The above picture is of Sonny Gray, a pitcher currently on the roster of the Cincinnati Reds (for the time being).
The title of this particular post includes the concept of ‘extend a pitcher.’
I am in no way advocating that Sonny Gray be the object of a Cincinnati Reds contract extension prior to the 2022 season. Allow me to elaborate.
As the Reds attempt to thread the needle and both shed payroll and put something other than a sad excuse for a baseball team on the field again, they again find themselves forced to reckon with their poor attempts at balancing both the short-term and long-term aspects of their roster. So often over the last handful of seasons, they’ve let the team control over certain players diminish to a point where they no longer have much trade value, doing so while focusing on chasing wins on the field that didn’t materialize, either.
They’ve failed at the short game and failed to plan well enough for the long game, in effect. We saw it with Wade Miley most recently, as the Reds didn’t cash-in on him during a 2021 season in which they sat dozens of games behind the best teams in the NL, and they were forced to dump him for zilch when they somehow suddenly realized they had no money. They ran down team control on the likes of Zack Cozart and Scooter Gennett in prior years, too, in the process hitting the elite front office trifecta of 1) not winning now, 2) not keeping those players around for the future, and 3) not getting any other players for the future in exchange for them.
Rolling this discussion back to Sonny Gray for a minute, I’ll add that in this winter of frugality that has already seen Miley and Tucker Barnhart literally given away, the Reds do have some flexibility baked into their situation with Sonny. They have that, of course, because they extended him in the first place, inking him to a deal upon acquisition from the New York Yankees that includes optional team control over him through the 2023 season.
That they have that, and that he’s been a solid mid-rotation pitcher for them, is precisely why he’s around and Miley and Barnhart are not. In the Reds hierarchy of players who must be dumped to save the most coin, the lack of team control over Miley and Barnhart paired with their option situations means the Reds had to dump them immediately following the end of the 2021 season to save the most money, with that the hugely primary goal over getting anything tangible in return. They were stuck between a rock and their frugality, and lost both because of a lack of leverage.
In Sonny, they actually have some leverage, even if the entire world knows they’re too cheap to actually keep him around and pay him to pitch in a Reds uniform for 2022. (I said they have some leverage, not lots.) Because of his team control, because of the contract the Reds doled out when there were still question marks around Sonny’s ability, because they got him on a deal that’s now below-market because they actually took a little risk, Sonny profiles as a helluva reasonable fit for most every team willing to try to contend in 2022-23. That’s a player who is valuable on a contract that is valuable, a combination that is, well, valuable on the open market even if the Reds are too blinded by dollars to capitalize on it.
To tie a bow around all of this, the Reds need to prioritize how they value the players on their roster at the moment. In Sonny, they’ve got a player who’s already as good as traded, but I spent so much time focusing on him because he’s a perfect example of what the Reds need to do to plan ahead right now, too. In Tyler Mahle and Luis Castillo, they’ve got a pair of in-prime pitchers in their late 20s, the kind of players all across baseball that force front offices to make the kind of franchise-altering decisions they get paid the big bucks to decide. They’re the kind of pitchers in the same kind of position where Gray was when the Reds acquired him, and extended him, a few seasons ago.
They’ve got leverage to get something for the present, or for the future, by dealing Sonny Gray this winter, leverage they got because they signed him to a long-term contract extension and had enough team control over him to maintain flexibility. Even if the Reds wanted to continue their cyclical frugality again in the next two, three, four years, having one - or both - of Mahle and Castillo under team control at those points would present them with precisely that kind of chance, too.
Obviously, the good teams out there would simply try to win by building around their good players, and would do so by trying to get their best players under contract for as long as they could. I’d love to be writing about how the Reds extending Castillo and Mahle this winter would fall into that category, but I’m not prepared to make any sort of assumption on that level given how they’ve pulled the tablecloth out from under their fans so many times already. Instead, I’ll just acknowledge this - if they truly want to make it so they can trade their best players when they begin to get expensive and actually get something back in return, they need to start locking them up earlier, when those players have less leverage, and quit selling low on the talents they’ve developed around here.
It was probably time to do that with Castillo and Mahle a year ago, if not earlier. This winter, it’s pretty well the last real chance they’ve got before both become close enough to free agency where any contract extension will effectively have to treat them as free agents, and those aren’t the kind of deals that end up team friendly.