This headline is terrible. It’s a valid thought, but I hate it. You should hate it, too.
Don’t hate me for putting in writing, though - hate the Cincinnati Reds for making you think it before I write it.
With last week’s trade of Kyle Farmer to the Minnesota Twins, the Reds embarked even further into their deep, dark rebuild, one that has trimmed the payroll down nearly to the levels of the Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays. All that remains at this point are a few arb-eligibles set to make barely twice the league-minimum and the duo of Joey Votto and Mike Moustakas, both of whom will be off the payroll entirely at season’s end.
A forward-thinking movement it is, to be sure, as the Reds boast a farm system robust with talent once again. A forward-committed payroll, though, it is not - despite the presence of upper-minors depth around the infield and several starting pitchers poised for strong sophomore campaigns, the Reds have not yet chosen a core around whom they’ll stick with long-term.
[Read: they have not doled out a contract extension to any of their players, not even the most promising.]
It’s not difficult to recognize that they’re treading water under the simple guise of “Hey, we’re one of the 30 Major League Baseball teams,” and little else. They’re waiting for a future window, one that hopefully will pan out around Elly De La Cruz, Noelvi Marte, and whichever pitchers remain on-path and healthy. Marte, it’s worth noting again, has not yet seen a professional pitch above High-A.
Tyler Stephenson will turn 27 next August, and has yet to reach arbitration. He’s yet to top 402 plate appearances in any season, too, as a series of unfortunate (yet not debilitating) injuries behind the plate have set him back alongside the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. When he’s been in-gear and in-lineup, however, he’s looked every bit the part of one of the very, very few people on the planet who can catch his ass off and sock opposing pitchers, too - since the start of the 2020 season, there have been 51 MLB catchers who’ve logged at least 450 PA and his 119 wRC+ in that span ranks tied for 9th with Willson Contreras, for instance.
It ranks just ahead of Oakland’s Sean Murphy (115), too, as Murphy sits squarely on teams’ radar on the trade block this winter as Oakland - perpetually in re-shuffle mode - looks to cash-in on their biggest trade chip. The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal touched on Murphy and the rest of the barren catching market earlier today, which is worth a read. In it was a specific blurb about just how poor the overall catching production has been of late:
But even clubs that appear relatively set — the Yankees, for example — could be in the mix for Murphy. The league-wide .663 OPS at catcher last season was the lowest since 1989 (.635).
Teams are starved for competent catching. I should amend that statement to say teams that are trying to win are starved for competent catching. The Reds, even with Stephenson, are in search of depth to support him given the breaks and bruises that have sidelined him during his otherwise excellence, which is why even the idea of bringing in Tucker Barnhart again is on-hold as Tucker - who hit just .221/.287/.267 last year in Detroit - seeks a starting job somewhere, per MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon. That’s how thin the catching market is.
For the same reasons that the Reds dealt Luis Castillo, Jesse Winker, Eugenio Suarez, and Tyler Mahle for players more aligned to the future window in which they choose to contend, shopping Stephenson makes sense. It sucks. It’s offensive. It’s probably something they should pursue, though, for two key reasons on top of him being a cheap, immensely rare force in the game that everyone and their cousin should desire:
A) Catching requires an in-depth knowledge of a team’s entire pitching staff, and you just don’t see them moved mid-season in nearly the same capacity as you do between seasons. If you’re going to move him, now’s the time.
B) While letting him get back on the field and show his broken collarbone is in the past would probably increase his sheen in the eyes of everyone, so, too, would that open things up to the risk that another errant foul ball could take him off the potential block down the road, too.
If the Boston Red Sox, or San Diego Padres, or any team with a pulse and a farm system comes calling, that’s a call that becomes very, very hard to ignore.
There is no up and coming catcher in the Reds system ready to step in for Tyler. You can very well make the same argument that there are no up and coming starting pitchers ready to replace Mahle and Castillo to round out the rotation, either, nor is there enough ready for Opening Day 2023 on the left side of the infield to backfill the departures of Suarez and Farmer. The outfield is a complete disaster, regardless to which departure you choose to trace it.
Yes, it’s harder to find a catcher than those spots. But if the Reds are banking on finally being good again in 2024-2025, would they even still have Stephenson around as their linchpin given his current age and lack of extension? Might their recent frugality push them into pursuit of a catcher for that window anyway?
This is not an article suggesting that Baseball Team X should trade a player like Tyler Stephenson. If Tyler Stephenson were on one of 25 other clubs right now, he’d either have an extension or be so intricate to a team trying to build a winner for the upcoming year that the idea of moving him would be outlandish, outrageous. The Reds, though, don’t qualify for that level of rationale anymore, and this is merely pointing out the most obvious of obvious about them being thorough with their commitment to a scorched-earth rebuild.
Moving Tyler Stephenson now, for ‘a haul,’ would be the most thorough commitment to that as possible. For prospects, the age-old adage of those who’ve watched the turnstile around these parts, albeit for ones that - like the Castillo deal - would move the proverbial future needle in a more positive direction for when we’re all supposed to care about this place anymore.
If they aren’t going to pony up and pay him, well, now’s the time to double-down on the austerity. Thanks, I hate it.