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NL Central 2020 Offseason Moves and 2021 Outlook: Cincinnati Reds

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Are the Reds rebuilding already?

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the 3rd installment in the NL Central offseason moves and 2021 outlook series. In this piece, I covered the division-winning Cubs. This article discussed the 29-31 Brewers. Today, I will address the Cincinnati Reds, who had one of the best top-3 rotation starters in baseball last season.

PLAYERS ALREADY SIGNED FOR 2021

*OF Shogo Akiyama—$7 million salary for 2021, which will be the 2nd year of a 3-year deal he signed in January of 2020 after 9 years of service in Japan. Because he was a free agent, he was not signed through the posting system. Akiyama made $6 million last year and will make $8 million next year, after which he will be declared a free agent, even though he will not have 6 years of MLB service. His contract provides that he may not be sent to the minor leagues without his consent.

*C Tucker Barnhart—$3.75 million salary for 2021, which will be the final year of a 4-year deal that he signed in September of 2017. This deal essentially bought out all 3 of his arbitration years and his first year of free agency. The club also holds a $7.5 million option on Barnhart for 2022 with a $500,000 buyout.

*OF Nick Castellanos—$14 million salary for 2021, which will be the 2nd year of a 4-year deal that he signed as a free agent in January of 2020. This complex deal actually calls for Castellanos to make $2 million less in 2021 than he did in 2020. There is deferred money involved. Castellanos had the right to opt out of his deal after the 2020 season, but he elected not to do so. He also has that right after the 2021 season. There is also a $20 million mutual option for 2024.

*RHP Sonny Gray—$10.7 million salary for 2021, which will be the 2nd year of a 3-year contract extension he signed in January 2019. Gray was a member of the New York Yankees and had signed a 1-year, $7.5 million deal for the 2019 season to avoid arbitration, and would have been eligible for free agency following that season. The Reds acquired him in a trade, but a condition of the trade was that the Reds sign Gray to an extension, which was negotiated during a 72-hour window after the Reds and Yankees agreed to the other terms of the deal. The extension bought out Gray’s 1st 3 years of free agency. Gray’s initial salary for 2021 was set to be $10 million, but he earned $700,000 worth of annual salary escalators when he finished 7th in the 2019 Cy Young Vote and made the 2019 All-Star team. The Reds have a $12 million option on Gray for 2023.

*LHP Wade Miley—$8 million salary for 2021, which will be the final year of a 2-year deal he signed as a free agent in December 2019. The club has a $10 million option on Miley for 2022 with a $1 million buyout.

*2B Mike Moustakas—$14 million salary for 2021, which will be the 2nd year of a 4-year deal he signed as a free agent back in December 2019 after declining an $11 million mutual option for 2020 with the Brewers. He made $12 million last season.

*3B Eugenio Suarez—$10.5 million salary for 2021, which will be the 4th year of a 7-year contract extension he signed during spring training of 2018 after he lost his arbitration hearing with the Reds. This deal essentially bought out all 3 of Suarez’s arbitration years, and his first 4 years of free agency and gave the club an option on his 5th year of free agency. He made $9.25 million last season.

*1B Joey Votto—$25 million salary for 2021, which will be the 8th year of a 10-year extension he signed in April 2012, when he was already under contract through 2013. Votto is set to make the same $25 million salary for 2 more years after this, and the club has a $20 million option for 2024.

OFFSEASON MOVES TO DATE

10/14: Outrighted LHP Jesse Biddle, RHP Matt Bowman, 1B Matt Davidson and OF Travis Jankowski to AAA Louisville. 40-man roster at 37.

Matt Bowman was on the 60-day IL, which is why the 40-man dropped only 3 spots down from full. Bowman’s arm finally fell off. He had been optioned to the minor leagues on July 17th, but it was later determined that he had hurt his elbow before the date, and his option was voided and converted to a 10-day IL placement. The day after that, he was transferred to the 60-day IL when the club needed a 40-man roster spot to activate Matt Davidson from the COVID-19 Related IL. He didn’t pitch all season, and just had Tommy John surgery in September, which means he’s going to lose two full years. Jankowski burned his 4th minor league option, struck out over 41% of the time (in only 17 PA) and was declared an automatic Rule 55 minor league free agent in November.

10/16: LHP Jesse Biddle, RHP Matt Bowman and 1B Matt Davidson all elected free agency in lieu of an outright assignment to AAA.

Biddle only pitched 1 game for the Reds in 2020 before being put on the IL with a shoulder impingement and missing the rest of the season. He has re-signed to a minor league deal with an invite to 2021 spring training. Davidson was on a minor-league deal and made the club out of spring to basically DH against left-handed pitching. He started 8 games at DH and 2 games at 1B, with several pinch-hitting appearances. Davidson also came in to pitch 3 times. He found himself outrighted in September after slashing .163/.294/.365, although he did slug .571 against lefties and hit 3 homers in 31 trips to the plate. The Reds would add Davidson back for the playoffs, and he pinch hit once in the first game. With the DH in uncertain status, this outright wasn’t surprising.

10/26: Outrighted RHP Joel Kuhnel to AAA Louisville. Noted the loss of IF Robel Garcia to the New York Mets on an outright assignment waiver claim. 40-man at 35.

Kuhnel walked none and struck out 3 in 3 IP over 3 games in 2020, but allowed 2 homers. While he had been described as having elite velocity and being ready for the majors as a power relief prospect, his walk rate and groundball rate started trending in the wrong direction in the high minors. He didn’t have enough service time to elect free agency in lieu of the assignment, and will almost certainly be in AAA to start 2021. The Cubs had claimed Garcia on outright assignment waivers from the Cubs earlier in the year, but didn’t figure he would stick with the club, likely because he’s not really a shortstop and isn’t strong enough on defense at the other infield positions.

10/28: RHP Trevor Bauer, RHP Anthony DeSclafani, SS Freddy Galvis and RHP Tyler Thornburg declared Article XX-B free agents. 40-man at 32.

Thornburg started the year on a minor league deal, was added in August, and over 7 games out of the bullpen, he walked over 15% of the batters he faced while striking out over 31%. He then went down with an elbow sprain and was lost for the rest of the year on the 60-day IL. Galvis performed poorly enough on offense that the club decided to rush shortstop prospect Jose Garcia past both AA and AAA to the majors way before he was ready. DeSclafani missed time with a back strain to start the year, and had such a disappointing season as a starter that he was moved to the bullpen and then left off of the postseason roster. Bauer was arguably the best pitcher in the game, and the Reds likely have no hope of re-signing him.

11/20: Purchased the contract of RHP Vladimir Gutierrez from AA Chattanooga and transferred him to the Major League Restricted list. Purchased the contract of RHP Riley O’Brien from AA Chattanooga. Purchased the contract of RHP Jared Solomon from High-A Daytona. Traded cash to the Houston Astros for RHP Brandon Bailey. 40-man at 35.

The Reds must believe in the raw talent of the 25-year old Gutierrez. Signed to the organization out of Cuba for $4.75 million in September 2016, he began his minor league career at age 21 in full season ball at the Class A-Advanced Level. He’s been a starter for 3 years now, with his peripherals trending in the wrong direction. He really struggled in AAA in 2019, with only a 19% strikeout rate and 1.71 HR/9. The club likes his fastball and curveball, but the question is whether he can develop a good enough 3rd pitch to stay in the rotation. The other complication is that Gutierrez was popped last June with an 80-game suspension for testing positive for Stanozolol, which is considered to be a performance-enhancing drug. Because Gutierrez was not on the 40-man roster at the time of the suspension and because there was no minor league season in 2020, my understanding is that he will get no credit towards that suspension, and will have to serve it all in 2021. My notation that the Reds transferred him to the Major League Restricted List is just a deduction on my part, for the following reasons. The club needed to add him to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft, but he was still on the AAA restricted list at the time. The club noted that it purchased his contract, but he is still not listed on the 40-man roster. That tells me that he was added to the 40-man then immediately shifted to the major league restricted list to serve out his suspension.

O’Brien was originally drafted in the 8th round of the 2017 draft by the Rays. He was not on the Rays’ Club Player Pool for 2020. The Reds acquired him straight-up from the Rays on August 28th in a trade for lefty Cody Reed and added him to their CPP. O’Brien has been mostly a starter with decent stuff, but has had a double digit walk rate at almost every stop. He’s only allowed 11 homers in 232 career innings pitched over 3 minor league seasons. He will turn 26 just before spring training.

Solomon was the club’s 11th round draft choice in 2017. He has also been mostly a starter, but his last stop was the High-A level, to which he got promoted for 15 starts after 11 starts at Class A. He keeps the ball in the yard, but has had control problems in his career. He’s only 23, and probably figures to start the year in AA.

Bailey was initially a 6th round pick by the Athletics in 2016, who flipped him to the Astros after two seasons in November 2017 for OF Ramon Laureano. The Orioles selected Bailey from the Astros in the major league portion of the December 2019 Rule 5 draft, but concluded in 2020 spring training that they couldn’t keep him on their roster. They had to offer Bailey back to the Astros, who agreed to buy him back for $50,000. That was in March, before anyone knew that there was going to be a 30-man opening day roster. He ended up cracking the opening day roster for the Astros, but was optioned on August 15th. He pitched 5 games for the club in relief, walking 3 and striking out 4 with 1 homer allowed in 7.1 IP. Bailey has had decent strikeout rates in the minors, but his walk rate has been trending up, and he has never pitched in AAA. He had to be added to the 40-man and has 2 options left.

11/25: Traded RHP Robert Stephenson and High-A OF Jameson Hannah to the Colorado Rockies for RHP Jeff Hoffman and RHP Case Williams. 40-man still at 35.

The Reds drafted Stephenson out of high school in the 1st round of the 2011 draft, but it never worked out like either side expected. While he had a top prospect pedigree, he had serious control issues. He made his major league debut with 8 starts in 2016 and spent much of the 2017 with the big club, but his poor spring training in 2018 resulted in his last option being burned and him spending most of that season in AAA. Then, he re-surfaced as a good reliever in 2019, relying on a slider like he never had before, and logging career bests in walk rate, strikeout rate and hit rate. But last season he missed about a month with a mid-back strain, and allowed 8 home runs in 10 IP over 10 games. That was, of course, uncharacteristic with a preposterous 50% HR/FB rate, but now that Stephenson was eligible for arbitration, the Reds decided to move on.

As for the return, Williams was just drafted by the Rockies in the 4th round of the 2020 draft and has yet to play any minor league baseball. Hoffman was considered to be one of the best prospects going into the 2014 draft, but he had Tommy John surgery during his junior year at East Carolina, a season with only 10 starts. The Blue Jays still drafted him #9 overall in the 2014 draft for a $3.1 million signing bonus. He wasn’t able to pitch in a game until May of 2015, when he started off in the rotation in High-A ball. The Blue Jays sent Hoffman and his 99 mph fastball to the Rockies at the 2015 trade deadline as part of a package of players in the Troy Tulowitzki deal. Hoffman made his major league debut in 2016, but it just hasn’t worked out. He had home run problems along with other poor peripherals in 2016, His best season was a 1.1 WAR season in 2017, where he pitched 23 games with 16 starts, but his strikeout rate was only 18.6%. Hoffman spent most of the 2018 season in the minors, and struggled with his control in the 7 games he did pitch. In 15 starts out of the rotation in 2019, he gave up 21 homers in only 70 IP. Last season, he only pitched in relief, but gave up more earned runs than innings pitched. Hoffman is out of options, but won’t be eligible for arbitration for another year. He might get another crack at a rotation job, but it looks like his ceiling might be middle relief.

12/2: Non-tendered RHP R.J. Alaniz, RHP Archie Bradley, C Curt Casali, IF Kyle Farmer and OF Brian Goodwin. Re-signed IF Kyle Farmer to a 1-year split $640,000 contract ($175,000 in the minors). 40-man at 31.

Non-tendering Alaniz was just a roster trim, as the 29-year old journeyman only had 65 days of major league service. He was on the 40-man and active rosters for 3 days, but didn’t get in to pitch. He has re-signed to a minor league deal with an invite to spring training. Casali is fine as a back-up catcher, and has good patience at the plate, but the Reds must have seen no need to give the 32-year old a raise from his $1.4625 million salary if top prospect Tyler Stephenson is ready. Stephenson is not the defender Casali was, but his bat looks like it might be good enough to play, and he’s obviously much cheaper.

I’m not certain if Farmer qualified for Super Two status at 2 years and 129 days (the official cutoff has not been announced, as far as I can tell), but if he was, the Reds were not interested in giving him a significant raise. They were, however, interested in having him back because of his positional flexibility. Farmer has never hit major league pitching at all, but he can play just about everywhere on the diamond, including both shortstop and catcher. So the club re-signed him to a modest pay increase the same night right after the non-tender deadline. He has 1 minor league option left.

The Reds acquired Goodwin at the trade deadline from the Angels basically because Nick Senzel came down with the COVID-19 virus. Once considered the best position player prospect in the Washington Nationals’ organization, he never panned out like the scouts expected. The Reds played Goodwin in center most of the time during Senzel’s absence, which allowed the club to move Shogo Akiyami to left and keep Jesse Winker in the DH slot. Goodwin won his arbitration case against the Angels for $2.2 million last year, and the club didn’t want to pay that kind of money for a 30-year old backup who doesn’t run that well, strikes out too much and is only average at best in the field. With Senzel back and the DH not in play, Goodwin is not the best fit for the Reds.

Bradley is the most curious decision here. The Reds traded Josh VanMeter and a minor league outfielder to the Diamondbacks at the trade deadline last season for Bradley, because they desperately needed bullpen help. While he only pitched 6 games, he did the job, allowing only 1 earned run and no walks with 6 strikeouts. His groundball rate is trending in the wrong direction, but one wonders if the real reason for the non-tender wasn’t straight money. He won his arbitration hearing against the Diamondbacks for 2020 with a $4.1 million salary, and the Reds must have not wanted to risk losing an arbitration hearing with Bradley and having to give him a significant raise.

12/7: Traded RHP Raisel Iglesias and cash to the Los Angeles Angels for RHP Noe Ramirez and a PTBNL. 40-man at 31.

There’s no other way to describe this trade than a salary dump. Jay Jaffe of Fangraphs analyzed the trade very well here. Iglesias has been a reliable closer for the Reds and posted personal bests in several pitching categories last season. But he was set to make $9.125 million for 2021, and the Reds just didn’t want to pay it. Meanwhile Ramirez is the same age (31), has not even had 4 years of service in MLB, is out of minor league options, has a low velocity fastball and has peripherals that are trending in the wrong direction. If you throw out 2019, at least the club can take comfort in the fact that 2019 was a career year for Ramirez, where he had a 3.72 FIP. He agreed to a 1-year, $900,000 deal with the Angels to avoid arbitration for 2020, and even if he gets a decent raise this year, he won’t cost even half of what Iglesias was scheduled to make.

12/10: Los Angeles Angels sent High-A IF Leonardo Rivas to the Reds to complete the Raisel Iglesias trade.

The 23-year old Rivas topped out at Class A-Advanced in 2019 has played mostly at short in his minor league career, but has experience all over the diamond. He has no power at all, but has a career .380 OBP in the minors with a 16% walk rate.

12/16: Traded DSL IF Jose Acosta to the Texas Rangers for OF Scott Heineman. 40-man at 32.

Heineman was drafted by the Rangers in the 11th round of the 2015 draft. He has a career minor league slash line of .303/.378/.475 in 4 minor league seasons. He didn’t do much hitting over 139 career trips to the plate with the Rangers the last two years, but he’s the perfect fourth outfielder, because he has above-average speed, can play all 3 outfield positions (in addition to first base), and has minor league options left. And most importantly for the Reds, he’s cheap. Heineman’s older brother Tyler is a catcher that has just been signed by the Cardinals to a minor league deal with an invite to 2021 spring training.

Acosta will turn 21 just before the season starts. He has a stellar batting eye so far in 3 minor league seasons with a .414 OBP, but has yet to play full-season ball.

THE MONTH AHEAD

The Reds were faced with the possibility of having up to 14 arbitration cases, but now they have only 5 players to deal with. They have yet to sign an arbitration-avoiding deal with any of their arbitration-eligible players, which include RHP Luis Castillo, LHP Amir Garrett, RHP Michael Lorenzen, RHP Tyler Mahle and OF Jesse Winker. Everyone except Lorenzen is eligible for arbitration for the first time.

Winker busted out with a 146 wRC+ and hit 12 homers in only 183 trips to the plate, when he had only had 16 homers the year before in 384 PA. He also posted a career-high walk rate. Winker was helped by the DH, as he’s not the strongest in the field. He has a large career platoon split, but it didn’t show last season in only 41 plate appearances against lefties. Lorenzen struggled early on in the bullpen, but righted the ship as the season went on. He’s being moved to the starting rotation. It’s unclear if Lorenzen will be able to stick in the rotation, but the club loves his upper 90s fastball and athleticism. Lorenzen was a Super Two several years ago, and was only 13 days shy of having enough service time to be a free agent. He made $3.725 million last season. Castillo has a deadly changeup, was a rotation mainstay with the best peripherals he’s ever had, and finished 6th in the majors among pitchers with 2.4 fWAR last season. He pitched last year for $663,500, is due for a monster raise, and wouldn’t be wrong in wanting more than Lorenzen will ask for. Mahle’s walk rate spiked a bit, but he posted a career-high 30% strikeout rate last season. Garrett is the favorite to be the closer next year. All of his peripherals got better last year, except his home run rate, which spiked, but it’s hard to read too much into 18 IP.

STATE OF THE 2021 ROSTER

*Starting rotation. The club lost Bauer and DeSclafani to free agency, but are shifting Michael Lorenzen into the rotation. Losing Bauer is a significant blow no matter how you slice it because he was one of the best pitchers in the game. There’s almost no shot the Reds re-sign him. What was arguably the top 3 pitchers in any starting rotation in the majors is, by definition, going to get worse. Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo figure to still be a potent 1-2 punch. Wade Miley had a disappointing injury-marred season, and perhaps he gets another shot to round out the rotation with Lorenzen and Tyler Mahle. Tejay Antone will also get a look.

*Bullpen. The bullpen let the Reds down pretty much all year, and will be the biggest question mark going into 2021. With Archie Bradley and Raisel Iglesias gone, Amir Garrett is the favorite to win the closer’s job, and I can’t imagine anyone seriously challenging him for it, especially with Lorenzen moving into the rotation. Their bullpen was one of the worst in baseball last year, and some of their more reliable guys are now gone. Other than Lucas Sims and Garrett, the rest are basically either journeyman guys or unproven minor leaguers. Sims, Garrett and Noe Ramirez are locks, and Jeff Hoffman is also out of options. Past that, it’s a crapshoot.

*Catcher. Tucker Barnhart, the starter, just won his 2nd Gold Glove. There could be a stealth signing in the future, but top prospect Tyler Stephenson looks to back him up after the non-tender of Curt Casali.

*Infield. Shortstop is the biggest concern for the Reds. The club rushed prospect Jose Garcia to the majors even though he had never played past Class A-Advanced, and he was completely overmatched at the plate. It was only 68 PA, but it was ugly, with a 38% strikeout rate, a walk rate under 2% and a .194/.206/.194 slash line. He’ll almost certainly be optioned to the minors to start the year, but the club will have to do something. Freddy Galvis is gone and the only other options are Kyle Farmer or Alex Blandino, which means the club has no shortstop options. Votto, Moustakas and Suarez are all back, but beyond that, they really don’t have solid backup infield options and no starting shortstop right now.

*Outfield. Going into the 2020 season, the club had an impossible glut of outfielders, but after various trades and roster trims, it looks more manageable now. Senzel will be back in center and Castellanos will be back in right. I haven’t heard a lot of talk about it, but the club has a problem in left field, assuming Senzel sticks in center. Shogo Akiyama can’t be optioned to the minor leagues according to the deal he signed out of Japan, but it’s difficult to have a left fielder with no power at all. I suppose one can argue that it doesn’t matter if you have power elsewhere in the lineup, but it’s hard to justify sticking someone out there that posts an 85 wRC+ unless he’s a supreme defensive wizard. Akiyama fielded well and had a good batting eye, but if there’s no DH in 2021, I don’t know how they look Jesse Winker, who led the club in DRC+, in the eye and bench him for Akiyama. And a platoon won’t solve it, because they both hit left-handed. Aristides Aquino looks to serve as some sock off the bench and is out of options. The other back-ups on the 40-man are Mark Payton and newly-acquired Scott Heineman.

With all of their free-agent signings going into the 2020 season, the Reds essentially went for broke, and were considered by many the presumptive favorite in the NL Central. While their rotation was one of the best in the game (especially for their top 3), the rest of the puzzle didn’t work out. Their bullpen was atrocious and let the club down in many close games. Their offense was tragically BABIP unlucky and overall hit at a below-average clip, getting skunked in 22 playoff innings over two games against the Braves. Now it looks as if the club is regrouping and slashing payroll in the uncertainty that surrounds the 2021 season. The one interesting thing is that the Reds only have 32 spots on the 40-man roster filled, which gives them a lot of room to make helpful additions. It remains to be seen if they will use some of the money they just saved to sign a stud shortstop.