The arbitration process within Major League Baseball is a fickle one, a system that pits players with three years of service time under their belt (and the few Super Twos with a bit less than that) against their own club in a battle over salaries. Teams who otherwise have their players backs and choose to hype them in outsized ways - thereby keeping their value on the trade market as high as possible - suddenly are tasked with finding the most damning ways to nitpick their performances in the name of payroll while also actively choosing to keep them part of their active roster.
Such is the nature of the business, as players who accrue more experience earn more and more money by system design until they reach the ability to become free agents and sign with anyone. One big, big way that system gets wrenched, though, is when a player’s expected raise in arbitration gets to the point where the team isn’t willing to retain them at said rate, and opts against tendering them a contract for the upcoming season altogether before the arbitration griping ever begins.
The fine folks at MLB Trade Rumors do a wonderful job this time every year of identifying players from all 30 MLB clubs who may find themselves in that awkward situation - players who mostly still have obvious talents and are viable big leaguers but whose expected salaries have risen to levels deemed too expensive to keep around. This year’s list has a pair of Cincinnati Reds on it - Nick Senzel and Derek Law - and we’ll get into their situations at some point down the road. Today, though, it’s worth a quick look at several position players from other teams who might end up free agents through the non-tender process and would serve as pretty decent, low-ish cost additions to the 2024 Reds.
Luis Urias - IF (Boston Red Sox)
The versatile Urias was long a thorn in the side of the Reds while a member of the Milwaukee Brewers, his 7 doubles and 4 homers in GABP the most he’s hit in any MLB ball park outside of Miller. He’s hit .264/.352/.473 (.825 OPS) in 105 PA in Cincinnati for his career, and while he slipped to a meager 76 OPS+ in 2023 while splitting time with Milwaukee and the Boston Red Sox, he’s the owner of a career 97 OPS+ - a mark that was a mightier 111 OPS+ in 1042 PA across the 2021 and 2022 seasons.
He’s been generally viewed as a plus defender all across the infield, and in a scenario in which Spencer Steer (and his iffy defense) is deployed more in a corner OF spot and at DH, Urias would slot nicely as a utility infielder. This scenario also features no Joey Votto or Kevin Newman on the infield, and if the Reds did choose to non-tender Senzel, Urias would soak up many of the PA given to him, too. Urias bats righty and owns a career .796 OPS vs. LHP, after all, and if his $4.7 million estimated number is deemed too rich for the Red Sox, he’d probably be signable for just a fraction more than merely retaining Senzel ($3 million) while adding a more proven bat.
Connor Joe - OF/1B (Pittsburgh Pirates)
The Reds know Joe well, his hitting agianst the in the NL Central with Pittsburgh during the 2023 season coming four years after the Reds selected Joe in the Rule 5 Draft out of the Los Angeles Dodgers system. Joe spent spring training with the Reds and hit well enough for the San Francisco Giants to trade for him, meaning Joe never actually spent a day in the Reds organization for a regular season game (or any MiLB action).
He battled through testicular cancer, eventually spent time with the Colorado Rockies, and landed in Pittsburgh just last year, putting together an OBP-driven .760 OPS (107 OPS+) in 472 PA with the Pirates. Defense is decidedly not his calling card, but he owned a solid .820 OPS against LHP last year (and owns a reputable .786 OPS against southpaws in his career at the big league level), which would give the Reds a bench-bat and spot-start complement to their lefty-heavy OF mix of TJ Friedl, Will Benson, and Jake Fraley. That he could slide over to 1B helps his case given David Bell’s penchant for position-switching late in games, and at just $2 million (MLBTR estimate) for 2024, he’d be a cheaper alternative should they move on from Senzel and his similar role.
Ramon Laureano - OF (Cleveland Guardians)
Laureano has a 24 homer season under his belt and has been valued at 12.4 bWAR for his career by Baseball Reference, making him by far the most accomplished player listed here. Said 24 dong season was back in the go-go days of 2019 when everyone socked homers, however, and since then he’s posted just a .700 OPS in nearly 1400 big league PA, garnered an 80 game suspension for PEDs, and found himself dealt away from the foundering Oakland A’s.
That said, he still sports perhaps the best arm of any outfielder in the game and owns slightly above-average baserunning skills as he enters his age-29 season, and - you’ll notice a theme here - smashes LHP with his right-handed bat. He posted a .794 OPS against them in 2023 - right in-line with the .791 mark he’s hit them in his career.
He’s not the defender in CF he once was, but his arm and the lesser need for range in the corners would probably make him a relatively plus defender on the whole in said role. He’s also picked up 57 steals in his career, too, meaning the new rules and Cincinnati’s emphasis on running might well make him a quality fit. He’s estimated to make $4.7 million in what would be his penultimate season of team control - his suspension cost him just enough service time to not qualify for free agency until 2026, not 2025 - and he could well be the kind of low-cost addition who could provide multiple years of value for a very, very small initial cost if he rediscovers his old form - or, at least he could be a platoon OF on the cheap for a year.
Kyle Farmer - IF (Minnesota Twins)
It’s Kyle Farmer, c’mon.