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The biggest question facing the Cincinnati Reds this offseason

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Roster planning, or something similar

2021 SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game

The Cincinnati Reds just won 24 fewer games than the San Francisco Giants during the 2021 MLB regular season. They finished with fewer wins than 13 of the 30 MLB franchises during the 2021 MLB regular season.

There is a sea of questions they must navigate this offseason if the 2022 season is going to be anything other than the mostly mediocre results we’ve seen from them during their pair of post-rebuild seasons. Nick Castellanos will likely opt-out, and it won’t be cheap or easy to replace his production. The other four primary OFs on the roster have zero history of staying healthy for full seasons. The Reds have over $70 million tied up in a pair of 3Bs who have been collectively poor for two seasons running. There are zero fence boards on the frame of their bullpen.

These are not unsolvable problems, of course. It’s just that to solve any of them, let alone all of them, will take an ownership group that’s willing to spend money to win baseball games. That last sentence isn’t a question, so it’s not the biggest question facing the Cincinnati Reds this offseason, but it is most certainly the biggest problem facing the Cincinnati Reds right now.

I’m assuming the ownership will not change this winter. Their billion-dollar investment continues to increase in value, so why would they? So, if the problem won’t be alleviated, we must operate within the parameters of said problem, parameters that have almost always dictated that money is going to be extremely tight. We already detailed how expected arbitration raises and options could push the Reds payroll beyond where it was in 2021 even if Castellanos waves goodbye, meaning the Reds are going to have to deftly maneuver just to maintain the status quo, let alone to bring in good players and get better.

In other words, we’re trying to find ways to free up on-the-books money for the payroll.

When you glance at where the Reds currently have their money tied up, a look at their position players doesn’t exactly provide any obvious ways to get cheaper in a hurry. The top earners there are Joey Votto, Mike Moustakas, Eugenio Suarez, and Shogo Akiyama, and for reasons varying from no-trade clauses to injuries and underperformance, there’s not a team out there who would trade for their contracts alone, let alone add-in prospects in return. The Reds would have to pay teams to take those contracts away, which isn’t exactly the best way to ‘save’ money to put back into the payroll.

Rather, it’s on the pitching side where they’ve got not just one, but perhaps a handful of players who, on the open trade market, might be worth much, much more than the salaries tied to their current contracts. And while a very, very important question is ‘which piece of their potential starting rotation would be the best one to trade,’ I think that comes in a close second to the one the title of this article was trying to define.

That one’s the big one - how much can Nick Lodolo and Hunter Greene be expected to contribute in 2022?

Depending on which prospect guru you follow, each is the top prospect in the Reds system at the moment, and both have been listed among the game’s Top 20 overall prospects at times this year during their respective rises to AAA. Former 1st round picks, the 23 and 22 year old both come with pedigrees of expectations, and when healthy and not facing pandemic-induced season cancellations, both have shown elite ability in their time in the upper minors.

Combined, they’d make a hair over $1.2 million in 2022 if on the big league roster for the duration. If each of Wade Miley, Sonny Gray, Luis Castillo, and Tyler Mahle are on the big league roster for the duration in 2022, they’ll combine to make roughly $33.3 million (using the arbitration estimates from MLB Trade Rumors). That’s six potential starting pitchers, and that’s before we mention Vlad Gutierrez, Tony Santillan, Jeff Hoffman, Reiver Sanmartin, and the other in-house options currently on the roster.

Lodolo (50.2) and Greene (103.1) combined to throw 151 IP last year split between AA Chattanooga and AAA Louisville, with blisters and other nagging soreness limiting Lodolo to just 6.2 IP at the AAA level. This, of course, is all on the heels of zero minor league innings at all in 2020, though the two certainly did get work in at the Reds alternate site in some form or fashion. When they did pitch, they were largely successful in ways we expected. So while it’s realistic to expect them to be able to contribute eventually in 2022, it becomes an issue of building a bridge to them until they’re ready, and just how big of a bridge that’s going to require.

Is it a ‘Jeff Hoffman in the rotation for a month’ sized bridge, again? Or does it need to be a ‘pick up Miley’s $10 million option and plan on keeping him around until proven otherwise’ sized bridge? Because if it’s the former, the idea of picking up Miley’s option to shop him on the trade market this winter becomes feasible, as does the idea of shopping Sonny Gray and the two years of team control remaining on his deal. Or, if you’re still reading this without rolling your eyes, the team could shop Luis Castillo to move some money off the 2022 payroll and get some serious pieces in return (since, y’know, the club hasn’t exactly been proactive in trying to get him signed to a long-term extension).

Point being, if these two prospects are merely deemed surplus luxury for 2022 (while still large pieces for down the road), then the Reds can’t really afford to move major pieces from their starting rotation, making that a place where they can’t free up money to use elsewhere. But, if one or both of Greene/Lodolo appear legitimately poised to be big pieces next season, that opens the door for the Reds to cash in a variety of intriguing trade chips, save some money in that process, and perhaps use it to address their OF holes.