The Reds forecasted a payroll reduction early in the offseason, and a few of the team’s more notable players wound up departing. Cincinnati held off on a full teardown and even added incrementally during Spring Training, but that may not be enough to return to last season’s 83-win level.
Major League Signings
2022 spending: $14.825MM
Total spending: $14.825MM
Trades and Claims
Notable Minor League Signings
- Albert Almora Jr., Trey Amburgey, Jake Bauers, Allen Cordoba, Kyle Dowdy, Brandon Drury (later selected to 40-man roster), Buck Farmer (later selected to 40-man roster), Aramis García (later selected to 40-man roster), Zack Godley, Ben Lively, Sam McWilliams, Connor Overton, Pedro Payano, Juniel Querecuto, JT Riddle, Trey Wingenter, Kyle Zimmer
- Shogo Akiyama (released), Barnhart, Alex Blandino, Asdrúbal Cabrera, Nick Castellanos, Garrett, Mychal Givens, Gray, Michael Lorenzen, Wade Miley (lost on waivers), Cionel Pérez (lost on waivers), Suárez, Winker
The Reds were involved in the first notable transaction of the offseason, dealing longtime catcher Tucker Barnhart to the Tigers the afternoon after the World Series ended. That was a fitting precursor for the months to come, as “which other veterans will the Reds move?” became one of the offseason’s defining storylines.
In fairness to the Cincinnati front office, the Barnhart trade was a perfectly defensible one. Twenty-five-year-old Tyler Stephenson was ready for an everyday look behind the dish, and he brings quite a bit more offensive upside to the table than does Barnhart. Reallocating the $7.75MM it’d have cost to keep Barnhart in the fold made sense, and the deal gave the respected veteran a chance to continue playing regularly in Detroit.
Far more concerning than the Barnhart deal itself was the now-famous line general manager Nick Krall dropped in explaining the trade about aligning the team’s payroll to its resources. That hinted at more departures, the next of which came in fairly short order. Cincinnati waived starter Wade Miley on the heels of a 3.37 ERA season, saving themselves the $1MM buyout on a $10MM club option they were evidently set to decline. Even worse for Reds fans, he was claimed by the division-rival Cubs.
With the team in clear cost-cutting mode, attention turned again to the Reds top trio of high-end starting pitchers: Luis Castillo, Tyler Mahle and Sonny Gray. It was the second consecutive offseason in which Gray and Castillo, in particular, were involved in trade discussions. Early reports indicated that Gray — the oldest and most expensive — was the likeliest to find himself on the move. No deal transpired before the lockout, but the right-hander was shipped off to the Twins for hard-throwing pitching prospect Chase Petty shortly after transactions resumed.
Petty was selected 26th overall by Minnesota in last summer’s draft. His fastball-slider combination draws plenty of praise, but he’s not without concern about his control and the inherent risk associated with any teenage pitcher. Petty is a legitimate prospect to add to the system, but there’s little doubt Cincinnati had a strong financial motivation for the Gray trade as well.
Shortly after Gray was dealt, Krall went on the record to quash any speculation about the possibility Castillo or Mahle could follow him out of town. Both pitchers have two remaining seasons of club control via arbitration. If the Reds get off to a rough start, they could each be in-demand midseason trade targets (as José Berríos was last summer). For now, though, they’re remaining at the front of the rotation. Castillo began the year on the injured list but could be back by the end of the month.
The Reds kept their top two arms, but they pulled the trigger on a deal that subtracted one of their best bats in another payroll-saving maneuver. Cincinnati sent Jesse Winker to Seattle after the Mariners agreed to take back Eugenio Suárez while assuming the remaining three years and $35MM on the latter’s contract. Suárez’s March 2018 extension had gone south over the past two seasons; relinquishing Winker marked a notable price to pay to get out from under the back end of the deal.
As with the Gray swap, the Winker trade wasn’t a strict salary dump. Cincinnati brought back Brandon Williamson, another hard-throwing pitching prospect. Unlike Petty, Williamson isn’t too far from major league readiness, and he’s landed on the back end of a couple top-100 prospect rankings (No. 83 at Baseball America, No. 100 at MLB.com). The Reds also acquired a second pitching prospect, Connor Phillips, as well as an immediate outfield option in Jake Fraley and a depth arm in the currently-injured Justin Dunn.
Gray, Barnhart, Winker and Miley wound up being the four most notable contributors the Reds affirmatively moved as part of their payroll “alignment.” One could argue that the most impactful departure of all, though, was that of free agent outfielder Nick Castellanos, who inked a nine-figure deal with the Phillies. The Reds were never a threat to re-sign Castellanos, although they did pick up a draft choice as compensation after he rejected a qualifying offer. Winker and Castellanos had made one of the most effective corner outfield pairings last season, at least offensively, leaving fairly significant gaps to plug in the lineup.
Clearly, the Reds’ budgetary limitations were going to keep them from splurging on a replacement for either of those departing sluggers. Krall and his staff instead made a shrewd, low-cost pickup of Tommy Pham late in the spring. The 34-year-old Pham is coming off the worst two seasons of his career, but he’s continued to draw plenty of walks while making his fair share of hard contact. He’ll be hard-pressed to match the production of Winker or Castellanos, but $7.5MM is a reasonable price for a hopeful bounceback from the typically steady veteran in a more hitter-friendly home environment.
Pham and Fraley step into an outfield mix that also includes holdovers Aristides Aquino, Tyler Naquin and Nick Senzel. That’s not a great defensive grouping, but most of those players have capable track records at the plate. It’s certainly not as high-powered an outfield as Cincinnati ran out last year, but it shouldn’t be a disaster. There was enough depth in the group the club decided to release Shogo Akiyama shortly before Opening Day. Akiyama’s three-year deal over the 2019-20 offseason proved ill-fated as he offered very little offensively during his time in Cincinnati.
The infield is more exciting, with franchise icon Joey Votto looking resurgent and second baseman Jonathan India fresh off a Rookie of the Year campaign. Highly-touted prospect José Barrero figures to eventually take over as the regular shortstop, but he’s dealing with a hamate injury that’ll keep him out into May. Utilityman Kyle Farmer demonstrated he’s capable of holding the position over in Barrero’s absence last season; he’ll do so again for this year’s first month and a half, then perhaps shift over to a third base position that has disappointed in recent years.
That’s mostly because Suárez’s production fell in 2020, but he’s not the only big-name infielder to stumble unexpectedly. Mike Moustakas, whom the club signed to a four-year deal a couple offseasons back, is coming off a miserable season in which he missed significant time due to repeated foot injuries. His underwhelming showing looks particularly problematic in the context of the organization’s curtailed spending. Moustakas is the nominal starter at third base, but it stands to reason both Farmer and offseason signee Donovan Solano could cut into his playing time once everyone’s healthy.
Solano might also help shoulder the load at the newly-implemented NL designated hitter position. He’s posted above-average offensive numbers in all three seasons since reinvigorating his career with the Giants in 2019. Solano isn’t an impact hitter, but he’s solid enough at the dish to be a capable bat-first utility option for skipper David Bell once he returns from a season-opening IL stint.
He and Brandon Drury, who made the roster as a minor league signee, offer some infield depth. The Reds also took a low-cost flier on former Pirate Colin Moran to add another bat to the corner infield/DH group. As a left-handed hitter, Moran could be a candidate to split time at the hot corner with the righty-swinging Solano and Drury if he can play his way above Moustakas on the depth chart. Cincinnati rounded out the position player mix by selecting non-roster invitee Aramis García to back up Stephenson behind the dish.
There’s a bit of a mishmash feel to the Reds lineup, but it’s certainly not without talent. Votto, India, Stephenson, Naquin and Pham should make for a capable offensive core. Barrero and Senzel have a chance to play their way into that mix, and Cincinnati has at least brought in some competent if unexciting veterans to fill the roster.
Of greater concern may be the depth on the pitching staff. Castillo and Mahle make for a strong top two, but the losses of Gray and Miley removed last season’s No. 3 and No. 4 options. To replace some of that veteran stability, the Reds sent reliever Amir Garrett to Kansas City for starter Mike Minor. The southpaw is starting the season on the injured list himself, but he began a rehab assignment this week.
The Minor deal was a real surprise, something of an outlier in the Reds’ broader offseason. He’s coming off two consecutive seasons with an ERA north of 5.00. Minor’s career track record and recent peripherals both paint him more favorably, making him a sensible enough bounceback candidate in a vacuum. Yet the deal involved Cincinnati taking on around $7.3MM in salary (after subtracting Garrett’s arbitration tally and a small cash payment by Kansas City).
Would the Reds have been better served to hang onto Miley and non-tender Garrett, which would’ve been roughly financially equivalent? It’d seem so, but Reds pitching coach Derek Johnson has to be confident he can coax better results from Minor — with whom he’s no doubt familiar from their time at Vanderbilt more than a decade ago.
Johnson is also tasked with guiding two of the top pitching prospects in the game as they make their MLB debuts this season. Fireballing Hunter Greene broke camp with the big league club and picked up his first start over the weekend. The righty averaged an absurd 99.7 MPH on his fastball, showcasing the kind of power stuff that made him a No. 2 overall pick and gives him front-of-the-rotation upside. Left-hander Nick Lodolo doesn’t have that kind of arm strength, but his impressive slider and very advanced command could make him a mid-rotation arm fairly soon. It’s expected Lodolo will be in the regular rotation as well, although after a clean first frame, he was hit hard in his MLB debut yesterday (five runs in four innings).
There’s something of a trial-by-fire element in relying on both Greene and Lodolo every fifth day in a season where the Reds still hope to contend. They’re both very highly touted arms, but there’s risk inherent in projecting any prospect to assume a key role on a win-now big league roster. Reiver Sanmartín and Vladimir Gutierrez are around as insurance, but neither has much big league success on his resume either. Whether Greene and Lodolo immediately excel could be a turning point for the Reds. If they hit the ground running, there’s a decent enough core in both the lineup and the rotation that it’s not out of the question they hang around the playoff picture. If either experience some early growing pains, the lack of pitching depth could catch up to the team pretty quickly.
That’s particularly true in light of the club’s lack of offseason moves to address the bullpen. Cincinnati relievers posted the league’s fourth-worst ERA (4.99) in 2021, one of the biggest reasons the Reds couldn’t hold onto a postseason spot. That was despite 33 2/3 fantastic innings from Tejay Antone, who probably won’t pitch at all this season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in September. The Reds entered the offseason seemingly in desperate need of some help late in games, but they did virtually nothing to address the issue.
The only external pickup was a one-year deal for journeyman righty Hunter Strickland. He’s coming off a 2.61 ERA season, but his underlying numbers were closer to average. Strickland is a fine middle reliever, but he’s miscast as a high-leverage option. That puts particular pressure on holdovers like Tony Santillan and Art Warren to build off promising 2021 showings. Whenever Lucas Sims returns from the IL, he figures to assume another key late-game role as well.
Much as is the case with the lineup and the rotation, one can envision a scenario where things break right with the bullpen. Relief units tend to be the most volatile aspect of a team — few would’ve anticipated the Mariners riding an elite bullpen to 90 wins at the start of last season, for instance — and the Reds have a few promising arms they can deploy. Yet as with the rest of the roster, the depth behind the top few options is lacking, making it particularly paramount the most talented players stay healthy and perform up to expectations.
The Reds find themselves in a weird spot. They spent the second half of the last decade rebuilding, gearing up for a full-fledged push for contention in 2020. The organization obviously couldn’t have foreseen the shortened season and pandemic-associated revenue losses to come, and ownership has declined to push payroll forward in the wake of that difficult year.
That has left the front office trying to strike a delicate balance between contending and managing finances. There’s too much win-now talent for the club to commit to another full rebuild, but there are enough gaps on the margins of the roster it’s hard to project them as a 2022 playoff team. They’re left to hope that some late-offseason depth adds, early prospect promotions and a newly-expanded postseason field will be enough to hang around. It’s not impossible, but the Reds have less margin for error than many of their competitors. There’s a real danger of the franchise spinning their wheels around .500, which would only raise more questions about how to proceed with Castillo and Mahle as the summer trade deadline approaches.
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