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The ugly way the Cincinnati Reds can shed payroll and still ‘try’ to win

Thanks, I still pretty much hate it.

Cincinnati Reds v Minnesota Twins Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

Let me begin by saying this is my least favorite cobbling of words in quite some time. I despise the premise, I loathe the thoughts it provoked, and would prefer to never set foot down this path in the first place. To do so, however, would be to completely ignore what’s becoming increasingly obvious about the trajectory of the current Cincinnati Reds and, well, that’s not an arena where I typically bury my head in the sand.

The Reds spent more money in free agency last winter than ever before, hellbent on getting back to relevancy in a sport in which they’d slipped tremendously over the past half-decade. Their timing was good, on paper, as they brought in outside talent with a rebuilt core, putting a pitching-first club on the field that looked like it meant business. It was precisely the kind of aggression that seemed, at the time, to be the first big step in the right direction, one that would grow and grow as the team’s dormant fans caught wind of the newfangled successes.

Enter the pandemic, the curtailment of the schedule, the lack of fans paying to attend, and the model which looked so good on paper to begin with hasn’t been able to add-up. It’s as if the Reds found a star racehorse whose closing style needed a stretch run and the race got called halfway through.

The revenues never spiked since the butts never hit the seats, and just one year later it appears the Reds don’t have nearly the financial prowess they did last winter. At least, it doesn’t appear they have the willingness, even when you factor in that their spending spree barely lofted their payroll into even league-average territory. After watching Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer hit free agency alongside rotation stalwart Anthony DeSclafani, the Reds non-tendered the likes of Archie Bradley, Curt Casali, and Brian Goodwin last week, too, a cull that has lopped off players who were scheduled to make over $31 million in 2020 before the proration of the season.

(That’s before the news we got earlier today regarding Raisel Iglesias, who was dumped to the Los Angeles Angels along with most of his $9.125 million salary for 2021. For the record, this article was done before that news broke, so none of the tone here was even prompted by that salary flush.)

That’s a pitching exodus that would, in theory, need to be refilled by any team trying to compete, let alone one that lost exactly as many games as they won with that group in 2020. Add-in the subpar offense and glaring hole at shortstop, and you would hope a club that just made that series of moves and had eyes on contending in 2021 would immediately be looking to add, not subtract.

Instead, we’ve heard rumblings from Joel Sherman of the New York Post that the Reds are ‘working hard’ to move starter Sonny Gray, who has been positively brilliant during his two-season stint with Cincinnati so far. And given that he’s only due to make some $10.5 million per season for 2021 and 2022 (with a team option for 2023 that has no buyout), he’s on a steal of a contract at the moment, too.

To me, that screams a couple very obvious things. The first, obviously, is that money is tight. The second, perhaps more importantly, is that the Reds know they have numerous veterans tied up on lucrative multiyear contracts at the moment, but precious few of those players are coming off seasons that either maintained or, god forbid, increased their value on the trade market. While the upside hopes are still there for the likes of Wade Miley, Mike Moustakas, Nick Castellanos, and Shogo Akiyama, none of them truly lived up to the hype they brought after signing last winter, and the Reds would surely have to eat money to move any of them this winter.

In Sonny, though, the Reds have a player they could move for an actual, tangible return. Something that could conceivably help the club as early as the 2021 season, and do so cheaply, making his salary - while less per year than some of his peers on the roster right now - the kind of live money that could be shed for something else. And the way the Reds are put together right now, that can’t be said for a lot of players.

The thing is, we already mentioned how the Reds are now down Bauer and DeSclafani from their starting rotation. And for as good as that group was last season, that’s a tremendous hit, even if Kyle Boddy and the Driveline crew do possess a magic wand. Adding Sonny to that exodus without money to spend on replacements seems absurd if winning in 2021 is at all in the cards, making it a bit puzzling to see the Reds actively working to move him. Fielding offers on him is one thing, of course, as there’s always a chance a team overpays, but it just doesn’t seem right that he’s the one they’re fundamentally trying to sell.

That brings us to the crappiest part of this thought experiment, unfortunately. To the guy blowing that colossal bubble in the picture up top. To the guy that Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections for the 2021 season tabbed to post the single best WAR on a club that already has fundamental offensive problems in place. To the guy who recently socked 49 dingers in a season while on a team-friendly contract. Yes, if the Cincinnati Reds are looking to shed money, try to win at all in 2021, and actually get pieces that can perhaps help them keep winning on a cheaper budget, the player they should be shopping is Eugenio Suarez.

Man, that sucked to type.

In Suarez, though, the Reds have a player who is 29 years old, under contract for three more seasons at roughly $34 million total (with an option for a fourth year in 2024), and still profiles as the kind of impact, middle-of-the-order bat that’s attractive to all teams in baseball. He is extremely valuable for all the reasons that make it sucky to think about losing him, but that’s precisely the kind of player who can be traded for an impact return.

Suarez obviously didn’t hit the way in 2020 that he did in his 49 dinger campaign in 2019, with his freak pool accident and shoulder injury last spring to blame. But after a positively dreadful initial return from said injury, he finished the year looking like classic Geno, posting a .942 OPS over his final 33 games played, with 12 homers and 31 ribbies in that stretch helping the Reds eek into the expanded playoffs.

Obviously, for the same reasons that made trading Sonny from a depleted rotation sound untenable, it’s hard to envision moving Geno from this porous offense making a ton of sense, either. However, there are a few outside variables in play that make it perhaps less of a blow, and that makes him seemingly the more feasible tradee in this awful, unfortunate scenario I’m spelling out.

National League clubs have been told to prepare for having no Designated Hitter for the 2021 season, we saw again today. That means to have the best offensive player off their 2020 roster in the lineup everyday, the Reds are going to need to have Jesse Winker in LF. That’s one outfield spot accounted for while each of Castellanos, Shogo, Aristides Aquino, and Nick Senzel fight for the other two, a situation that is almost sure to leave a plenty talented player on the bench more often than not.

Or, it wouldn’t - not if Geno was moved in a trade. With Senzel’s history as both a 3B and 2B throughout his development and the presence of stalwart 3B Mike Moustakas under contract (and playing an iffy 2B), it would appear the DH-less Reds already have an in-house roster in place to help stomach the loss of Suarez, despite him being the most proven offensive player of the bunch. And if further deflating the existing payroll is indeed a ploy to free up money to acquire an elite shortstop as GM Nick Krall has intimated so far this offseason, perhaps subtracting Geno for a rock solid return, moving those existing parts around, and bringing in a proven shortstop ends up making in a more rounded-out roster in total.

And, y’know, it would be on a club that still had Sonny Gray alongside Luis Castillo in a bona fide rotation.

Look, this entire concept is zero fun. The fun answer to all of this is ‘keep them all, they’re good players! Hell, just go get more!’

It would be very fun to own a baseball team with swimming pools full of money I could throw around like frisbees. I’d have pizza ovens in every room and the streets paved with cheese, man.

But I don’t, you don’t, and the folks that do want to spend fewer millions on their baseball club this year, by all accounts. Finding ways they might do so that still feature a seemingly bright future for the 2021 team on the field is my beacon as we all wade through this trudging molasses of a year. Trading Geno would undoubtedly suck, but so would trading Sonny, and the only way I can try to therapeutically breeze through these tough times is to find any silver lining in how it might, just might, still end up OK on the other side.

This, folks, was that. I still hate it.