Watching a sports team, or anything really, that willingly eschews good parts of itself in the name of money is rarely an enjoyable event. Rooting for wins, rooting for the now inherently sends our dopamine into a frenzy in ways not seen when rooting for money in the owner’s bank account and they’ll probably be better in three years because of it do.
The latter is the reality in which we live, however, at least in the realm of the Cincinnati Reds. Despite repeated failures and frustrations over the last (/checks notes) 30 years, it seems the team once again entered this particular offseason bent on prioritizing bucks over wins, even though they only recently began spending like a real club in the first place once again. And, before we knew it, the likes of Nick Castellanos, Wade Miley, Michael Lorenzen, and Tucker Barnhart were gone to free agency, off to other clubs willing to spend.
The logical assumption at this juncture is that the Reds still have more salary-shedding left to do. Why pay $100 million to a club that can’t get over the hump and compete when you can pay $75-80 million for the exact same result? And when that logical assumption turns your eye towards the team’s books, three things become readily obvious:
1) They have some players making the kind of money at their age and performance that would require eating money just to get them off the books, with no team in their right mind giving up anything of value to take on their contracts.
2) They have a really nice burgeoning core of young, toolsy, talented players.
3) They have a trio of starting pitchers that would be the envy of almost every franchise in the game.
You can’t trade from - or nobody else wants - 1. You simply do not trade from 2, not without a commitment from ownership to spend enough money to augment whatever cool piece you get back in return. That leaves 3, each of whom just so happens to be making enough coin this year (and next) to un-dent the payroll in a way that might elicit wide grins from ownership, even if it means getting worse on-paper for 2022.
In Luis Castillo, Tyler Mahle, and Sonny Gray, Cincinnati has arms all teams want. Getting cheaper in the process of moving any of them is an ownership win, and losing any of them in a vacuum would be a tremendous kick in the shins to Reds fans everywhere. Pile on losing one, or two, in the wake of the existing departures, and it would be a downright towel-throw for the 2022 season, even if making those moves brought in the kind of piece that would look All-Starry in 2025 somewhere on the field alongside Jonathan India, Tyler Stephenson, Jose Barrero, Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo, Matt McLain, Elly De La Cruz, and the lot.
The question is - is there that kind of prospect out there available?
Who, really, is the best piece a team is really willing to move for, say, Luis Castillo, who likely has the most value on the trade market?
It’s a tricky question, as it comes with a half-dozen layers. Which teams out there are prioritizing the next two seasons more than the long term, and are aiming to win now? Which teams have the payroll to accommodate him this year, and next? Which teams have good enough top-tier prospects to make a deal enticing enough? Which teams have prospects that they value higher than Castillo, and would thereby be unwilling to move? And, in the case of Castillo, which teams have already had Castillo on their roster, and how does that impact their evaluation of him now?
The San Francisco Giants, for instance, lost ace Kevin Gausman to free agency alongside stalwart Johnny Cueto from a rotation that led them to a 107 win regular season. They re-upped with old friends Anthony DeSclafani and Alex Wood to pair behind emerging stud Logan Webb, and backed that up with a deal for Alex Cobb, too. Does that price them out of a Castillo deal, thereby taking top prospects Marco Luciano and Joey Bart off the table? Would the Giants, who originally signed Castillo to his first professional deal a decade ago, want him back that badly?
The prospects almost universally ranked ahead of Luciano, who checks in at #5 on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100, are all almost categorically off-limits in any deal, let alone for just two years of Luis Castillo. Bart, who checks in at #16, might not necessarily be exactly the player the Reds want in return, but that level of prospect might be where the Reds demand-power begins to top out in any Castillo deal.
Coincidentally, that brings the New York Yankees into play, seeing as the rumor mill and hot stove have combined to have them fawning over Castillo more or less every single offseason for the last handful of years. In Anthony Volpe (#15) and Jasson Dominguez (#17), they’ve got a pair of well regarded (albeit quite different) prized young position players, and their rotation certainly could use some help behind Gerrit Cole. Prying Volpe away might prove impossible too, though, seeing as various other outlets have him ranked as high as #6 overall, and in most places he’s a consensus Top 10 talent. Dominguez, meanwhile, has just reached A-ball (and didn’t exactly light the world on fire there), putting his ETA still several years away - not exactly the kind of prospect who is on the same time frame as the rest of the youth movement the Reds have right now.
As I whittled down the list of potential Castillo deals based on team need, prospect availability, team life cycle, and prospect readiness, one team began to stand out more than others - the Los Angeles Angels.
We’ve watched the Reds squibble and fumble their way through most of Joey Votto’s Hall of Fame career, and it’s hard not to notice that the Angels have largely done the same during Mike Trout’s otherworldly tenure with the club. They’ve consistently thrown money into awkward fits surrounding him, mostly while their starting rotation has fallen by the wayside despite his herculean efforts. Now, Trout’s hit his 30s, and while Shohei Ohtani has thrown his gargantuan talent into the mix, they’ve still not addressed their other needs enough to make those two into a legitimate contender.
Noah Syndergaard was added in a high-AAV short deal, and he’ll back Ohtani atop a rotation that still has major question marks behind it. One of said question marks, though, is Reid Detmers, their former 1st round pick out of the University of Louisville who made his big league debut in 2022 at age 22 and promptly got bonked around a bit in 5 starts.
Still, Detmers was nails between AA-AAA during his 2021 season prior to his big league debut, and the lefty’s velocity uptick and plus slider are precisely why the MLB Pipeline folks have him #23 and The Athletic’s Keith Law has him at #19.
This is not me suggesting that Reid Detmers is the next savior of the Cincinnati Reds, for the record. I will go on record that I think he’s got a great shot at being a very, very good big league pitcher for years, however, especially if he can get away from the Angels pitching development system. What I am trying to emphasize here is that in Detmers, that might be the best on-paper type of prospect the Reds could feasibly target this winter with their best trade chip, Luis Castillo. That’s the kind of return it would take for any move of Castillo to be viewed not as just a salary dump, but as selling-high on a veteran arm for a future piece because the deal was good enough to say yes to at the time, even if it means the 2022 club won’t be as good.
Would getting Julio Rodriguez from a Seattle Mariners club that’s looking for pitching to contend be better? Yeah, it probably would! I just don’t see Rodriguez as being available in that, or any kind of deal, and that was the point of this entire exercise. Point is, it’s threading a very small eyelet to find the precise combination of hungry acquiring team with payroll space, rotation thirst, and the right kind of quality-not-quantity prospect that fits the Reds timeline best. There’s a chance Nick Krall and Co. can thread it, of course, and keep the Reds in a decent-enough spot for the future while satisfying the owner’s bottom line, but it’s going to take some serious crackerjack timing.
It might take keeping Perry Minasian on speed dial, too.