I gripe and moan about the state of the Cincinnati Reds a lot. Lately, it’s been more than ‘a lot,’ as the reboot/rebuild they wasted five full years on has seemingly had the cord pulled on it quicker than the first two batters in the Cincinnati lineup typically were retired before Joey Votto’s first PA of the game.
Despite all their foibles, though, the Reds have managed several bright spots in their operations over the last epoch in the team’s history, believe it or not. The acquisition of Sonny Gray from the New York Yankees alongside Reiver Sanmartin was certainly one of them, as was the savvy signing of Gray to an extension that kept him around at sub-market rates (from the team’s perspective, of course).
Gray has just two years of team control remaining, however, and with the Reds pinching pennies once again, it’s no surprise he’s firmly on the trade block this winter, even with Derek Johnson and the Vandy connection firmly on-board with the Reds with an extension and promotion this winter. What did come as something as a surprise on Tuesday morning, though, was ESPN’s Buster Olney relaying that while the Reds are open to moving Gray again, each of Tyler Mahle and Luis Castillo - the team’s other big trade chips - are reportedly now ‘off limits.’
The Reds are said to be open (again) to trading Sonny Gray. But they've indicated to rival execs that Tyler Mahle and Luis Castillo are off limits.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) November 23, 2021
Each of the trio of pitchers mentions have two years of team control remaining. Of those three, Gray has both a) the most guaranteed money left on his deal and b) the most years of age (32) under his belt. For the first time in a decent bit of time around these parts, I’m pretty well on-board with Sonny being the one they shop this winter, if shopping any and all things is what has to happen for this frugal franchise.
The way Sonny’s contract was structured also provides a few intricacies that make this entire scenario interesting. He’s got a performance clause in his deal that guarantees him an extra $100K for each of 150, 160, 170, 180, and 190 IP each year, meaning he made $300K more in 2019 (175.1 IP) than he did this year (135.1 IP). That 2019 season added a kicker to the rest of his contract, too, since he finished 7th in NL Cy Young Award voting, adding an additional $500K per year to a contract that already had a $500K signing bonus spread out across each of the years of the deal. An All-Star appearance then added another $200K to the annual salaries, too. Add-in an assignment bonus of $1M should he be traded, and there’s something in the region of $11.87M and $23.87M left on his deal, depending upon if his team option is picked up for 2023 - and that’s before the annual IP performance cash potentially gets kicked in on top. (H/T to Cot’s Contracts for the details.)
That’s complicated, but by no means exorbitant for a pitcher who’s fired a 136 ERA+ in 366.2 IP since coming to the Reds prior to the 2019 season. He’s dealt with a handful of nagging injuries that have helped keep his overall IP down, but none of them have been structural or lingering, and his elite strikeout rates and ability to keep opponents from getting hits have led to him being valued at 10.0 bWAR, 8.6 fWAR in his trio of years with the Reds.
There is absolutely a market for that. Anthony DeSclafani, just five months younger than Sonny, just re-upped with the San Francisco Giants for 3 years and $36 million, for instance, fresh off a recent run not to dissimilar to that of Gray’s - and Sonny’s team option situation for 2023 even builds in some added insurance for any potential acquirer (and it has no buyout).
Look, a good team with a healthy float would probably just keep Sonny alongside Mahle and Castillo, especially after having just parted ways with what Wade Miley provided last season. The Reds, though, have cash problems, and if they were going to part with any of the pitchers they have on staff who are actually making their worth this year, it’s Sonny who makes the most sense to trade, even if he likely brings the least return of the three. Still, it’s the ‘off limits’ nature of Mahle and Castillo that has me equally intrigued.
If the Reds are set on being cheap ad infinitum, and have any intentions whatsoever of ever being good on the field again, they simply can’t keep holding on to their valuable players until their contracts are up and getting zero return for them. Also, the best way to get the good players around for the cheapest is to try, try, and try again to get them extended via long-term contracts before they reach free agency, something the Reds are running very, very short on time for with Mahle and Castillo at this juncture. So, if they want to be the most cost-conscious, be the best, and keep hold of these two, it should absolutely, positively be extension season with one or both if they are truly ‘off limits’ on the trade block.
Oddly enough, my bold prediction for this particular offseason when speaking with Jeff Carr of Locked on Reds a few weeks back was that the Reds would trade Sonny and extend Castillo this winter, and that was weeks before they showed just how super cheap they were with the Tucker Barnhart trade and simply giving away Miley on waivers. There’s a part of me that thinks I’d rather pursue an extension with Mahle instead and shop Castillo, but that was a prediction of what the Reds would do, not what me in a GM seat I do not occupy would do.
The Reds roster is in flux, folks, and will be all winter long.