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Just what is the magic payroll number for the 2022 Cincinnati Reds?

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How much more culling must there be?

Cincinnati Reds v San Francisco Giants Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Back in early October when MLB Trade Rumors released their salary estimates for all arbitration-eligible players heading into the 2022 season, we did our best to break down where the Cincinnati Reds payroll would be if they simply maintained the status quo.

Our initial breakdown looked at a scenario that included tendering contracts to all 10 arb-eligible players, picking up the options on both Tucker Barnhart and Wade Miley, and assuming the obvious of Nick Castellanos opting into free agency. We assumed at the time they’d likely shop some of their pricier players this winter, but never dreamed they’d simply throw away Miley and dump Barnhart simply to avoid even their meager option buyouts, a pretty clear indication that even our most frugal estimates were too optimistic.

Said scenario included Justin Wilson picking up his player option, which he eventually did, and that put the team’s estimated payroll for 2022 at some $128.06 million for the 2022 season (assuming they rounded out the rest of the roster spots with players making league-minimum).

With Barnhart ($7.5M) and Miley ($10M) now out of that picture, the Reds estimated payroll would drop some $16.35M, assuming they filled those two roster spots with another pair of players making league minimum. (For full disclosure, we’re using the 2021 league minimum of $575K for this discussion, though that’s firmly in the cross-hairs of the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement and may be changed by tens of thousands of bucks.)

That leaves us at an estimated $111.71 million on the books for 2022. Still, we’ve continued to see the Reds mentioned as further sellers as they try to align their payroll to their resources, suggesting that there’s more of a cull in the works. We’ve seen mention of Luis Castillo being shopped, though there’s been more of a move to pooh-pooh those rumors of late - albeit due to lack of a desired return. Sonny Gray, too, has had his name kicked around the rumor mill, his $10.5M salary and recent success perhaps the best combination of price and production on the roster that would both dump money and bring back a decent return of prospects.

The question is, just how low does Nick Krall have to go to align this payroll to his resources? Is it $100 million? Is it $90 million, or even lower? And if it’s a hard mandate and not merely a suggestion that he get there, is there even a far-off fathom that doing so would leave the Reds with enough ‘resources’ to still pay for a team with a chance to do anything other than lose 90+ games?

The obvious route is the most difficult here, I should add. With 2B now spoken for by Rookie of the Year Jonathan India, the Reds are paying out the keister for a pair of sub-par 3Bs in Mike Moustakas and Eugenio Suarez. The pair of over-30 former sluggers have both fought injuries over the last two seasons and combined for -0.8 bWAR in that time, while they have a combined $73M guaranteed left on their respective contracts. That’s the kind of underwater money that will require the Reds to kick-in a pile of cash just to begin discussions of moving them, however, and given how rash the club was with their moves of Barnhart/Miley to avoid one-time option buyouts, I’m not sure how much on-hand cash the Reds even have at the moment.

To a lesser extent, the $8M owed to Shogo Akiyama is also underwater, though the smaller figure there means there could be someone out there who’d be willing to soak him up alongside a shiny prospect if the Reds choose to shed salary in that route. I’m not saying it’s wise for the future of the franchise to give away prospects just to get out of contracts, but this is also a club that has chosen to keep a handful of veterans around until their contracts expire without any eye towards the future, so it’s worth acknowledging the chance of it happening.

Joey Votto, meanwhile, has a no-trade clause and seems intent on sticking around to bang another 60-70 dingers before the Reds buy out his 2025 option, thank heavens.

All that is to say that if the Reds truly do have to get to hard number that’s well below where they are right now, it’s going to take moving the good players they still have around to do it. It’ll take Castillo and Gray, and Tyler Mahle and Jesse Winker and Tyler Naquin. That’s $23.6M, using MLBTR’s estimates, and would leave the Reds with a hair over $88 million still on the books. Is that how low it must go? Is a sub-$90 million payroll where the resources say this must go?

Dear god, do not look at what the roster would look like if all of those players were moved, but believe me when I say there would be holes. There would absolutely be an influx of talent coming to the Reds for them to deal that core, I should add, pieces that could even jibe with the already in-house youth movement of India, Tyler Stephenson, Jose Barrero, Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo, Tony Santillan, and Vlad Gutierrez, among others. That’s quite the new core, obviously, but one that certainly wouldn’t be rocketing up any division standings during the 2022 season, a concept the Reds seemed oh-so-set on achieving just two winters ago.

That begs the question - are the Reds really just rebuilding around that core and aren’t willing to just say so publicly? The way they botched the “reboot” concept last time around might just have the hesitant to say the quiet part out loud, even if the perpetual shedding of payroll that began with Archie Bradley and Raisel Iglesias last winter has sustained itself as the overriding theme again this year.

Maybe, just maybe, the magic payroll number sits somewhere closer to $105 million, though. That’s a number well below the roughly $122 million the Reds doled out during the 2021 season, and would’ve ranked 19th out of the 30 MLB clubs last year. Is that a level where the Reds have any business selling that they can still compete, though? If they managed to dump Shogo by enticing another team with a prospect of the caliber of, say, Austin Hendrick and moved Sonny Gray for a piece of note, could they then turn that savings into an entirely revamped outfield, overhauled bullpen, and honestly sell to anyone that they had a chance in 2022?

It’s perilous, at best, to suggest that path has feasibility. It’s more likely ludicrous, but it may well be the choice that’s made to avoid being tabbed as yet another club that’s tanking and rebuilding, something this generation of Reds fan has only ever known. Having been beaten down by yet another lost decade with this franchise, I’m not even sure it’s worth the mirage again.

We’ll see!