From 2010 to 2013, the Cincinnati Reds enjoyed a nice run of success, winning two NL Central crowns and making the playoffs three times. The team was successful primarily because of a core of homegrown players, which included Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier, Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake, and Aroldis Chapman. The Reds also got big contributions from Brandon Phillips and Mat Latos, who were acquired (via trade) relatively early in their respective major league careers.
The Reds expected to contend once again in 2014, but they finished the season fourth in the NL Central with a disappointing 76-86 record, in large part due to injuries. Going into the offseason, some wondered whether the Reds were in need of a massive rebuild. Their 2014 payroll was around $115 million, the highest in team history, and most of the players on the team were set to receive salary increases in 2015, whether due to backloaded contracts or arbitration. The Reds also had several important players set to hit free agency after 2015, including Cueto, Latos, and Leake, with Bruce and Chapman set to be free agents after 2016.
While they didn't go forward with a massive rebuild, the Reds did trade away Latos and Simon, acquiring some decent young players in return, including current starting pitcher Anthony DeSclafani. As Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs pointed out at the time, the Reds were smart to make these moves, especially given the difficult situation in which they found themselves. While the Reds had too much talent on their roster to give up on 2015 and start rebuilding, they still had to find a way to keep their payroll under control. By making these two trades, the Reds succeeded both in limiting their 2015 payroll and improving their long-term outlook without hurting them too much in 2015.
Going into Tuesday night, the Reds had an 18-20 record on the season, which doesn't deviate much from what they were expected to do before the season started. Fangraphs had them projected to finish 74-88 with a five percent chance of making the playoffs. Now, a month and a half into the season, the Reds are still projected by Fangraphs to finish around 74-88, but their playoff odds are just 2.4 percent, less than half what they were at the start of the year.
While it's fair to second guess the Reds' decision to hold off on a full rebuild when their playoff chances were only five percent at the start of the year, I think that going for it one more time with most of their core intact was a shot worth taking. In March, Craig Edwards of Fangraphs wrote about how the Reds could be competitive if certain players (Votto, Bruce, Marlon Byrd) had bounceback years and other players repeated their strong 2014 seasons (Frazier, Mesoraco, Hamilton). In fact, from 2013 to 2014, the Reds saw a 10 WAR dropoff from Votto and Bruce alone, mainly due to injury and underperformance.
With that being said, the Reds do not look like a playoff contender right now, meaning that an all-out rebuilding effort could, and likely should, start at this summer's trade deadline. As Ken Rosenthal wrote last week, the Reds are falling behind other teams in the division, including the Cardinals, Cubs, and Pirates, who each have an impressive collection of young talent. Because the Reds are a small market team, outspending the other teams in their division on the free agent market is not an option.
The only way they can hope to compete with teams like the Cardinals, Cubs, and Pirates is through acquiring and developing their own core of young, cheap talent, a process which can take multiple years. It's not a fun or easy process; it involves trading away valuable major league players to acquire young prospects and fielding a subpar team in order to get top draft picks. Things will have to get considerably worse before they can get better, but this may be the only way a small market team can avoid constant mediocrity, especially in an industry that still favors large market teams despite the progress made in competitive balance.
So whom should the Reds consider trading? The most basic answer to this question would be anyone who has value to other teams and will not be of significant value to the Reds by the time they are ready to contend again. Of course this means that the Reds have to look ahead and have a realistic estimate of when they expect to be serious contenders again.
Looking at recent rebuilding efforts by the Cubs and the Astros, the lowest estimate of the number of years to complete a full rebuild would be three years. Theo Epstein and Jeff Luhnow each took over their respective teams in the 2011 offseason, and since then they have both endured three straight years of losing. The Cubs and Astros are both doing well so far in 2015, and while it still might be a stretch to see these teams reach the playoffs this year, we can at least say that 2015 is their first year of truly contending for a playoff spot.
Using the three year target date, the Reds should aim to be competitive again in 2018 at the earliest. This means that players who become free agents before then should be fair game to be traded in order to acquire talent for the future.
Here is a look at all the Reds players who are set to hit free agency before 2018.
|Player||Free Agency Year||Money Owed (in millions)|
|Aroldis Chapman||2016||$8.1 + 1 year arb|
|Todd Frazier||2017||$12.0 + 1 year arb|
|Zack Cozart||2017||$2.4 + 2 years arb|
|Brennan Boesch||2017||$1.3 + 2 arb|
Several of these players are unlikely to be traded for various reasons. Sean Marshall, set to hit free agency at the end of this season, just had season-ending shoulder surgery. Manny Parra would have little value on the trade market. Ditto for Schumaker, Marquis, and Boesch, who have all been at or below replacement level for a few years now.
Peña and Badenhop could be worth something, but discussing the return for players of this caliber is not terribly interesting. That leaves eight players: Bruce, Phillips, Cueto, Leake, Chapman, Byrd, Frazier, and Cozart.
Let's start with the obvious ones. If the Reds do fall out of contention in 2015 and choose to trade away players at the deadline, then Cueto, Leake, and Byrd, who will be free agents after this season, will almost certainly be traded. The Reds should get decent returns for these three players, especially Cueto and Leake, who will be two of the top starting pitchers available at the deadline. The Reds will have to compare what they can get in a trade to the value of a compensation pick in the draft, since Cueto (and possibly Leake) would receive a qualifying offer if the Reds elected not to trade them. This should not be an issue, though, since deadline offers for players like Cueto and Leake usually exceed the value of a compensation pick.
The Reds could also consider trading Bruce and Chapman, who are set to hit free agency after the 2016 season. At this point, Chapman clearly has more value, as he is arguably the best relief pitcher in all of baseball, while Bruce is barely performing better than a replacement level player. As Dave Cameron of Fangraphs and Andrew Koo of Baseball Prospectus have pointed out in the past, teams will often pay a premium to acquire relief aces at the trade deadline, since they are extra valuable to contending teams down the stretch and in the postseason. If this is indeed the case, waiting until the offseason to trade Chapman could cost the Reds considerably.
Bruce's situation is more complicated, as he went from being a four win right fielder in 2013 to being nearly a win below replacement level in 2014. He's gotten off to a slow start once again this season, as he currently has a .190/.290/.397 slash line and an 83 wRC+. While the Reds could be selling low on Bruce if they traded him this summer, they would risk getting nothing for him if they held on to him and he continued performing like he has over the past season and a half. Last summer, the Cardinals were able to trade a rapidly declining Allen Craig (and his contract) to the Red Sox and still get something decent in return. If Bruce doesn't show signs of turning things around, the Reds may have to consider a similar type of move in order to save money and get whatever they can in return for Bruce.
The remaining three players, Frazier, Phillips, and Cozart, are set to be free agents after the 2017 season and would likely have the smallest chance of being traded this summer. Frazier appears to be in the midst of a career year, as he has worked his way up to 10th on the WAR leaderboard, in large part due to a Bautista-like power approach. He probably has more value than anyone else on the Reds at the moment, which would make trading him a difficult pill to swallow. However, if the Reds are honest with themselves and accept the reality that they may not be competitive for at least the next two or three seasons, then Frazier clearly has more value as a trade chip than he does on the field for the Reds.
Zack Cozart has also had a nice start to the 2015 season, hitting .300/.358/.525 (138 wRC+) and continuing his excellent defensive play at shortstop. Like with Frazier, the Reds could choose to sell high on Cozart, as great hitting shortstops are hard to come by. Of course, the Reds may want to extend Cozart for this very reason, especially if they believe that his offensive breakout is for real. He is set to turn 30 in August, though, meaning that he would likely be in his decline phase by the time the Reds are a contending team again.
Brandon Phillips is clearly in his decline phase at this point in his career, and he may not have a lot of trade value, especially since he is owed $39 million over the next three seasons. He has had a solid start in 2015, although his batting line is currently being propped up by a .342 BABIP. Any Phillips trade would likely require the Reds to choose between saving money and getting talent in return, since few teams would be interested in giving up a lot of talent and taking on the rest of Phillips' contract.
Beyond that, the only non pre-arbitration players left on the roster are Devin Mesoraco, Joey Votto, and Homer Bailey. Clearly, Homer Bailey isn't going anywhere, since he is out for the season with Tommy John surgery. The Reds could conceivably trade Mesoraco if they commit to a full rebuild, especially since he is under contract through 2018 and provides good offense at a premium position. Votto would be extremely difficult to trade, since he is owed $213 million over the next nine years (which includes a $7 million buyout for 2024) and has a full no-trade clause.
With that being said, a rebuilding team must be open-minded and consider all potential moves. While it is conceivable that Votto could still end up being worth the value of his contract when it's all said and done (personally, I'm somewhat skeptical), a highly paid first baseman under contract through age 40 is not the best asset for a rebuilding team to have. If there was any way for the Reds to get out of Votto's contract and get something in return, I think it's a move that they should seriously consider.
As you can see based on the length of this post, there is a lot to discuss with a potential Reds rebuild. At this point, it is probably too early to officially give up on the 2015 season, but it's a decision that will probably be made in the next month or two. Even if the Reds somehow go on a tremendous run to put themselves in playoff contention in 2015, they will still need to consider rebuilding after the 2015 season.
The worst thing the Reds could do would be to stand pat at the trade deadline, convincing themselves that a playoff spot isn't too far out of reach if a few things go right. The Reds no longer have the flexibility to hold off on committing to a full rebuild like they did in the offseason. The longer they wait, the less they can get in return for their most valuable major league players. They must be honest and decisive on the direction of their organization if they are going to have any chance of competing with their division rivals for years to come.
. . .