Winter Report Card: Reds' rebuild still moving at oddly glacial pace

Thursday January 12th, 2017

Before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we’re checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season, acknowledging that there’s still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2016. Next up: the Cincinnati Reds.

2016 Results

68–94 (.420), fifth place in National League Central

Key Departures

C Ramon Cabrera*, LHP John Lamb, RHP Ross Ohlendorf, RHP Keyvius Sampson, RHP Alfredo Simon*

Key Arrivals

IF/OF Arismendy Alcantara, RHP Louis Coleman, IF Richie Shaffer, RHP Drew Storen

(*free agent, still unsigned)

Off-season In Review

Coming off their third straight sub-.500 season, the Reds are in the midst of a much-needed rebuild that they didn't fully embrace until mid-2015, when they dealt starters Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake. They continued the job with last winter's trades of closer Aroldis Chapman (on whom they had to sell low due to his domestic violence incident) and third baseman Todd Frazier, and they’ve improved the minor league system by selecting third baseman Nick Senzel with the No. 2 pick of last year's draft. But since trading rightfielder Jay Bruce to the Mets in an August deal that brought back second baseman Dilson Herrera, the team has barely done enough to fog a mirror with regards to the major league roster. This winter, Cincinnati has signed one free agent to a major league deal, made two trades that failed to produce a single warm body and spent a whole lot of time futzing around on the waiver wire, in some cases losing players it had claimed just a few weeks earlier. The "Key" in the Departures and Arrivals above is relative; nobody here will change the fate of the 2017 Reds.

Based upon their 2016 performances, losing Lamb and Simon might count as addition by subtraction, though to be fair, their seasons were wrecked by injuries that produced unprintable ERAs in partial-season duty. Simon, who returned to the Reds last winter after a year in Detroit, lost time to a shoulder strain and then underwent season-ending surgery; he's still a free agent at this writing. Lamb, a once-promising prospect acquired from the Royals in the Cueto deal, made 14 starts bracketed by a pair of surgeries to repair a herniated disc in his back; he was sold to the Rays for cash. As for the Reds' other trade, they plucked catcher Luis Torrens from the Yankees in the Rule 5 draft and immediately flipped him to the Padres for a player to be named later and cash. Exciting stuff.

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Ohlendorf (4.66 ERA in 65 2/3 innings) and Sampson (4.35 ERA in 39 1/3 innings) are gone from a dreadful bullpen that ranked dead last in the NL in both ERA (5.05) and FIP (5.34). The former left for Japan, signing a one-year deal with the Yakult Swallows, and the latter was non-tendered and signed a minor league deal with the Diamondbacks. Coleman doesn't offer a ton of promise for improvement, having posted a 4.69 ERA with 4.5 walks per nine in 48 innings with the Dodgers; his fly-ball rate was slightly better than that departed pair (41% instead of 45%) but that's probably still too high to thrive in Great American Ballpark.

Of more interest is Storen, the first major league free agent the Reds have signed—to a one-year, $3 million-plus-incentives deal—since reliever Burke Badenhop two years ago. The change of scenery from Washington didn't exactly work out for the Nationals' former closer last year, as he was cuffed for a 6.21 ERA in 33 1/3 innings with the Blue Jays and struggled to keep the ball in the park, but he fared better in 18 1/3 innings with the Mariners after a late-July trade. If he pitches well, he could join Tony Cingrani, Raisel Iglesias and Michael Lorenzen as part of a late-inning mix that could include save opportunities.

As for the other comings and goings, Cabrera started 42 games behind the plate and was lousy on both sides of the ball. The hope is that 28-year-old Devin Mesoraco can resume regular catching duty, or at least share the job with Tucker Barnhart, after being limited to just 39 games over the past two seasons. He underwent surgeries to repair a torn left shoulder labrum last May and then to repair his right hip labrum in July, having undergone a similar procedure on his left hip labrum the previous year. Alcantara and Shaffer were both waiver-wire pickups. A former Cubs prospect, Alcantara is a speedy 25-year-old super-utilityman who owns a .195/.249/.337 line in 351 plate appearances at the major league level, just 19 of which came last year in Oakland; he hit .278/.325/.467 with 12 homers and 32 steals at two Triple A stops with a brief dip to Class A. Shaffer, a going-on–26-year-old corner infielder, hit 26 homers and slugged .539 with the Rays' Double and Triple A teams in 2015, but he sank to .227/.329/.367 with 11 homers at the higher level last year and one homer in 54 PA with Tampa Bay. He'll have to do more than that to be a productive backup.

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Unfinished Business: Middle infield, salary relief

Not to keep harping on this, but if the Reds are going to embrace the future, they have to turn over their middle infield to Herrera and Jose Peraza (acquired from the Dodgers in the Frazier deal) at some point. Both 23-year-olds are blocked, however, by Zack Cozart at shortstop and Brandon Phillips at second base; demand for middle infielders just hasn’t been that high this winter.

Cozart, a 31-year-old defensive whiz with some decent power, has one year of club control remaining and should fetch something useful. The 35-year-old Phillips, who hit a thin .291/.320/.416 with 11 homers, 14 steals and -7 Defensive Runs Saved, is owed $14 million and has no-trade rights that he's not shy about invoking; the Georgia native blocked a deal to the Braves in November after nixing one to the Nationals in 2015. The Reds were prepared to pick up an undisclosed amount of salary in the Atlanta trade, but via ESPN's Jim Bowden, team executives "acknowledge that they made promises and assurances to Phillips that they are not living up to" that will have to be ironed out if that deal or any other is to be resurrected. Whether that means getting some kind of extension or a statue outside Great American remains to be seen.

Any kind of salary relief would be welcome there, particularly since it doesn't appear likely that the team can move its two most expensive players, first baseman Joey Votto and righthander Homer Bailey. The former, still near the top of his game at least on the offensive side, is owed a minimum of $179 million through 2023, has a full no-trade clause and no desire to move. The latter, who made six mostly ugly starts last year after a belated return from Tommy John surgery and then suffered a bout of biceps tendinitis, is owed $68 million through 2020; he'll have to pitch his way back to being an attractive rotation option, having made just eight big league starts in two years. On that note, the team is also looking to add some rotation depth.

Preliminary Grade: Incomplete

To be fair, passing judgment on a team’s off-season before the Ides of January is a bit hasty, but the Reds’ belated embrace of the rebuilding process is a multi-year issue. Time and again, their lack of aggressiveness has lessened their returns in trades; none of the four players acquired for Chapman rank among their top 30 prospects, according to Baseball America, and two aren’t even on the 40-man roster anymore. The good news is that their farm system has improved over the past year, and they haven’t done anything that would jeopardize any long-term plans.

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