The moves made by the Cincinnati Reds last offseason saw them jettison the likes of Tucker Barnhart, Wade Miley, Sonny Gray, Eugenio Suarez, and Jesse Winker from their roster, players whose contracts dictated they would make somewhere in the range of $44 to 45 million during the 2022 season. Trading them, of course, meant it would not be the Cincinnati Reds doing the paying there.
As we address just what the Reds did in the run-up to yesterday’s trade deadline, we’ll start where that payroll cull left off. The deals that moved Luis Castillo, Tyler Mahle, Tommy Pham, and Brandon Drury in the last week all included the Reds shaving off the pro-rated 2022 season salaries of each, savings roughly in the range of $6 to 6.5 million. If you combine that amount to the amount above, you end up with the Reds paying roughly $50 or so million less on their 2022 MLB payroll than what was, at one point, on their books.
They obviously reallocated some of that along the way, and that’s the point to where I’m attempting to get here. The deals made by the Reds in the last few months haven’t been just about getting money off the 2022 books, they’ve been about getting money off the 2023 books, too. Each of Gray, Suarez, Winker, Castillo, and Mahle were under team control through the 2023 season, and given the arbitration estimates for the latter two, that’s around $52 to 53 million that was at one point a huge chunk of the 2023 Reds payroll that has now gone kaput.
In a telling turn, we’ve still yet to see any of the players acquired during this trade frenzy in a Reds uniform at the big league level. Thirteen players in total have been acquired by the Reds throughout the trading process dating back to their initial move to dump Tucker Barnhart, and not one of them has made his big league debut yet. While the obvious reaction there is that the prospects acquired are young and far-off, what that also means is that they haven’t yet become expensive. Not one has made a Reds debut, with only Justin Dunn and perhaps Brandon Williamson and Spencer Steer anticipated to do so during calendar year 2022.
That, folks, is how you save as much money as possible as quickly as possible. Considering how much of a priority that was for the cash flow strapped Reds, Nick Krall deserves a medal.
I deliberately included Barnhart and Miley in this ‘post-deadline’ post because the moves made to dump them kick-started this entire process. The way in which the Reds gave them away as if they didn’t even have enough money to make their next round of payroll checks indicated the fury with which they would be austere for the coming series of moves, and I actually think Krall deserves more credit for managing to hold on to Castillo and Mahle long enough to make their trade values peak under his control. He could have panicked and moved them when he did so with the others on the move, but he did not, betting (nay: gambling) that they’d stay healthy and productive enough to induce a fervor for their services at this most recent deadline. That bet (nay: gamble) paid off in spades in the returns for both, setting up the team’s farm system in a way we’ve not seen for years around here.
Per MLB Pipeline, the #1, #5, #6, #7, #9, #15, #16, #17, #18, and #30 prospects currently in the system were onboarded during Krall’s roster churn - we won’t call it a rebuild because it’s not one, apparently. That’s alongside the acquisition of Dunn, who no longer has prospect status given his time with the Seattle Mariners, and that’s before the addition of this most recent crop of MLB Draft picks, too. It’s a farm-system evolution that now gives the Reds a total of 9 current players/prospects who are listed among the Top 100 overall prospects in the game by at least one of the trio of prominent prospect evaluation services.
I’m no prospect wonk, but I can pretty clearly say two things. Noelvi Marte, the biggest piece that came from the Mariners in the Luis Castillo deal, is deserving of being prospect 1A in the Reds system alongside the inimitable Elly De La Cruz. He’s parked with High-A Dayton at the moment, but I’d be somewhat surprised if he didn’t finish the year with AA Chattanooga, putting he and Elly on-path to be in AAA next year and, by proximity, with the chance of being in the big leagues by this time next season. Christian Encarnacion-Strand, acquired from the Twins in the Tyler Mahle deal, should hopefully be on that same path with his elite power, too. Meanwhile, in Williamson and Spencer Steer - perhaps the biggest chip the Reds got from Twins - the Reds have a pair of guys who might well get called up for their debuts this year.
That’s the optimistic angle of this, that the Reds loaded up on a mound of prospects, and did so while shaving down the financial obligations that had hovered over the team’s owners in what was apparently too threatening of a way.
The pessimistic side of this is in a route that remains to be seen, but seems ominous - that the Reds have built up an arsenal of young talent that is still a few years from coagulating at the big league level, saved a pile of money in the process, and just might be targeting that materialization as their next ‘window’ to do some actual competing. That’s cool in a vacuum, I guess, that there’s a defined plan and window of optimism, but it ignores the obvious:
The Reds have the reigning National League Rookie of the Year in Jonathan India. They have a player whose shown the makings of a franchise catcher in Tyler Stephenson, who like India had rookie status as recently as last freaking year. They have Hunter Greene putting up 1-hit starts that feature postgame tweets touting him being the ‘only rookie in the modern era’ to have done some of the ridiculous things his ridiculous right-arm can do. Nick Lodolo has evolved into exactly the kind of shape-shifting lefty we hoped we’d see, while fellow rookie Graham Ashcraft just fileted the Miami Fish for 8.1 IP of pure brilliance last night. That’s precisely the kind of young, breakthrough core of talent around which you invest and build! Finding five players of that aplomb - six, if you include electric rookie reliever Alexis Diaz - is exactly what we all hope happens with the stockpile the Reds just put together!!
Are the Reds really going to punt on this group to wait on the next one to hopefully, hopefully emerge as qualified? Are they really going to park their gigantic payroll savings and bank it for 2025 and beyond while India, Stephenson, Greene, Lodolo, Ashcraft, and Diaz are left to fend for themselves with whatever is left around for 2023 and 2024?
Or, will the Reds do what a competent franchise would do and acknowledge they’ve got an incomparable farm system that’s mostly a few years away and still try to win games on a respectable payroll now, too?
In Joey Votto, Mike Moustakas, and the buyout of Mike Minor’s option, the Reds have $44 million in dedicated payroll on the books for 2023. With arbitration raises to the six arb-eligible guys on the roster (meaning: no non-tenders), that’ll add somewhere in the range of $16-19 million to the payroll. Tyler Stephenson looks poised to be a Super Two player, meaning he’ll reach arbitration a year earlier than normal, so we can conservatively tack on a ~$3 million salary for him for 2023. If the Reds were to fill the remaining seventeen active roster spots with players making league-minimum of $720,000, that’s $12.24 million to round out a roster with a payroll of roughly $76-78 million.
League-average payroll among 2022 MLB teams is $147 million, with 13 MLB clubs paying over that mark. 15th and 16th on the list - the median clubs - are paying $144 million and $142 million on payroll, respectively. Even at $78 million, that projected 2023 Reds payroll would rank 25th on the 2022 list, and would rank as the lowest Cincinnati Reds payroll since the 2011 season (and a far, far cry from the $126 million they ran in 2019 or the over-hundred-million payrolls they’ve had in seven of the last nine full seasons).
In other words, a competent franchise would recognize they’ve stockpiled for the future and had opened up the kinds of funds to contend now. From a purely mathematical outlook, the Reds could afford to sign Trea Turner and Michael Conforto and Craig Kimbrel this winter and still not sniff even league-average payroll, but would be adding them to that rookie and sophomore core alongside Kyle Farmer and the presumably-healthy Tejay Antone and Lucas Sims. That doesn’t do a thing to dent the farm or the future, and it actually provides support for the India-led group that’s in-place right now without leaving them out to dry for yet another season.
I don’t expect the Reds to do that, of course. They’ll nibble - Conforto might be about the biggest level on which they’ll nibble - but I fully anticipate another ‘consolidation’ year at the big league level for the Reds where they make fringe acquisitions like they did with Tommy Pham and Mike Minor and ride out the wave until they maybe, maybe decide it’s 2024 (and not 2025) when the next wave of Reds is truly ready. The hope will be India, Stephenson, Greene, Lodolo, Ashcraft, and Diaz all mature and do enough to put just enough butts in seats to remain semi-relevant, and that long-suffering Reds fans simply won’t notice that another twelve pages of calendar have been turned.
That last part bugs me, and will until proven otherwise. That shouldn’t do anything to diminish what the Reds did to prep for the future - it’s nice, and was very well orchestrated - but it would be simply inexcusable for me to ignore that all the signs everywhere point towards a Reds club that’s going to waste another year in 2023 as they wait to be as good as cheaply as possible, not good as quickly as possible.