The Cincinnati Reds enter this winter as builders. Not as re-builders, but as builders with a very well-poured foundation and a clean line of credit awaiting them.
The option decision on Joey Votto remains the lone large-scale obligation currently on their books, but even with arbitration raises - more on that in a second - they’re going to head into the winter with some ninety million fewer dollars committed to their payroll than they’ve had as recently as 2019.
In other words, they’ve got a burgeoning young roster, enough success from 2023 on which to build, and pocketbooks that should be completely open. That sets the stage for some serious roster construction opportunities either through free agency or trade, the kind of scenario that should make you salivate if you, like me, like watching teams actually try to win baseball games.
As they run up to the 2024 MLB regular season, here are the important dates to watch for action, and why:
Free Agency begins (one day following the end of the World Series)
One of the Rangers, Astros, Phillies, or Diamondbacks is going to hoist the World Series title and spray a bunch of beer on each other. The day after that happens in the next few weeks, all pending free agents become free agents, and the pool out of which teams can shop on the open market begins to form.
Technically, they can’t sign with anyone for five days, but that doesn’t mean negotiations won’t begin. Trades, too, can begin the day after the World Series, and you’ll recall that the Reds traded Tucker Barnhart to the Detroit Tigers about a half-second after the window opened for them to do so in 2021.
The Reds have a team option on Votto, and they’ve got five days following the end of the World Series to make a call on that. They’ll be able to negotiate with Votto on a restructured deal both before and after making that call, of course, but that’s the deadline for the contract already in place.
Qualifying Offers (QO)
QOs must be doled out to those free agents deemed worthy by their previous teams within five days of the completion of the World Series, too. If you can find a Red entering free agency who you think is worthy of such an offer, well, I’ll eat your hat, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t relevant to the Reds.
Any player who declines a QO before entering free agency (but has been offered it) carries baggage into the free agency process, as any team that signs said QO decliner will forfeit some form of a draft pick for doing so.
All players who are still under ‘team control’ must be tendered a contract, or not, by November 17, 2023. These are the players who are either arbitration-eligible or pre-arb, meaning they’ve played big league ball but haven’t logged enough service time to reach free agency.
The more service time they have accrued, the higher their expected salaries get (relative to their performance). So, guys entering their fifth or sixth year of service time are going to be making much more than league-minimum, whereas the rookies from last year are still going to be making roughly league-minimum, too. The decision to tender contracts to these guys comes in anticipation of how much they’ll cost in the arbitration process, and players who are not-tendered contracts usually fall into that purgatory because their expected cost exceeds that of their expected production.
For all players not tendered contracts, they become free agents like the rest of the non-QO free agent lot. For all players tendered contracts, however, teams and players have until January 12, 2024 to agree to a contract for the upcoming season before they must submit figures to an independent arbiter who will pick one of said offers to serve as their contract for 2024.
It’s an ugly process when teams and players have offers far apart in the arbitration process, especially when it comes time to discuss any further, longer-term contracts. So, it generally behooves teams to not low-ball their players.
The Reds have a lengthy list of guys who are projected to go through the arbitration process, as MLB Trade Rumors laid out last week. The arbitration process (and these expected salaries) are directly tied to the non-tender deadline outlined above, of course.
Cutting all 10 of those guys listed would make them all free agents and save over $20 million of expected salary commitments! It would also open up a ton of 40-man roster spots! However, it would also require the Reds to pay at least league-minimum to replace those guys with other guys, and thus the cycle begins. Obviously, they’ll retain the majority of the players listed there, but there are certainly some notable names who may not make the cut.
Technically, arbitration-eligible players and teams can avoid arbitration and agree to deals at any point up to January 12th once the World Series is finished.
The GM Meetings pretty much kick-off the offseason, though little transactional news usually takes place. This is where they’ll discuss rule changes, which matters administratively and on the field, and those kind of moves could impact the transactional moves GMs make later on in the winter.
These begin on November 7th.
The Winter Meetings usually kick-off the transactional hullabaloo, and they’re going to take place in Nashville from December 4th-7th this year. That’s when agents, players, and GMs all get together and party/deal, with the Rule 5 Draft taking place as the finale. That draft, you may recall, is designed to keep teams from stockpiling players worthy of a shot at the big leagues in their minor league systems indefinitely, allowing other clubs to select players from opposing farm systems if they haven’t been added to 40-man rosters after a certain number of years in the minor leagues. That number depends on how old they were when they became professionals, but it’s a pretty sneaky way to add cheap depth when the opportunity presents itself, with the occasional Rule 5 draftee (see: Shane Victorino, Josh Hamilton) turning into a star.