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2021 SBN GM Simulation - Piloting the Cincinnati Reds on a shoestring budget

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We put our pleated khakis on and shook many virtual hands.

Reds v Red Sox Photo by Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Trevor Bauer signed for 6 years, and $215 million, and it was not with us.

Such was life in the 2021 edition of the SB Nation GM Simulation, a three-day exercise with representatives from each of the 30 MLB team sites on this network effectively serving as the rudder for their team’s roster for the 2021 season. Hosted by the fine folks at Royals Review for the umpteenth consecutive year, it’s a chance to put your brain on the pulse of moves being made league-wide, while also getting the chance to see how the actual decisions made by the real-life clubs have ripple effects far down the road.

Each team gets a budget, of course. While it’s not an end-all, be-all mandate, they are certainly pretty close estimates to what you’re likely to see in the real world, a formula combining market size, past payroll histories, and where those franchises are in their win/rebuild life cycles. What’s truly interesting, however, is that very few folks approach this with the premise of rebuilding truly in mind, and it’s remarkable how different having all parties involved actually trying to build good teams and win factors in to the overall spending habits.

Bauer, for the record, ended up in San Diego, who ramped themselves up to a $150 million payroll. J.T. Realmuto, the next biggest free agent on the market, landed a 6 year, $172 million deal to stick around Philadelphia, as the Phillies ramped up their payroll to nearly $180 million. Marcus Stroman, who didn’t even play in 2020, landed a 6 year, $102 million contract to remain with the Mets, who under new ownership fired their payroll up to $187 million overall. And while the Los Angeles Angels entered with a ‘recommended’ budget of $184 million, they blew past it all the way to $207 million thanks to trades that brought in Whit Merrifield, Salvador Perez, and Brandon Belt, along with free agent signings of Jon Lester, Shane Greene, an more.

Per usual, we were a bit torn between blending what we expect to see from the actual Cincinnati Reds and throwing caution to the wind and making copious video-game trades. In the end, I think the former strategy played out, and the end result was us coming in at a $153 million payroll after being given a $147 million recommended one.

Of course, when we began, we already had $140 million on the books, meaning we were going to have to dump salary to even begin to wade into acquisitions. Complicating that fact were two very important tidbits:

1) There was no DH for NL clubs for this 2021 simulated season, meaning we were forced to juggle a roster that was built to have a DH, one that wouldn’t have it for 2021, but that was expected to again have it for 2022. A true jumble of near-term and long-term visions.

2) 2020 rosters had 28 players, while we were forced back to just a 26-man roster for this 2021 simulation. Therefore, fringe players had even less value than they otherwise would have.

As a final bit of primer, I’ll reiterate what I do in this post every year - this is purely a one-year simulation. When this hopefully gets done again this time next year, it will be based on the real Reds roster. This roster that we constructed will be scrapped into the ether, never to be used again, and that knowledge helps fuel the win-now mantra most every team takes. It also inherently devalues prospects that are shiny as heck in real life but don’t figure to make an impact at the big-league level in calendar year 2021, since they’ll be back at our disposal again next year with no big-league damage on their ledger. Therefore, they get flipped en masse as trade fodder, inherently fueling rampant trading.

With that on the books, here is how our 2021 Sim shook out.

Our premise

Trevor Bauer, Anthony DeSclafani, and Freddy Galvis headlined our departures into free agency, and that stoked the obvious - we needed help in the starting rotation, as well as a regular shortstop given Jose Garcia’s pretty obvious need for a bit more seasoning.

We also recognized what we had on the cusp, namely in the form of Tyler Stephenson. Creating space for him behind the plate became a priority, while also giving us the catching depth from which to deal.

We also realized the very obvious, in that the players who had the biggest contracts on our roster not only had the least trade value, but that almost every single one of them - if not every single one of them - was coming off a down year, making the likelihood we could move them for anything without eating money unlikely.

The administrative moves

I mentioned that we had no DH in this simulation. When Nick Castellanos did not opt out of his contract in this simulation, we kept a bat with plenty of promise on our roster, but in the process created a thorough logjam with the OF options on the roster. That paired with a tight payroll, a market expected to be flooded with 4th/5th OF types, and rosters shrinking from 28 to 26 led us to non-tender Brian Goodwin, who we liked but not at the $3.6 million he’d be owed in 2021.

What we explored, and did not pursue

We made it known we’d listen on pretty much every player on the roster, because what’s the fun in making folks ‘completely off limits,’ anyway? That included the likes of Eugenio Suarez, Nick Senzel, Jesse Winker, and Mike Moustakas, among others.

Suarez brought ample interest, as you might expect, even after his down 2020 season. His power potential, age, and relatively inexpensive contract picked up several nibbles, and we knew we could backfill at 3B if we moved him and kept Senzel and Moose (we shopped each of those two thanks to that same positional versatility). The only problem with the Suarez nibbles, unfortunately, were that they came from within the NL Central, bringing more emotional subjectivity to the table than we expected. Milwaukee dangled Josh Hader in a deal that would’ve been feasible, yet brutal, while St. Louis dangled Paul DeJong in Suarez talks while we searched for shortstop upgrades. Ultimately, we kept Geno.

Senzel brought more tepid interest than we’d hoped, for obvious reasons. While he owned a robust .857 OPS with plus outfield defense the day before his mystery departure and illness, his month-long absence and brutal 2 for 28 finish to the season seemed to be all folks really valued, and we struggled to find deals that valued his still-high upside. The one that brought us closest to dealing him came from Baltimore, who offered talented young lefty John Means, and that deal - though we didn’t pull the trigger on it - will make me think for years going forward due to its potential.

As for Moose, we got nothing but offers for a salary dump, unfortunately. Moving his salary and opening up 2B for Senzel (and freeing up the OF logjam) would have been nice, but ultimately we didn’t want to sell that low on a guy who still has ample promise when healthy, so we did not.

We also dangled Raisel Iglesias, who got little to no interest outside of the Mets, but we never did get a concrete offer from them - thanks, in large part, to us deciding to hold on to our strongest bullpen pieces until we sorted out the rotation, which did not come until the very end.

As for Winker, well, he was the lone offensive bright spot for us in 2020, and that paired with the loss of the DH had vultures circling. The closest we came to moving him was to Cleveland, as he was a prime piece in our pursuit of Francisco Lindor, though - SPOILER ALERT - that deal ended up being not good enough when the Dodgers moved Gavin Lux, Chris Taylor, and Josiah Gray (ugh) to land Lindor and form an even more absurd top of their lineup.

What we got done

Our first real move came courtesy of the Chicago White Sox, who acquired Tucker Barnhart and his entire salary from us in exchange for fireballing righty reliever Jose Ruiz. Ruiz, 26, threw just 4 big league innings in 2020 after 40 IP of 5.36 FIP (5.63 ERA) work in 2019, and you won’t find a ton about him in prospect reporting, either. That’s because he came up as a catching prospect after signing out of Venezuela, and didn’t even begin pitching until 2016. He still barely has 200 professional innings under his belt, but owns a fastball that sits at 97 mph, can touch 100 mph, and has plus spin, precisely the kind of arm the Driveline folks will adore. Hello, cheap bullpen help!

Next up, we addressed our shortstop situation. While the Giants dropped $90 million to sign Korean star Ha-Seong Kim and the bidding on Didi Gregorius touched $70 million, we opted to aim for the best defense on the market after our 2020 infield’s defensive foibles, hoping we’d a) land that target and b) do so on a short enough contract to not block Garcia for too long. Success! We signed Andrelton Simmons for 3 years and $34 million, landing the Platinum Glove winner to help anchor our defense. He’s even turned the corner at the plate over the last few years, when healthy, posting a respectable 98 OPS+ and overall .281/.329/.401 line since 2016.

Next, we added to our pitching depth with a reunion, adding Mike Leake - who sat out the entire 2020 season - on a minor league deal. Good to see ya, Mike.

Next, we sought out cheap, still-young pitching, focusing on higher-upside arms than merely those with stable floors. Ideally, we wanted someone that could help round out the back of the rotation on a pre-arb salary, but still had some experience in the bigs both as a starter and swingman. Fortunately, the rebuilding Texas Rangers came calling, offering up the enigmatic Jonathan Loaisiga, who they’d landed from the Yankees earlier in a massive Lance Lynn deal. They were seeking non 40-man prospects for the future, and our Competitive Balance Round pick was even more appealing to them, so we landed Loasiga and his team control through 2025 for Mike Siani and said pick. A more notable former prospect than Ruiz, Loaisiga stood out to us for the same reasons - elite velocity, and a past history of elite spin on both his fastball and curve, something Kyle Boddy and Driveline will have a field day molding.

Finally, we landed an established starting pitcher. We kicked the tires on almost a dozen arms, from Stroman down to James Paxton (who signed a 3-year deal with St. Louis), to an incentive-laden offer for Alex Wood, to Rick Porcello, Mike Minor, an Anthony DeSclafani reunion, and more. Ultimately, we opted to go the trade route, and in the process had to move Jonathan India to make it happen. That burned, but knowing that we had millions and multiple years invested in the positions he plays already helped ease the idea of moving him, which we did to the Angels in landing Dylan Bundy. Bundy, the 4th overall pick of the 2011 draft, never turned into the Cy Young winner Baltimore hoped, but has carved out a rather durable career, topping at least 160 IP in each of the three full seasons before 2020. This year, though, he finally burst out after being dealt to the Angels, pitching to a 137 ERA+ and 2.95 FIP while posting career-best marks in K/BB, K/9, and WHIP. He’s making a tad over $9 million in this, his final year of team control, but we’re hoping a 2021 platform year as he heads towards free agency makes him a perfect fit, one that might even land us a future draft pick if he gets, and declines, a Qualifying Offer.

In summary...

Are we as good as the flawed 2020 club that was the first iteration of post big-splash front office moves?

Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe better.

While we no longer have Trevor Bauer, the odds of even Bauer replicating his 2020 excellence again in 2021 were long, and for $215 million guaranteed we didn’t even have the chops to find out. What we did bank on, though, is that Driveline and Derek Johnson will continue to get the most out of the arms they do have, and did our best to make that a competent group. We believe in Tyler Mahle becoming a viable rotation cog, while what we saw from Tejay Antone looks real, too. In Bundy, we did not replace Bauer, but feel confident his stability paired with the upside of the other starting arms can still make the rotation a boon for this club.

Out in the field, Simmons makes the infield markedly better with the glove, while also adding what should be an upgrade with the bat. Suarez, Moose, and Joey Votto should, in theory, provide more collectively in 2021 than they did in 2020, while freeing Tyler Stephenson to pair with the underrated Curt Casali gives our catching tandem additional offensive force.

The outfield, of course, still has sorting out that’s needed, but has tremendous depth from which to make those calls. Castellanos, Winker, Shogo Akiyama, Senzel, and Aristides Aquino provide a solid mix of offensive upside, platoon matchups, and late-inning defensive upgrades, and while some folks may have to sit a bit more than they’d desire, that’s a bevy of talent, even if a few might end up frustrated.

All told, we ended up a hair over our $147 million budget at roughly $153 million, but when you’re a franchise that just made the first step in investing this time last year and still haven’t won a postseason series in a quarter-century, I refuse to take gripes on the payroll. Hell, we probably should’ve just spend $50 million more of this fake money that isn’t ours.

There is still a lot of these guys just have to play better baked into these moves, and while that’s never a fun strategy to bank on, it’s unfortunately part of the gig when you step into a roster with piles of guaranteed money on the books to guys that haven’t yet played collectively well enough to warrant it.

The 26-man roster

C - Tyler Stephenson, Curt Casali

IF - Joey Votto, Mike Moustakas, Andrelton Simmons, Eugenio Suarez, Kyle Farmer, (either Jose Garcia or, if he’s in AAA playing everyday, Alex Blandino)

OF - Nick Castellanos, Nick Senzel, Jesse Winker, Shogo Akiyama, Aristides Aquino

SP - Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray, Dylan Bundy, Tyler Mahle, Wade Miley

RP - Raisel Iglesias, Archie Bradley, Michael Lorenzen, Amir Garrett, Lucas Sims, Tejay Antone, Jonathan Loaisiga, Jose Ruiz (with a mix of Robert Stephenson, Sal Romano, Jose De Leon, Joel Kuhnel, and Ryan Hendrix mixed in)

The farm

Jonathan India and Michael Siani got moved in this, and that was certainly tough. Still, we managed to hold on to every other top prospect - even recent graduates like Garcia, Stephenson, and Senzel. That means each of Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo, Austin Hendrick, and the likes bolster a farm that still looks in decent shape, even if we did not augment it with any players in our moves in this sim.