The Cincinnati Reds, deep within their second rebuild of the last half-decade, have yet to really do anything this winter. Despite having only Joey Votto and Mike Moustakas on the books as guaranteed-contract players, and despite both coming off the books at season’s end if need be, the Reds have seemed dedicated to the idea of patiently waiting for what they possess on their farm to ride to the rescue - even if that takes more time than any of us would like.
What if that’s what they do? What if there are no more big trades, no multi-year free agent signees to jump-start things? What if they just bide their time, all goes as well as one could hope, and the team rolls into to 2024 owning only what they currently have now?
Tyler Stephenson will, presumably, still be catching. He’ll be entering into his first year of arbitration eligibility, ideally making a fine chunk of change after a healthy 2023 season in which he finally gets to show what his offense can provide through 500 PA. If that’s the case, it’s conceivable that he’ll be in-range of where current first-year arb catcher Sean Murphy is while in trade limbo - a projected salary of between $3-4 million.
Jonathan India will be entering year one of arbitration in 2024, too. He’ll have a very solid case for a salary in that range as well if he bounces back with a healthy 2023. The same can be said for outfielder Jake Fraley, as a full, healthy season with the short RF porch in GABP and the lack of infield shifting could provide him with quite the platform year in 2023.
Down in the bullpen, returns to form from Lucas Sims (arb-3 in 2024) and Tejay Antone (arb-2 in 2024) during the 2023 season would seem to finally give the relief corps some structure and hierarchy, since both - when healthy - have shown the ability to excel in some high-leverage IP.
If we hit the generous end of these estimations - all of which would mean that each player above had solid 2023 seasons - that’s what...$15 million in salary in total? Maybe $16-18 million?
I sum totals here not because those five are the only five players on the current Reds roster who’d be eligible for arbitrations salaries for 2024. I sum them here because they’re the ones who, in my opinion, seem most likely to be tendered contracts for 2024 as arbitration-eligibles based upon their performance.
Rising salaries for underperformance from Nick Senzel (in his 3rd of 4 arb years in 2024), Kevin Newman (arb-3 in 2024), Justin Dunn (arb-2 in 2024) could well place them on the non-tender line, even for a club whose payroll in this scenario will have taken an absolute dive to the bottom of the MLB barrel. There’s obviously a chance they break their trends in 2023 and have excellent years, of course, but for the sake of keeping this ‘simple,’ let’s just assume they have years better than 2022 but still within the realm of expectations given their recent tracks. Requisite raises would net Newman ~$4-5 million, Senzel ~$3 million, and Dunn ~$1.8 million, bringing the tally here for the eight players I’ve mentioned to somewhere between $24-28 million in total.
(For the record, each of Nick Solak, Matt Reynolds, and Silvino Bracho could reach arbitration eligibility in 2024, but if they remain as on the fringe in 2024 as projected, their initial arb salaries would be close enough to league-minimum that I’m not chalking them up here.)
Anyway, that’s eight players for ~$24-28 million for 2024 with nary a guaranteed contract there, or elsewhere, on the books. That would leave eighteen active roster spots for players within the system to fill, the likes of which will ideally include Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo, Graham Ashcraft, Alexis Diaz, Elly De La Cruz, Noelvi Marte, and Matt McLain, among others. All of those players, despite all of their varying talents, will still be pre-arbitration players making roughly league minimum, barring extensions. At a league-minimum salary of $740K for each of those eighteen remaining roster spots ($740K x 18), that’s a rounded out roster of ~$38-41 million, to deal purely with round numbers.
That’s cheap, man. That’s really cheap.
It wouldn’t be without talent, obviously. Imagine strutting into 2024 knowing that you’d expect a lineup card akin to this on most days:
SS - De La Cruz
LF - India
C - Stephenson
LF - Fraley
3B - Marte
2B - Steer
CF - McLain
1B - Christian Encarnacion-Strand
DH - Nick Senzel, Jose Barrero, etc.
The rotation would feature Greene, Lodolo, Ashcraft, and your choice of Brandon Williamson, Christian Roa, Andrew Abbott, Connor Overton, Connor Phillips, or Joe Boyle.
The bullpen would have Diaz, Antone, Sims, Tony Santillan, Reiver Sanmartin, Vlad Gutierrez, Bryce Bonnin, and the like.
It is not a scenario devoid of talent. It is, truly, a pretty damn solid year that would feature a graduation of numerous prospects to big league status, with a few holdovers from the current malaise still on-hand.
This doesn’t mean that’s a good big league club, however. It could be - it would be nearly unprecedented for a team that young and inexperienced to rise to the levels of the elite in some meteoric rise - but it likely isn’t. For as much faith and hope as we put in the talented farm system right now, the odds of even a third of those graduating prospects materializing into good big-league regulars is incredibly slim, let alone all of them.
In that scenario, even if they do all hit at a remarkable success rate, it’ll be their ‘get the feet wet’ year. It won’t be a peak year, it will be a learning year. It would mark the end of the rebuild, yes, but it would not mark instant success. Rather, it would mark the bottom, where things finally stopped getting worse, and set a floor off which things could finally, mercifully get better.
The question here, though, is whether that’s the endgame for all the Reds have put their fans through of late, or simply the ginger that rinsed the palate.
Would 2024, and 2025, be years in which they let Elly, Noelvi, Matt, Brandon, and the next wave of promising and cheap youngsters get their feet wet on a team not spending to win the same way they’ve let Tyler, Alexis, Jonathan, Hunter, and Nick do so lately? Simply throw that group to the wolves that are payrolls $200-250 million higher across the baseball landscape? Or is that finally the time where the austerity to which the Reds brass has held will finally relax, with free agent signings (or a trade of several of these names for someone else) brought in to give any sort of semblance of urgency around here?
This fork in the road is on the Reds roadmap, that much we know. That they brought in Kevin Newman for a blip and could sign Chad Pinder or Wil Myers or Danny Duffy to limp through 2023 won’t change that route. Signing Carlos Correa this winter would, obviously, and would help highlight which of the two questions asked in the previous paragraph was most pertinent, but no signs point to that being a defining move this offseason. Rather, we’ll get one more calendar year to wait for the last dregs of the previous build to be cleared away, at which point we’ll get to see just what the blueprint for the next build looks like.