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Searching for silver linings with the Cincinnati Reds in free agency

It’s going to take a microscope on a telescope, but we’re looking

Cincinnati Reds v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

If the search engine in our CMS was slightly more functional, you’d be able to course through the annals of Red Reporter history for the phrase The Reds have no money and are talking to no one with quite the fervor. It’s been perhaps the single most uttered phrase around these parts since the inception of this place some 15 or so years ago, sadly ringing true at almost every turn of chance.

The Reds are currently wading into the flotsam of the one time it truly hasn’t rung true, however. Their deep wade into the free agent waters prior to the 2020 season was the clear outlier in their history of frugality in that arena, but they splashed what could have, at the time, amounted to some $164 million in contract guarantees to a four-pack of players who were tasked with throwing the final shovels into the dig out of rebuilding.

Of course, the nature of those contracts tells a good tale about how they signed them in the first place, which we’re seeing right now. It took giving Nick Castellanos multiple opt-outs and insane flexibility on his part for him to agree to his deal, one of the more player-friendly contracts I’ve seen signed in my days. That’ll again give him the chance to opt-into free agency this winter, something he’ll certainly do after a brilliant 2021 season. The Reds aren’t on the hook for Wade Miley anymore either, technically, as they can buy out his $10 million option for 2022 for a cool million, should they choose to be cheap. And as for Shogo Akiyama and Mike Moustakas, it would sure appear via hindsight that those deals were simply overpays for over 30 players. Can’t say no to that as a player, though, nor do I blame them one bit for inking the deals.

The fruits borne by that spending were a .500 season that saw them skunked in two ‘playoff’ games that only existed due to a one-time expansion of the postseason and an 83 win season that felt like asking Jiffy Lube for an oil change when your check-engine light had been on for two months. Still, the core of the Reds roster after the expected departures seems sufficient enough to warrant a try, an attempt, a proof of life from ownership again that winning actual baseball games is as big of a priority as cashing checks.

The most obvious turn here is to call up Castellanos and find a way to strike a deal with him to stick around. Keep the band back together, and such, and Nick played a mean lead guitar for much of the hits the 2021 Reds put out. That would obviously take more guaranteed money than the ~$34 million left on his deal right now, and that’s on top of the expected arbitration raises elsewhere on the roster that already project to push the payroll beyond its 2021 level even if Nick departs.

That’s the kind of top-tier deal that a player of his caliber deserves, to be blunt. Frankly, I hope like hell he gets it, too, even if it’s not the Reds who dole it out. But given this team’s perpetual frugality and the other payroll ramp-ups they’ve got built it, I have a very hard time seeing that kind of deal come to fruition while keeping the rest of the band together, too. Perhaps that comes with declined options on Miley and Tucker Barnhart, or trades of them after picking up the options to get the money moved elsewhere. It could mean a trade from elsewhere within the rotation, with Sonny Gray or Luis Castillo out the door for a cache of younger, cheaper talent coming in (and to make room for Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo). Feasible, perhaps, but only in a three steps forward, two steps back kind of way.

My intentions when I picked up the laptop this morning were to look for some slightly lesser-regarded free agent options that might not require so much of a cull to accommodate. Studio guitarists who might be able to play Nick’s part for a year, if you will. That search turned into wondering how real Tommy Pham’s decline vs LHP was, and let me know Billy Hamilton will be entering his age-31 season next year, news that prompted me to get my AARP paperwork ready to file.

However, it also made me wonder just what last year’s class of big-ticket free agents was up to, since that’s the kind of money Castellanos should be bringing down this winter. The results there were jarring.

As of play today, with one Division Series still yet to finish, not a single one of the Top eight free agents on MLB Trade Rumors’ 2020-2021 list is playing in the playoffs. There are a pair of cases of criminal domestic violence among those, yet in both of those instances the teams for whom those players signed are actually still in the playoffs in spite of their absences. In other words, in all eight cases, it wasn’t the big spending on one player last winter that served as the singular fuel for their respective playoff pursuits. None of the teams who signed those top eight - the Dodgers, Phillies, Blue Jays, Braves, Yankees, Mets, or Padres - made one big splash deal and rode that rocket to success.

This is not meant to absolve the Reds likely lack of spending this winter, and I suppose it’s not the preemptively pooh-pooh them even if they do. I think, I think it’s me saying that the Reds are going to have to do a lot more this winter than just convince their RF to come back around again, and there might be evidence that making four or five smaller moves of consequence can still get them to that point. That’s not the easiest, nor obvious way, but remember - the Reds have no money and are talking to no one.