The Reds’ efforts to slice payroll while remaining at least on the periphery of the wild-card race fell flat. An 11-game losing streak in April set the stage for what would prove to be a dismal season, with Cincinnati tying the Pirates for the third-worst record in the majors. With questions about the extent of ownership’s desired paring of the payroll, the Reds find themselves without a great path back to contention next year.
- Joey Votto, 1B: $32M through 2023 (including $7M buyout of 2024 club option)
- Mike Moustakas, 3B: $22M through 2023 (including $4M buyout of 2024 club option)
- Mike Minor, LHP: $13M mutual option (Royals responsible for $1M buyout)
- Justin Wilson, LHP: $1.22M club option (no buyout)
Total 2023 commitments: $43M
Total future commitments: $54M
Arbitration-Eligible Players (service time in parenthesis, projections via Matt Swartz)
Non-tender candidates: Cessa, Aquino, Buck Farmer, Law, Garcia
The Reds aren’t far removed from their last rebuild. Cincinnati lost 90+ games each season from 2015-18, finishing at the bottom of the NL Central every year. The Reds stockpiled high draft picks along the way, and they began to push forward midway through the 2019 campaign. Despite being out of contention at that year’s deadline, they acquired Trevor Bauer via trade. They followed up by signing Mike Moustakas and Nick Castellanos to four-year free agent guarantees, setting 2020 as their clear target date for a return to competitiveness.
To a very small extent, the Reds showed some progress that year. They finished 31-29 during the shortened season, qualifying for the expanded playoffs but being swept out of the wild-card round. Whatever aggressiveness they showed the year prior waned in the aftermath of the pandemic season, as the Reds didn’t make any strong efforts to build out the roster over the 2020-21 offseason. They hovered around .500 for most of last year, flirting with wild-card contention into September but ultimately coming up short. To the dismay of the fan base, they then set about tearing down the roster as a means of cutting costs.
Over the winter, the Reds shipped out Tucker Barnhart, Wade Miley, Sonny Gray, and Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suárez in a package deal to get out from under the remainder of Suárez’s contract. They watched Castellanos opt out and sign with the Phillies. Cincinnati made a series of late additions, bringing in Tommy Pham, Donovan Solano, Colin Moran and Hunter Strickland on one-year deals and acquiring Mike Minor from the Royals to backfill the rotation. The host of subtractions left the Reds with no margin for error if they wished to remain competitive, with very little in the way of depth capable of weathering injuries or underperformance from anticipated contributors. The Reds dealt with plenty of both, and the result was a 62-100 season that again leaves the team near the bottom of the majors.
Getting back to competitiveness in 2023 would require an unexpected renewed willingness from ownership to push spending forward, one that doesn’t seem to be on the horizon. Meeting with reporters last week (link via Bobby Nightengale of the Cincinnati Enquirer), general manager Nick Krall indicated the team plans to “come into (2023) in a similar place that we are right now.” While Krall called the team’s results “not acceptable” and indicated the club would add to the roster in some capacity, he also suggested the roster would be composed of a number of young players. Most players early in their career, of course, are playing on pre-arbitration or relatively low arbitration salaries, and Nightengale reported the Reds were likely to further slice payroll this offseason.
Cincinnati entered 2022 with a player payroll in the $114M range, per Cot’s Baseball Contracts. Midseason trades of Luis Castillo and Tyler Mahle only trimmed that further, and Cincinnati is sure to decline its end of a $13M mutual option on Minor’s services. The Reds only have $43M in guaranteed money on the books for next season, with the final seasons of the Joey Votto and Moustakas contracts their only commitments. They’ll owe an additional combined $11M at the end of the year to buy that duo out, leaving the books completely empty going into 2024.
That figure doesn’t include projected salaries for arbitration-eligible players, and the Reds do have 11 players who’ll qualify for that process. Around half that group figures to be non-tendered, though, with utilityman Kyle Farmer headlining the class with a salary in the $6M range. Even if Cincinnati retains each of Farmer, Nick Senzel, Luis Cessa, Jeff Hoffman, Lucas Sims, Tejay Antone and Justin Dunn, that group shouldn’t combine for much more than $15M. Precisely where ownership will draw the spending line is unclear, but there should at least be room for a handful of low-cost, one-year deals late in the offseason again.
While Krall and his front office will have budgetary constraints in the players they’re targeting, they are free to add at virtually any position on the roster. In his meeting with reporters last week, the front office head suggested nobody has a guaranteed position.
“Everyone is going to have to come in and win a roster spot,” Krall said (via Nightengale). “That’s just the way it is. I don’t know if we have a ‘this is going to absolutely be this person’s position on Opening Day.’ I think we have to come in, evaluate where everybody is, and players have to earn those roster spots.”
There’s probably some amount of hyperbole in those comments. It’s hard to envision a scenario where second-year pitchers Nick Lodolo and Hunter Greene aren’t in the Opening Day rotation if healthy. Tyler Stephenson will be the No. 1 catcher, and 2021 NL Rookie of the Year Jonathan India figures to get an opportunity to bounce back from a down ’22 campaign at second base. The Reds do have a few young players who are virtual locks for certain roles to start next season.
To Krall’s point, there aren’t many positions locked down though. Much of the infield is an open question. Votto is a franchise icon and a potential future Hall of Famer, but he hit only .205/.319/.370 over 376 plate appearances before undergoing rotator cuff surgery in August. It’s hard to imagine the Reds taking him out of the primary lineup in what figures to be a non-competitive season regardless, but they could look to curtail his playing time a bit at age 39. Votto is entering the final guaranteed season of the 10-year extension he signed in 2012, and it could well be his final season in a Reds uniform.
India figures to join him on the right side of the infield on most days. The other side of the second base bag is a major question mark. Cincinnati gave some late-season playing time to the combination of José Barrero and Spencer Steer, the latter of whom was acquired from the Twins in the Mahle trade. Both players are 24 years old and came with some top-100 prospect support during their time in the minor leagues. Neither has played well in limited big league time to date. Steer has been below-average, and Barrero had an awful season, both in the majors and at Triple-A.
Steer saw the majority of his time at third base, mixing in some work at first base and at the keystone. Barrero played exclusively at shortstop. Steer has hit well throughout his minor league career and is likely to open the season as the favorite for playing time at the hot corner, but the Reds could start him back in Triple-A Louisville if they feel he’d benefit from further development time. It’s hard to count on Barrero as the Opening Day shortstop after he hit .170/.215/.223 through his first 93 big league games. Top prospect Elly De La Cruz has jumped Barrero as the player most likely to be their long-term shortstop. He’ll have to be added to the 40-man roster this winter. De La Cruz isn’t going to start the season in the majors after striking out in more than 30% of his Double-A plate appearances, but he could factor in later in the year. Noelvi Marte is also going to be added to the 40-man this offseason, although he’s yet to reach Double-A and probably won’t play in the majors until 2024 at the earliest.
In the interim, while the Reds would surely love for Barrero to show some of the power-athleticism combination that made him such a well-regarded prospect, they could look to a veteran stopgap at shortstop. Perhaps that’s Kyle Farmer, who has been a capable utility option for two seasons running. The 32-year-old is better suited for a bench role than an everyday job on a contender, but he can hold down shortstop (or third base, if the Reds wanted to give Steer more time in Louisville as well) for a team in transition. There’s a chance the Reds shop Farmer this winter, but he’s projected for a $5.9M arbitration salary and would have modest trade value after a .255/.315/.386 showing.
Moustakas is also at least a tangential factor in the infield. The veteran left-handed hitter was a productive power bat at his peak, but he’s battled a number of lower half injuries and hit .211/.289/.356 over 491 plate appearances since the start of 2021. One could argue for the Reds to just eat the remainder of Moustakas’ contract and turn his roster spot over to someone else, since they’re certainly not going to be able to shed any notable amount of the $22M he’s still owed in any event. Yet if he’s still on the roster come Opening Day, Moustakas could find himself in the corner infield/designated hitter mix.
Things aren’t any clearer on the outfield grass. Among players still under club control, Senzel, Aristides Aquino, TJ Friedl and Jake Fraley logged the most outfield action in 2022. Aquino and Senzel again disappointed. Aquino is virtually certain to be non-tendered this offseason. Cincinnati could at least consider the same with Senzel, who now owns a .240/.303/.360 line in over 1,000 big league plate appearances. Those rough offensive performances mean he’s projected for a modest $2.2M arbitration salary, however, and the front office will probably give the former No. 2 overall pick one more shot. Friedl and Fraley will be back after decent seasons; neither is an obvious everyday player, but each could see fairly regular playing time depending on what other moves the Reds do or do not make.
With both Friedl and Fraley hitting from the left side, a right-handed outfielder could be on the wish list. Chad Pinder, Wil Myers (who’ll be bought out by the Padres), Kevin Pillar and old friend Adam Duvall are among the affordable free agents who’d fit that bill. Pillar and Duvall are both capable of logging some time in center field, although neither is a great defender there at this stage of their careers.
Cincinnati is also likely to bring in a veteran catcher to back up Stephenson. Garcia signed a minor league deal and broke camp last spring, but he didn’t hit well when healthy and lost most of the second half to injury. He’s a non-tender candidate, with the Reds likely to bring in a new experienced backstop to assume a part-time role. Robinson Chirinos, Kevin Plawecki, and former Reds Barnhart and Curt Casali are all headed to free agency.
With a number of unproven players likely to assume regular roles, the team will be counting on some to take steps forward. Cincinnati has already parted ways with hitting coach Alan Zinter and will turn to a new voice to guide the young bats. Manager David Bell will return for a fifth season, but a good chunk of his coaching staff will be overhauled.
That’s not the case for pitching coach Derek Johnson and assistant pitching coach Eric Jagers, both of whom are returning. They’ll be working with a number of young players themselves. Lodolo and Greene are former top 10 draftees who made their major league debuts early this year. Both missed some time with injuries but showed promise when healthy. Lodolo pitched to a 3.66 ERA with an excellent 29.7% strikeout rate through 19 starts. Greene had a 4.44 ERA as he battled some home run issues, but he punched out 30.9% of batters faced over 24 outings.
They’ll be back at the top of the rotation, and another 2022 rookie could join them in the opening five. Graham Ashcraft made 19 starts this season, pitching fairly well early before tailing off in the final month. He finished with a 4.89 ERA, posting a below-average 15.3% strikeout rate but inducing ground-balls at a stellar 54.5% clip. Ashcraft isn’t a lock for the Opening Day rotation as Lodolo and Greene are, but he looks to have the inside track at a job.
That’s in part a reflection of the uncertainty at the back of the starting staff. Among in-house options, Cessa, Vladimir Gutiérrez, Dunn and Connor Overton led the team in rotation innings. Cessa is a swingman who could be non-tendered. Gutiérrez will miss most or all off next year recovering from Tommy John surgery. Dunn lost most of this season to shoulder issues and hasn’t had much MLB success through three seasons. Overton has bounced between a number of teams as a minor league journeyman. Brandon Williamson, acquired from Seattle in the Winker/Suárez trade, walked more than 14% of opponents at Triple-A. Anyone from that group could compete for innings, but penciling two of them into the season-opening rotation behind Lodolo, Greene and Ashcraft wouldn’t work.
The Reds will probably dip in to the lower tiers of the free agent rotation market as a result. Chad Kuhl, Michael Pineda and Trevor Williams are among a host of back-end starters who’d only cost a few million dollars. The Reds’ hitter-friendly home ballpark could work against their efforts to pursue bounce-back candidates, but they can promise a fair bit of opportunity.
There’s a chance for a similar low-cost flier in the bullpen. Cincinnati has had one of the league’s worst relief corps over the past couple seasons. Alexis Díaz was one of the team’s few bright spots in 2022, emerging as a late-game weapon. He’s not likely to repeat this year’s 1.84 ERA with how many fly balls he’s surrendered, but he’s a lock for high-leverage work. 2021 breakout hurler Antone missed all of this season rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, but he should be ready for Opening Day. Sims, Hoffman and Ian Gibaut are among the returning right-handed options, but the Reds could look for a left-hander.
Cincinnati holds a $1.22M club option over Justin Wilson, but he’s likely to be let go after undergoing Tommy John surgery this June. Reiver Sanmartin is the only southpaw who finished the year in the MLB bullpen. He had a 2.96 ERA and a 54.3% grounder rate, but he had below-average strikeout and walk numbers. Even if the front office doesn’t go into MLB free agency, adding a left-handed bullpen arm via waivers or on a minor league deal is likely to be on the docket.
While Krall and his staff figure to make some small moves, the additions are likely to be around the margins. The 2023 campaign is going to be another trying season, with the Reds seemingly looking to 2024 and beyond as their more realistic window for contention. Cincinnati has stockpiled a decent amount of minor league talent, partially as a result of the deals that have torn down the MLB roster. Shortly after the trade deadline, Kiley McDaniel of ESPN ranked the Reds’ farm system No. 9 in the majors. As that upper-level talent continues to matriculate to the big leagues and hopefully joins Stephenson, India, Lodolo and Greene, Cincinnati can begin to see its next contending core.
That’ll coincide with the removal of the Votto and the Moustakas contracts from the books. The long-term financial flexibility could allow the Reds to explore extension talks with any of their intriguing young players who are already at the big league level this winter. Even if nothing comes together on that front, it should afford the front office some freedom after 2023 to attack some of the roster’s weaknesses with more urgency. There are glimmers of long-term hope for Cincinnati, but the fan base looks to be in for another frustrating offseason and rough year before that hope can materialize into legitimate success.