The Cincinnati Reds officially announced the signing of Frankie Montas yesterday, and the roster is in a better shape because of it. The Reds roster is, today, better than it was during their September slump because of Montas, because of Jeimer Candelario, because of Nick Martinez and Emilio Pagan.
The Reds offseason - which has now been deemed mostly ‘done’ by Nick Krall - has seen them dedicate upwards of $100 million to free agents, potentially, with some $55 million of that dedicated to just 2024 action alone. It has, without question, improved the quality of the overall roster, and left the Reds in a better place right now than they were last season, or at the outset of free agency.
The timing of Krall’s comments has sparked a bit of a grading craze around the baseball landscape, for whatever reason. Since the Reds are now done with their ‘heavy lifting,’ it seems that most of folks doling out letters seem to think the Reds have done a B to B- job of things, a concept that still baffles me considering the offseason is infant enough where the New York Yankees and Chicago Cubs have yet to so much as spend a single dollar yet. Cody Bellinger is a free agent, still, as are the likes of Shota Imanaga, Blake Snell, Jordan Montgomery, and many, many other difference-makers.
What’s clear is that the Reds chose a path dedicated to a) raising the floor without raising the ceiling, b) adding players who they hope will be better in 2024 than they ever have been before, c) considering a trio of 1.5-2.0 WAR players worth the same amount of financial outlay as a single 4.5 WAR player, and d) not making any moves that will hamstring their ability to be competitive in 2025 should the 2024 season not really go as planned.
My question, though, is different.
I’m not asking whether what the Reds did this winter made them a better team, since that’s obvious (and already answered). I’m not asking whether what the Reds did this winter was good enough to leapfrog them in the NL Central race for 2024, either, since the offseason for everyone else has barely even begun. I’m asking whether the Reds choosing to dedicate upwards of $55 million in 2024 payroll in this way after a pair of years in which they were ‘rebuilding’ is a better use of that kind of coin than if they’d simply found a way to keep - and pay - the pair of twin aces they had around for a combined nine seasons of excellence prior to their self-imposed rebuild.
The average annual value of the deal Luis Castillo signed with the Seattle Mariners after the Reds dealt him there is $21.6 million, and he’ll be making a bit over $24 million of that this upcoming year. The average annual value of the deal Sonny Gray signed with the St. Louis Cardinals this winter - after the Reds reportedly pursued him heavily - is right at $25 million, with only $10 million of that on the books for this upcoming season before it gets very backloaded. In this theoretical world in which I’m pondering, it would appear that money was not the difference in whether the Cincinnati Reds could afford to roster both Castillo and Gray for the 2024 season, should they have chosen to do so.
This exercise means there is no Noelvi Marte, Edwin Arroyo, Andrew Moore, or Levi Stoudt around - they came to the Reds in exchange for Castillo back in 2022. It could well mean that Chase Petty isn’t on the Reds, either - he was dealt for Sonny Gray prior to 2022, with Gray under contract via option through the end of the 2023 season. I’m not sure exactly which boundaries I’m setting when debating this hypothetical, and I apologize for not being able to set this up in a more concrete way.
What I do know, though, is that the Reds traded away their pitching to rebuild their hitting, with hopes their cadre of young arms would emerge to re-fill their pitching void. They waited a year and a half, discovered they mostly liked their new, young hitting, and have begin investing heavily back into acquiring pitching to supplement that new, young hitting. Did the addition of Montas, Martinez, and Pagan really make them better than what they could have been if they’d just maintained with Gray and Castillo?
The subplot here is that they dealt away Tyler Mahle, too, and there’s no question the team is better off in 2024 with the presence of Spencer Steer, Christian Encarncion-Strand, and Will Benson (who was acquired thanks to Steve Hajjar, who came to the Reds in from Minnesota in the Mahle deal, too). It’s impossible to have asked Nick Krall to dedicate to a tactical rebuild after 2021 that was that precise, that surgical and not part of a larger wave that included all the pitchers nearing free agency at the same speed.
And that’s the rub here. I’m asking a question to which there is no answer, since there is no parallel reality in which we can explore it. The Reds are what they are now, and not what they could have been, and that’s that. This is merely a question I’m posing to those who were quick to pick up a red pen and assign a grade to the top of the Reds report card on January 2nd of this offseason, as any grade doled out right now should not be based on how good the team managed resources this winter. Rather, I suggest the grading be done on how well the team’s self-imposed juggling act stands up two years after money was suddenly so scarce it couldn’t exist versus now, when it’s being spent in attempts to replace precisely what it used to have in spades.
That’s probably not a Nick Krall grade, either. Between the regional sports networks going belly-up and the fickle nature of the team’s ownership in the first place, he may well suddenly have a bottom line that’s much, much different than it was just months ago. He may well have an owner that wasn’t willing to float him through a lean year the way that other ownership groups would have, and is instead desperately trying to recoup what he can as quickly as he can after having to tear down one of the best pitching staffs this franchise has seen in generations. That’s a Castellini grade, and one that’s worth scrutinizing at every step of the way, since it’s almost more damning after the fact to see that the Reds were this close to being willing to spend money again and couldn’t find a way to do it on aces like Castillo or Gray.
Instead, even after an offseason that’s now ‘mostly done,’ the Reds don’t have a single resident ace on their pitching staff - let alone two.