Closing the book on 2020 is something I think all of us have been looking forward to for eons, at this point. Unfortunately, our grip has repeatedly told us there were ample pages left to leaf through, with our only hope being they were more epilogue and glossary than plot.
Mercifully, though, we’re just a handful of days away from turning that final page. And while what the Cincinnati Reds have done with their ledgers and pocketbooks is mostly meaningless in the larger scrum we’ve witnessed the last twelve months, it’s time to take a look at where things stand as we inch ever closer to this calendar’s arbitrary endpoint and again stare longingly towards the idea of them succeeding in 2021.
What they’ve subtracted
The 2020 Reds played 60 regular season games and a pair of (scoreless) postseason contests. They won 31, they lost 31.
Since that final defeat at the hands of Adam Duvall and Atlanta, they’ve waived goodbye to quite a number of familiar faces. Trevor Bauer’s brilliant campaign earned him the NL’s Cy Young Award, a Qualifying Offer, and a one-way ticket to free agency. Anthony DeSclafani followed him into the free agent market before being scooped up by San Francisco, and shortstop Freddy Galvis became teamless, too. The non-tender deadline saw a swath of cuts, with each of Brian Goodwin, Archie Bradley, and Curt Casali unceremoniously booted. Then, it was closer Raisel Iglesias heading out the door to Los Angeles, bringing back Noe Ramirez in a salary dump.
Three obvious tenets have driven these moves so far.
First, it’s clear that payroll is not going to reach the pre-pandemic 2020 levels in 2021, and while the free agent departures were likely already baked into the 2021 plans, the further culling of the roster shows they’re trying to save dough where they can.
Second, it’s vital to point out that rosters are, presumably, shrinking from 28 back to 26 for the 2021 season, and while that might seem insignificant on the surface, that’s two legit big league jobs that no longer exist for every team. Factor in the confusion surrounding whether the NL will have the DH in 2021, and it’s clear teams were willing to cut bait, wait for confirmation, and then address that if it does, indeed, return. The Reds chose to cut higher-paid options in that roster shrinkage, yes, but the roster was shrinking one way or another.
Third, it’s clear the Reds are willing to turn some roles over to in-house options, and needed paths for them. Tyler Stephenson will get his chance behind the plate, while Tyler Mahle and Tejay Antone showed enough in 2020 to warrant bigger pieces of the 2021 pie. The lack of any 2021 minor league season makes it harder to see any emergent depth behind them, but in theory there are legit options behind them moving up a peg, too. That may include Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo, likely includes Ryan Hendrix and Tony Santillan, and could even feature José De León in a larger role, as he has looked increasingly delightful in winter league play.
So, while the losses seem huge on paper - and they are, to be fair - there is some in-house hope.
What they’ve already added
Not a lot. At least, not yet.
Ramirez came over in the Iglesias deal from the Angels, and while he won’t be anything close to a replacement, he’ll be in middle relief.
He’ll likely be joined there by Jeff Hoffman, who came from Colorado in the deal that sent Robert Stephenson the other way. The former 1st round pick is clearly a reclamation project - something that appears to feature prominently on the offseason menu - and will get a shot at the starting rotation, but it’s more likely he ends up in the bullpen (if on the roster at all).
Deivy Grullon was a waiver claim from Boston who, in theory, will slot in where Tyler Stephenson was on the catching pecking order last year. Not with the same prospect upside, of course, but depth as the #3 in the wake of Casali’s departure.
Brandon Bailey was added at the non-tender deadline, though he came in a trade for cold, hard cash. The former Houston Astros righty debuted at the big league level in 2020 with some so-so results, but he’s got a pair of options an a chance to join the mid-bullpen mix, too, even if he’s significantly less proven than the arms he’d be replacing.
OF Scott Heineman was acquired from Texas in December shortly after being DFA’d by the Rangers, with IF prospect Jose Acosta heading the other way. He, too, has options after some middling results as a 4th OF at the big league level, but after the departure of Goodwin and the loss of numerous upper-minors and 4th OF options in the system over the last year plus, it was clearly made as a depth move to help replenish that in the system.
The one signing the Reds have made at the big league level to date is pitcher Édgar García, who was non-tendered by Tampa after splitting 2020 between the Rays and Philadelphia Phillies. He, too, is a project with an option remaining, and while he may end up making the Opening Day roster, he’s more of a long-term development than anything, one would hope.
What’s left on the to-do list
If the Hot Stove whispers are to be believed, the Reds are not at all done with their offseason business (thank the lehhrd). Of course, if some of the whispers about what they’re shopping are true, perhaps we should wish they were done.
There’s been speculation they may move Sonny Gray, despite him being incredibly affordable on his current contract given his current production. Doing so would save them some money, yes, but would throw another huge dent in what once was a rock solid pitching staff. The same can be said in EVEN LARGER WORDS regarding the idea of shopping Luis Castillo, though it’s also readily evident that both have enough value at their current salaries that moving them could bring back significant pieces that would immediately impact the 2021 roster.
Assuming they’re done subtracting, though, three major things clearly need to be sorted out.
First, they’ve got to figure out what role Michael Lorenzen will fill. The burly righty will reportedly enter camp this spring ready to compete for one of the available starting rotation spots. But, if he does slide over into that role, that further depletes a bullpen that has already lost Iglesias and Bradley. Antone is in something of a swing-state split between these two possibilities, too, and while it’s clear both will have big roles for the 2021 pitching staff, their uncertainty casts a bit of doubt on what kind of other arms to target in acquisitions to complement them before camp opens in Goodyear.
Second, they’ve got to find a shortstop. That’s something that Head Baseball Title-Haver Nick Krall emphasized early in the offseason, noting that while Jose Garcia still has great upside, he’s not who they want to fully depend on in 2021 after Galvis departed. Fortunately, there are ample good options available via free agency and on the trade market this winter, so there should be some serious upgrades available - for a fee. Former Red and free agent Didi Gregorius might be the most seamless fit, though Marcus Semien and Andrelton Simmons are similarly out there, too. There’s the looming availability of Francisco Lindor out there, as well, presenting a true superstar option, though that would obviously cost prospects and money just one year before he, too, would become a free agent.
Finally, the Reds will have to figure out the DH conundrum, and it will likely be a delicate situation. Perhaps no NL team was built more for the DH’s addition in 2020, as the glut of OFs and aging IFs almost mandated it be part of their daily roster, but if it vanishes for 2021, there could be a lot of awkward days on the bench for players who would otherwise be considered regulars. Jesse Winker was clearly the team’s best offensive player last season, but did so almost exclusively as the DH given his subpar defense, but sitting him is hardly an option given the overall offensive foibles. Nick Senzel, Nick Castellanos, Shogo Akiyama, and Aristides Aquino would then be left to fend for two spots on most days, which would either make for a very expensive bench for a penny-pinching club, or a lot of stunted development for some talented young players most days - neither of which is ideal.
Title of section usually referred to as ‘final thoughts’ or ‘conclusion’ or the like, all of which seem forced and arbitrary
The 2020 Reds weren’t as good as we hoped they’d be, and weren’t good enough to make the playoffs aside from a spontaneous expansion of the postseason. On paper, at least, they’ve gotten much worse since then, too.
It’s clear they need to make a series of moves to get themselves back into any discussion of ‘contention’ beyond just an NL Central division that, collectively, appears unwilling to truly invest and compete league-wide in 2021. Perhaps that’s just how they’ll settle, which would be supremely disappointing given the overall dearth of success they’ve experienced over the last [insert any number of years you can think of].
If they opt against moving Sonny and/or Luis and lightly invest elsewhere, it’s clear there will be plenty of ‘we expect them to be better than they were’ and ‘we hope to see the next step in their development’ lobbed around when discussing the players they’ll be using. Some of that is fine, of course, but it makes for a very tenuous overarching strategy. If they move either, or both, or Eugenio Suarez, though, it’ll be hard to sell this winter as anything other than a frugal escape from any chance of losing any dollar they don’t have to, which would be, frankly, pretty pathetic.
There’s still a chance they wait things out, land a few key players a bit cheaper than they would’ve been in December, and make a run of things in 2021. We cannot rule that possibility out just yet, even if the writing is pretty clearly visible on the wall already. But to do that would require several very, very robust moves, the kind we saw just last year from this club. If they opt against that, though, or even reverse course as has been whispered, it would be a very clearly missed opportunity, one that we already spent years waiting for in the first place.
2021 is just days away, finally. Show us what you’ve got, Reds.