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An update on the ‘could-be’ free agents of the Cincinnati Reds

It’s early, but we’re checking in on the Reds who could be in walk years.

Cincinnati Reds v Cleveland Indians Photo by: 2021 George Kubas/Diamond Images via Getty Images

The 2020 MLB season saw fans removed from the revenue equation, while the season itself shrunk from 162 games down to just 60. Money got tight for those ownership groups who chose to run their franchises as year to year income-generators instead of investments that grow their brand on success, and the Cincinnati Reds firmly planted their flag as being one of the former.

The winter of 2020-2021 therefore saw the Reds get very austere, letting a number of key players walk in free agency while waving goodbye to a handful of others via trade and non-tender to lower their overall payroll expectations. The question today is, I think, whether the glimpse of a return to somewhat normalcy for the Reds will reverse that course for the rest of calendar year 2021, or if the impact of last year’s losses will again trickle into the roster decisions this year, too.

The Reds again have a handful of key players who, contractually, could be in their walk years right now, whether through team or mutual or player options or simply the end of their slated contracts. And while that may seem like something that’s way too far in the future to worry about, it’s the kind of thing that could become pertinent as early as the trade deadline should the Reds not play well enough (or get enough of a financial commitment from ownership).

Here’s an update on those players, how they’re boppin’ or preventing bops, and what the future might hold for them and the Reds as things stand today.

Nick Castellanos, OF - Opt-out clause after 2021

In terms of the biggest potential financial impact, it’s Castellanos here by a large margin. Originally signed to a 4-year, $64 million deal prior to 2020, that came with opt-out clauses after each of the 2020 and 2021 seasons. He opted-in this past winter in an obvious decision with the free agent market dampened by the pandemic, but this year he’ll have a much more long-term decision with no future opt-outs on his deal.

Will he choose to again become a free agent? With a .987 OPS and 157 OPS+ through 28 games and all 15 NL clubs likely to get the universal DH next year, that could well be the most lucrative decision for the 29 year old. That said, with a mutual option for 2024 also tacked on to his current deal, opting-in would potentially net him up to $52 million across his age 30, 31, and 32 seasons, with a guarantee of at least $34 million in his age 30 and 31 campaigns. The corner OF market doesn’t exactly look flush with star options this upcoming winter - Kris Bryant and Michael Conforto are the two biggest names there - so it could well be a chance for him to cash-in with another big deal while still on the young side.

Of course, that’ll require a much better finish to his 2021 season than he had after a similarly blistering start to the 2020 season, one all Reds fans would probably still be happy with either way.

Wade Miley, SP - $10 million club option

There’s a tad bit of recency bias in this portion of the article, as Wade Miley just threw a brilliant no-hitter against Cleveland this weekend. A no-hitter. A no-hitter, and it’s not been his lone good start of 2021, either.

Sporting a 3.35 FIP at the moment that’s the 2nd best of his career (behind only the 3.15 mark of his All Star year in 2012), Miley is the team’s leader in bWAR, to date, and has firmly helped fill the rotational void left by Trevor Bauer, Anthony DeSclafani, and the faltering Luis Castillo. A year at $10 million for that kind of production would be an absolute steal, and one the Reds should, and probably even would jump at in austere times...if they could guarantee it’d be there.

Miley, of course, has had numerous ups and downs in his career, the 2020 season being one of those big ebbs. He’ll also turn 35 this November, though his methodical approach and lack of stressful overthrowing could well make him a candidate to age more gracefully than his flame-throwing peers. That said, he’s the only member of the current rotation set to depart via contract clause this winter, potentially, and with Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo waiting in the wings, $10 million might be more than the frugal Reds will choose to commit to that mix, especially with Tejay Antone around and the Driveline team churning out arms in great numbers.

Tucker Barnhart, C - $7.5 million team option

Tucker continues the trend here, as he, too, is off to a phenomenal start to the season. The two-time Gold Glove winner has also brought his bat to the plate, with his abandoning of switch-hitting to focus just on the left-side looking like a brilliant decision. He owns an .874 OPS (128 OPS+) so far, though that’s in a perilously small sample that includes a very unsustainably high BABIP.

Tyler Stephenson is not just lurking, he’s lurking at league-minimum for another pair of years, and that’s surely not going unnoticed by those in charge of the bottom line in the Reds front office. Still, there’s not a catcher in the system ready to take over half of the action alongside Stephenson any time soon, and the idea that the Reds could pair the two together for a rock-solid level of catching production for a total of $8 million should stand out as intriguing as hell to them, even if Tucker’s offense falls back to his career levels.

Michael Lorenzen, RHP - Final year of team control

What an awful time for Lorenzen to face serious injury issues. Currently on the 60-day IL with dreaded shoulder concerns, the ripped righty never got to make his move back to the rotation from the bullpen, and on top of that the bullpen struggled mightily without him there to lock it down.

If all goes well, he’ll return with enough left of the season to still turn heads in whichever role he lands in, and with all arms being asked to ramp back up to 162 games after just 60 a year ago, odds are he’ll get plenty of chances to log innings in all fashions down the stretch if he’s right. Clearly, he’s a guy the Reds have liked for awhile now, though the looming addition of the universal DH does make his ability to actually hit as a pitcher a bit less of a unique advantage going forward.

Sean Doolittle, LHP - Free agent at season’s end

Doolittle, the lone free agent of note added to the Reds this winter, has had a mostly solid beginning to his first season with the Reds. His 3.97 ERA and 3.19 FIP are solid, while his 11.9 K/9 and 93.0 mph average fastball velocity show he’s certainly rediscovered what he’d lost in a struggle through the 2020 season in Washington.

Still, he’s had big time issues against RH hitters so far this year, and with the three-batter minimum rules in place, that’ll be something he’ll have to figure out quickly for David Bell to continue to turn to him in high leverage situations. (To his credit, he’s been completely nails against LH hitters, though.)

Heath Hembree, RHP - Final year of team control

It’s been an incredibly small sample so far, but Hembree being signed to a minor league deal and brought up to the bigs has been a pretty savvy addition for the Reds bullpen. The 32 year old veteran has fired 5.2 IP of hitless, 2 walk ball agains 7 K, and again looks like the guy who was a key piece of Boston’s last run to a World Series.

He’ll hit his 6 years of service time this year at this rate, though, which will make him a free agent at season’s end. Safe to say, anything akin to the production he’s shown so far would probably make him an arm the Reds would like to keep around, but given the fickle nature of relievers in general from year to year - and Hembree as an example of it just last year - that’s likely going to be a longshot.