After a perplexing off-season in Cincinnati, it's unclear if the Reds are back on the path to contending or headed for a last-place finish in the NL Central.
With little less than four weeks before pitchers and catchers report, we're checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there's still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2014. You can find all previously published Winter Report Cards here.
2014 Results: 76-86 (.469), fourth place in NL Central (Hot Stove Preview)
After reaching the playoffs three times in four years from 2010 to 2013 — a stretch that nonetheless cost manager Dusty Baker his job — the Reds took a significant step backwards under new manager Bryan Price in 2014, finishing with their worst record since 2008 and just their second below .500 in the last five years. They did so with a club record $114.2 million payroll, and while much of the disappointment had to do with injuries to key players such as Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips, Homer Bailey, Mat Latos and Tony Cingrani, general manager Walt Jocketty has been pushed into shaking things up significantly. The Reds refuse to call it rebuilding, with Jocketty and owner Bob Castellini both saying that payroll will increase in 2015, but given the turnover and cost cuts, it's difficult to avoid the term.
For starters, gone from the roster are two of the three members of the rotation who finished the season with an ERA+ above 100, both of whom were traded on Dec. 11 for returns that will take awhile to realize fully. Alfredo Simon, who became a full-time starter for the first time and pitched to a 3.44 ERA (105 ERA+) across 196 1/3 innings, was traded to the Tigers for two 23-year-olds, shortstop Eugenio Suarez and righty Jonathan Crawford. Latos, who pitched to a 3.25 ERA (111 ERA+) but was limited to 16 starts due to a torn meniscus and elbow inflammation, was sent to the Marlins for 24-year-old Anthony DeSclafani and 23-year-old catcher Chad Wallach.
Suarez, pressed into duty by the loss of Jose Iglesias, had just 12 games at Triple A before joining the Tigers, for whom he hit .242/.316/.336 in 277 plate appearances. He's considered an above-average to plus fielder who has a bit of power and enough of a plan at the plate to offer some upside. He could likely outhit incumbent Zack Cozart (.221/.268/.300 in 2014) over the course of a full season, if not out-glove him, but the Reds aren't ready to give up on the latter, who will make $2.35 million this year, his first of arbitration eligibility. Crawford, the 20th pick of the 2013 draft out of the University of Florida, pitched to a 2.85 ERA with 6.2 strikeouts and 3.7 walks per nine in A-ball last year, a showing that was considered something of a disappointment given that his velocity settled at 90-93 mph instead of the 94-97 he showed in college. Given his lack of changeup and funky arm action, his future is probably in the bullpen.
DeSclafani, a 2011 sixth-round pick by the Blue Jays who was part of the Mark Buehrle/Jose Reyes blockbuster in 2012, was rocked for a 6.27 ERA in 33 innings with the Fish last year, albeit with a 26/5 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and pitched to a 3.78 ERA with 8.5 strikeouts per nine in two minor league levels. With great control but an inconsistent arsenal beyond his plus fastball, he could be a reliever in the long term, but for the moment, he's penciled as the fifth starter behind Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Bailey and Cingrani. Wallach, the youngest of three sons of former All-Star infielder and current Dodgers coach Tim Wallach to play professionally, is a 2013 fifth-round pick out of Cal State-Fullerton who hit a sizzling .322/.431/.457 in 408 PA across two levels of A-ball. That performance upped his stock, but he's most likely a backup backstop in the making, and a ways away from doing so.
With those two increasingly expensive pitchers -- Latos and Simon combined to make $8.75 million last year and will make about $15 million this year -- traded for younger help, it was somewhat puzzling to see the team turn around and acquire 37-year-old Marlon Byrd on Dec. 31 in exchange for 22-year-old righty Ben Lively, who split last year between High A and Double A and profiles as a back-end starter or swingman/reliever who could reach the majors at some point in 2015. The crucial factor, however, is that the Phillies are paying half of Byrd's $8 million salary. Coming off a solid season (.264/.312/.445 with 25 homers and a 110 OPS+), he's both an upgrade on the departed tandem of Ryan Ludwick (.244/.308/.375 with nine homers) and Chris Heisey (.222/.265/.378 with eight homers) and a cost savings.
Ludwick, who made $7 million last year, had the team's side of a $9 million option declined and instead received a $4.5 million buyout in which the money is deferred, while Heisey, who made $1.76 million in his second year of arbitration, was sent to the Dodgers in exchange for control-challenged 25-year-old righty Matt Magill, who was rocked for a 5.21 ERA with a whopping 6.3 walks per nine and just 7.3 strikeouts per nine in 84 2/3 innings at Triple-A Albuquerque, a pitcher's hell if there ever were one. The change of scenery couldn't hurt Magill, but his stuff isn't good enough to profile as more than a fifth starter or middle reliever. The plus in all of this beyond the 2015 savings is that Byrd is easily tradable come July 31 if the Reds are out of it and has an affordable $8 million club option for 2016 that vests at 550 PA if they decide to keep him.
As for the rest of the turnover, Jack Hannahan was limited to 50 PA after recovering from surgery to repair a torn right labrum and is headed to Korea. Ramon Santiago hit a solid .246/.343/.324/91 OPS+ in 214 PA and made at least 20 appearances at second, short and third. He's still a free agent, but between Suarez, Skip Schumaker and Kris Negron, the team is probably covered for middle infield bench support. Keyvius Sampson is a 24-year-old righty plucked off waivers from the Padres earlier this month. Amid a shellacking at Triple-A El Paso, the Pads concluded he was a reliever — which is where prospect hounds feel his mid-90s fasball/above-average changeup/inconsistent breaking ball combo will fly — but the Reds will give him another shot at starting at Louisville, a stop that should be more hospitable.
Unfinished Business: Clear direction
So are the Reds in or out? Like an aging hitter cheating on a fastball to compensate for lost bat speed only to become increasingly vulnerable to breaking stuff, the Reds appear to be caught in between. In a division where the Cardinals reign, the Pirates have made back-to-back Wild Card Game appearances, the Brewers challenged for a postseason spot in 2014 and the Cubs have made the winter's biggest splash, the Reds don't look like obvious contenders. Indeed, the early Steamer-based projection at FanGraphs has both them and the Brewers competing for the division’s basement at 76 wins.
Given the way the Reds have struggled to fit the parts together even during the best of times — the top of the lineup has been an ongoing problem in particular — it might make more sense to pursue a fuller rebuild. Then again, there's only so much they can do in terms of trades given their long-term commitments, so they appear bent on making at least one more run with the current core.
Toward that end, they picked up Cueto's $10 million option for 2015 — a no-brainer given his Cy Young-caliber season (20-9, 2.25 ERA, 6.4 WAR) — and have thus far held onto him, though their odds of signing him long-term appear long. They've also held onto Leake, who threw a career-high 214 1/3 innings and will make $9.775 million in his final year before free agency. Both would bring back more controllable assets if the team were to commit to rebuilding, and the same could be said for trading Bruce, who's heading into his age-28 season and owed $25.5 million for the next two years with a $13 million option for 2017.
Bruce is coming off a career-worst season, however, one in which he hit an abysmal 217/.281/.373 for an 84 OPS+ and missed time due to in-season surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee, which makes getting full value for him difficult. Then there's the presence of 24-year-old Cuban defector Raisel Iglesias, a late-June signing whose stateside experience has been limited to the Arizona Fall League. With Iglesias on the horizon, closer Aroldis Chapman, who has two years remaining before free agency, becomes an inviting trade target. For now, though, the Reds are keeping Chapman and planning either to work Iglesias as a starter in Triple-A or as a reliever in the big club’s pen.
Instead, Cincinnati has decided to keep the core intact, but to contend for a postseason spot, they'll need a whole lot of returns to form on both sides of the ball, particularly from players to whom they're committed long term. The offense, which ranked 13th in the league at 3.67 runs per game, is in desperate need of more firepower and better health from Votto (signed through 2023) and Phillips (2017). Votto was limited to 62 games and a 127 OPS+ (his worst since 2008) due to quad strains in both legs. Phillips, who missed 33 games due to a thumb injury that required surgery, hit for a 91 OPS+, his worst since 2006 and his third straight below 100. The latter, now 33 years old, is owed $39 million over the next three years, making him one of the obstacles to full-on rebuilding.
On the pitching side, it was hardly good news that in the first year of his six-year, $105 million extension, Bailey was limited to 23 starts due to a bulging disc in his neck and a flexor mass tendon injury that required season-ending surgery in September. That makes him difficult to trade for value, but then why shed Latos given his relative affordability and the likelihood of netting a draft pick via a qualifying offer come next winter? It’s just not clear.
Preliminary Grade: C-
In light of the difficulty of getting value for some of their assets, it's tough to fault the Reds for sticking to their guns, and the deals they've made haven't been bad ones. At the same time, it's just not apparent that they have enough to contend, and they may be missing an opportunity to restock their roster more significantly by not trading Cueto when his value is near its peak.