The 2020 Major League Baseball season was like no other, the COVID-19 pandemic keeping fans out of the stands and limiting the season to just 60 regular season games. A protracted battle between MLB and the MLB Players Association about how much proration would go into their playing through risk meant that payrolls, as we’d come to know them, ended up much, much smaller than they’d have been over a normal 162-game schedule, but the fact remains that the Cincinnati Reds were set to roll out a team in 2020 that, by Competitive Balance Tax accounting, was set to earn some $165.5 million.
They didn’t end up spending that much to to the proration and shortened season, and the lack of turnstile revenue meant they promptly blew that team up before it ever really took off. The point stands, though, that they finally spent money, man, and put their checkbooks on the line.
The austerity that has come in its wake has been definitive, however. Culling the likes of Mike Moustakas, Shogo Akiyama, Sonny Gray, Luis Castillo, Trevor Bauer, Raisel Iglesias, Nick Castellanos, Eugenio Suarez, Wade Miley, Tucker Barnhart, & Co. and replacing them almost exclusively with pre-arbitration players who make league minimum has a way of doing that. As the surprise of the 82-win campaign in 2023 soaks in and the hot stove season begins again, the single most obvious question looming over the Reds again becomes this - will they spend money to augment this team again?
You’d certainly like to think so.
Rookies heading into their second seasons abound across the infield, outfield, rotation, and bullpen, though the relative experience level beyond them is hardly any deeper. On top of that, while their talent showed in waves over the course of the year, it was matched with equal amounts of frustration - this was a team that scored 38 fewer runs that their opponents, had outsized success in one-run games that you can’t expect to repeat itself, and owned the fourth worst FIP (and third worst HR/9) of all pitching staffs in the game. Intrinsic improvement from those rookies is worth banking on, yes, but adding experience where you can still seems like the best way to make the 2024 team better than the 2023 edition.
That said, that was kind of the argument for adding at the 2023 trade deadline, too - something that simply didn’t happen (aside from Sam Moll) despite them owning the first place spot in the division at the time. If they weren’t going to spend to win then, what if they aren’t going to spend to win just a couple months later?
While I don’t expect them to go with a full 26-man roster of pre-arb players making the league minimum $740,000 in 2023, it’s worth pointing out that such a roster would carry a payroll of $19,240,000. Just how close to that number could the Reds feasibly get if going completely young and completely cheap for another year is part of Nick Krall and Bob Castellini’s grand plan?
First, we must factor in the $7 million to buy out the remainder of Joey Votto’s contract and the $750,000 to buyout the mutual option of Curt Casali, two moves that will up the base amount to $26,980,000 due to the cheapest possible administrative decisions. Hunter Greene’s contract guarantees him $3 million for the 2024 season (per Cot’s Contracts), and that adds $2,260,000 to the ledger more than a hypothetical league-minimum rostered player to bring the total to $29,240,000.
When you roll in the final $4 million the Reds owe to buy out the final year of Mike Moustakas’ contract - a contractual amount that impacts the 2024 budget, not 2023 - you reach $33,240,000. Add in the final $3.59 million owed to Ken Griffey, Jr. in what’s the last year of his deferred payments, and the Reds are on the hook for $36,830,000 if they opted for a scorched-earth, fire-sale, bargain-basement roster devoid of anyone who has reached the arbitration years of their team control.
That’s not going to happen, of course. The Reds do have a robust arb-eligible class this year, with ten such players currently rostered who’ll earn much more than the league-minimum after racking up enough service time to qualify. According to the model produced by MLB Trade Rumors, that ten-pack would be due roughly $20.5 million if all were tendered contracts for the 2024 season, an increase of some $13.1 million over the bargain-basement roster (if all ten of those roster spots had been due only league-minimum). That would put the 2024 Reds at $49,930,000 for their 2024 payroll number, though there are a few names on that list that may be in some hot water for being tendered this winter.
Nick Senzel, for instance, established himself as a positionally-versatile lefty-smasher this year, and mostly stayed healthy enough to be decent at it. However, with a projected arbitration salary of $3 million for 2024, are the Reds willing to roll the dice on his health for such a niche role when they might be able to find a cheaper option out there? Lefty pitchers are hard to come by, to be fair, but did Alex Young’s 4.99 FIP make his $1.7 million estimated salary for 2024 too high for a club on such a potentially strict budget?
Just to ground ourselves for a minute, it’s worth pointing out that a) this is all just a scenario looking at how cheap the Reds could be and b) acknowledging that there’s almost a 100% chance they won’t be. It’s merely an exercise in exploring how financially flexible they became while seeking such financial flexibility, putting it in stark contrast to, say, the San Diego Padres, who had fifteen (!!) players make at least $7 million in 2023 and already have eight set to make more than that in 2024 before you factor in their expected arbitration salaries (hello, Juan Soto!).
A sniff under fifty million bucks if they simply hold their hand, one barely over forty if they make some serious cuts from their arb-eligible class - that’s what the Reds have cooking as the hot stove ramps up again this winter. A Votto here, a Sonny Gray there, though, and the payroll would begin to again look like that of a club that was on a mission to wreck the National League Central with talent and experience that would make a lot of teams quite envious.