimated as a third-year arbitration player)

Michael Lorenzen ($4.4 million estimated as a third-year arbitration player)

Tucker Barnhart ($3.75 million, with $500K option buyout)

That’s upwards of $46 million that could potentially be coming off the books this time next year before even getting to the shedding of Sonny’s salary on top of it. That doesn’t even get to Brian Goodwin, who’s set to earn some $3.2 million as a second-year arbitration player in 2021 but is firmly both a trade and/or non-tender candidate this winter. In other words, while money is rather tight right now, there’s certainly a bit of a light at the end of the tunnel with the current group, one that, in theory, could open up another wave of spending for the Reds to pursue.

Arbitration raises to the existing core will be needed, obviously. The hope is that the likes of Luis Castillo, Jesse Winker, and Tyler Mahle perform well enough in elevated roles to continue to see their pay elevated with it, and that would eat into a bit of that freed-up money. Obviously, the Reds would need to replace the production of those players if they simply let them walk, too, and unless all replacements were found from within, that would require additional outside investment.

The larger point here, though, is this - the Reds could be exploring the idea of moving Sonny now in a deal that would bring back a backfill for the rotation at a cheaper rate, and in doing so would be freeing up the tip of the iceberg needed to swing a deal to bring in a star-caliber shortstop option.

Say, for instance, the Reds could manage to steal Chris Paddack away from the San Diego Padres in a Sonny deal, one that would perhaps need to include some peripheral pieces on both sides. That’s a promising as hell young arm that’s currently making league minimum with team control for years into the future, and would immediately help fill the void left in the rotation. That money coming off the books now could be enough to stomach the 2021 salary increase that, say, adding Francisco Lindor would bring, while the money coming off the books at the end of 2021 would make throwing a monster extension his way something affordable.

The names here are far from completely random, but it’s the concept I’m trying to hammer here. It could be moving Sonny back to Oakland for Frankie Montas and then trying to pry, I dunno, Carlos Correa from Houston. It could be moving Sonny to the Angels to help Mike Trout, getting Griffin Canning in return, and then signing Marcus Semien to a multi-year deal to man shortstop. The point is, that’s the kind of move the Reds would be considering in anything involving a Sonny Gray deal, not one simply bent on shedding salary to save a buck, since the reality is they’ve got the opportunity to save millions of bucks baked into their current payroll by simply standing pat and letting players walk in one year’s time.

The Reds would surely tell you that if they don’t find a taker for a starter deal like they, they’ll be totally fine sticking with Sonny. He’s a damn fine pitcher on a damn good deal after all, and that’s why he’s got value to every team in baseball in the first place. The question is, if they don’t move him this winter, will they still be willing to invest what it takes to land a star shortstop, or will that reduce their spending power down to another placeholder, a la Freddy Galvis?

We’ll sure get to find out!

(The elephant in the room here, which we’ll get into at a later date, is the lost 2020 minor league season paired with the Driveline crew getting to work their magic with the in-house pitching options. Would their work with the likes of Nick Lodolo, Hunter Greene, and Tony Santillan have shown us at the AA and AAA levels that one is already big league ready? Perhaps! Perhaps not! But it’s not at all out of the realm of possibilities for a pitcher at that age to make a big jump at age 21-22, and the arm talent is certainly there. Maybe, just maybe, the Reds are shopping Sonny because they’re confident they’ve already got another rotation replacement in-house, and while that may sound farfetched, they did manage to unearth Tejay Antone in 2020 while nobody was watching...)