The Cincinnati Reds spent a few bucks in free agency this winter, with those far more offset by the money they shed in trades and in letting free agents just walk away. It was a budget-cutting strategy in a year with lost revenues, one that saw them eventually choose to try to plug holes within their organization with younger, cheaper options across the board.
Of course, younger/cheaper options don’t just grow on trees, and the ones that are readily available often come with obvious flaws. Flaws, though, can often come in the form of ‘talent,’ but that doesn’t appear to be the kind of player the Reds (or anyone else) have tried scooping up this winter. Rather, the flawed type of player the Reds have targeted have been those that have ample talent, but simply haven’t been able to put it all together just yet.
In baseball, though, taking awhile to put things together comes at a cost. For teams that try to be patient with their young talent, they only have so many years and ways to keep them within the organization to let them marinate and mature before the players reach some form of free agency, with minor league options while on the 40-man roster one of the last ditch efforts. Once players are out of those options, they cannot simply be sent back to the minors without being exposed to the waiver-claim process, opening up the chance that other clubs can pluck them away and try their hand and shaping them into something formidable.
Normally, when a club has a player or two out of options in spring camp, it’s mostly an afterthought. These players have had plenty of time to prove they’re full-time big leaguers after all, so they’re usually at the fringe of the roster construction anyway. With the 2021 Cincinnati Reds and their attempt to shed costs, though, there is an outsized contingent of out-of-options players on the roster, and that’s going to make for quite the squeeze when it comes to the Opening Day 26.
Complicating that is the revelation that the modified 2020 season and its shortened nature are making determining which players are actually out of options, or not, something of a mystery. The Enquirer’s Bobby Nightengale outlined the situation over the weekend.
An arbitrator will determine if Aristides Aquino, José De León and/or Cionel Pérez have a minor-league option this season. That ruling could play a part in the way the #Reds shape their Opening Day roster. More on what's at stake: https://t.co/lwUDdRotgp— Bobby Nightengale (@nightengalejr) March 7, 2021
In other words, there is a chance that the Reds could option each of Aristides Aquino, Jose, De Leon, and Cionel Perez to AAA Louisville to begin the season. There is also a chance they simply cannot, and doing anything other than carrying them on the Opening Day roster would risk losing them on waivers.
On the pitching side, that’s particularly worth watching due to who else is in the mix for spots on the Reds pitching staff this year. De Leon and Perez being out of options and at risk of being lost would be less of an issue were each of Sal Romano, Jeff Hoffman, Amir Garrett, Lucas Sims, and Noe Ramirez not also out of options, too. We highlighted that dilemma a few weeks back, noting that since there’s such a huge emphasis on innings pitched this year as teams emerge from a 60 game season back to a 162 game season, losing arms this year is something that would hurt with more aplomb than in other years. Whereas teams would ideally be able to option a guy back to AAA for a fresh arm if they were tasked with 4 IP of mop-up duty in a single game, that strategy becomes less feasible if it risks losing that guy on waivers altogether.
Where that begins to have ripple effects is when it gets to guys that look otherwise worthy of being big leaguers, but those particular players still have options remaining. Guys like Ryan Hendrix, Art Warren, Edgar Garcia, Shane Carle, Hector Perez, or even Tejay Antone, who has been again a star in camp. The Reds will be forced to weigh the importance of having the absolute best possible 26-man roster in camp on Opening Day versus the importance of having the best possible 40-man roster for the long haul of their season, two things that would on-paper seem to feature the same priorities but, in reality, cannot with the plethora of option decisions looming.
With Aquino, there’s less of a roster crunch as much as there is wondering whether the breakout talent we saw from him when first called up in 2019 can ever return in a Reds uniform - or in any other, really. He’s got no clear path to playing time with the other options on the roster, though his upside does obviously provide the Reds with depth. Finding he’s got another option remaining may well open the door for the likes of Mark Payton or Scott Heineman to break camp on the 26-man roster, the latter of whom has already showed positional versatility that Aquino so far has not.
Again, this is normally something that only helps define the very periphery of a team’s roster, but that’s not the case with how these Reds are made up. If the arbitration case for each of this trio goes in the least flexible way, the Reds could end up with as many as 8 players on their Opening Day roster who are out of options altogether, restrictions that will make managing their active roster and using the depth in the minors a perilous navigation for Nick Krall and the front office as well as making for a frustrating path to the big leagues for the likes of Hendrix, et al, who would otherwise be firmly in the mix for a chance at the major league level.