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Free agency isn’t the only place the Cincinnati Reds didn’t spend this winter

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The tightened budget scaled back in another important area, too.

Wild Card Round - Cincinnati Reds v Atlanta Braves - Game Two Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

One year removed from the spending spree on which the Cincinnati Reds embarked in free agency, and it already feels as if that splurge will be much more exception than rule in the history books. Thirteen years removed from the then-record 4-year signing of closer Francisco Cordero, the Reds splashed cash on a quartet of proven veterans, doling out what could amount to $164 million in free agent coin to bring them into the fold.

This winter, though, they’ve guaranteed something akin to $2 million. While the pandemic and revenue-shortfall can and should be immediately cited for that scale-back, let’s not forget what mostly happened in that arena from 2008-2019, too. That era was rife with small, 2-year compacts with the likes of Miguel Cairo, and Skip Schumaker, and Jack Hannahan, and the slightly bumped-up version to Ryan Ludwick. The rebuild saw super short deals doled out to innings-eaters tasked with merely helping complete the season in any shape or form, with Scott Feldman and Burke Badenhop getting those minor nods.

Through all that specific frugality, though, the Reds did actually keep on spending some - they just kept channeling back into their own, homegrown players in the form of long-term extensions. It’s what made Joey Votto the franchise cornerstone back in 2012. It’s what, at the time, deemed Devin Mesoraco the catcher of the future, and later gave Tucker Barnhart a similar aspiration. It didn’t work out at all with Homer Bailey, but the intention was there in the form of a nine-figure contract. Eugenio Suarez, on the other hand, inked his life-changer and immediately jumped into the upper stratosphere of the game’s dinger-launchers, almost effectively claiming that role in the lineup from Jay Bruce, another formerly extended Red.

For all of their foibles over the years, the Reds have often coughed up market rates to keep their core players around. They’ve certainly let some get away, obviously, but at least there has been a fairly casual assumption that if the roster began producing talented players from within, there would be a conscious effort to pay them what it took to stick around for a bit longer.

This winter, that’s not been the case. It’s still winter, as the storm pummeling most all of us with snow, ice, and frigid temperatures will remind, but there’s still very much a sense that lifting done by the financial powers that be within the organization are idle by design for the foreseeable future, with any spontaneous heavy lifting expected to still be of the shedding variety rather than the other way around.

While in the grand scheme of things that might not sound like too big of an existential problem, perhaps it truly is. The current roster of the Reds is pretty ripe for extension candidates, frankly, and identifying those kinds of players and getting them signed before values and intentions become tweaked even slightly is one of the only true ways for clubs committed to being low-payroll clubs.

(I think we can all concede that the Reds, even on their best of days, will be a below-average spending club under this current ownership group, right?)

In Luis Castillo, you’ve got a budding ace in his first year of arbitration, making the first kind of truly life-changing money in his career. Given that he’s a bit of a late bloomer (already 28 years old) and didn’t have a huge signing bonus in the bank from the start, I thought the timing might be right for extending him earlier this winter, especially in the wake of watching Trevor Bauer exit into free agent ether. A combination lower-cost signing of a pitcher to lead the rotation, and a salve (of sorts) to the fans who watched their other ace depart. So far, that’s not been in the cards at all, though, and that’ll push Castillo perhaps another year closer to the bright lights of free agency with no long-term deal in place, something that could well be enough incentive to him to let that process play out.

Probably rotation mate Tyler Mahle is in a similar boat, to a slightly less proven extent. A first-year arb guy with no huge signing bonus banked (as a 7th round draft pick), the timing could well have been right to get him signed now after his breakout 133 ERA+ plus 2020 season - one that saw his StatCast peripherals take precisely the kind of jump we’d hoped to see after working for a full year with Kyle Boddy and the Driveline team. Offensively, Jesse Winker’s roughly on the same plane, fresh off a breakout offensive season and entering into arbitration for the first time (even if he did have a slightly more significant signing bonus already banked).

Amir Garrett fits the bill as an extension candidate, especially if the closer’s role is to be his for the next few years. If there’s one thing that the arbitration process favors when it comes to pitchers, it’s the ‘traditional’ stats - meaning wins, losses, and saves, making them desirable for players in those roles even if they’re less important in other parlance. And we haven’t even gotten to Michael Lorenzen, a pitcher who will seemingly be moving from the bullpen back to the rotation. He’s in his final year before free agency, but if the Reds truly believe he’s now more capable of the bigger role of starting, perhaps now would be the time to discuss him doing so for more than just this season.

In the sense of all it takes is money, no, there’s nothing about the inaction in this arena this winter that would prevent the Reds from making each and every one of these players long-term pieces for the club’s future. But when it comes to the Reds, requiring money is increasingly less of a guarantee, and another year without trying to tie any of these players to bigger deals will only serve to make them more expensive, further exacerbating that dilemma.

To be fair, the only way another calendar year prices these guys out of the Reds projections would be if they performed so damn well in 2021 as to demand that kind of raise - something that would benefit the Reds greatly in the short run - but that doesn’t remove this aspect of worry about the direction this roster is set to take in the next two, three, five years down the road.

Of all the inaction this winter, it’s this part that has me perhaps the most worried.