With less than six weeks before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we're checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season while acknowledging that there's still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2015. Now up: the Cincinnati Reds.
64–98 (.395), fifth place in National League Central (Hot Stove Preview)
(*free agent, still unsigned; +Rule 5 draft pick)
Off-season In Review
After three postseason appearances in four years from 2010 to '13 and then an 86-loss campaign in '14, the bottom dropped out for the Reds last year. Despite opening the season with a franchise-record $115.4 million payroll, by midseason they had belatedly plunged into a rebuilding effort and were en route to their first last-place finish in 31 years. The trades of starters Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake left the team with an all-rookie rotation that started the final 64 games, but while veteran outfielder Marlon Byrd was dealt in August as well, Cincinnati entered the off-season with several other big pieces to move: outfielder Jay Bruce, closer Aroldis Chapman, third baseman Todd Frazier and second baseman Brandon Phillips.
Unfortunately, Chapman's value was undercut significantly by the report of a domestic violence incident that leaves him subject to a suspension under the league's new policy, and his asking price went from an "incredibly unrealistic" package to a get-what-you-can quartet of prospects from the Yankees that isn't likely to have much effect on the Reds' 2016 fate. Righty Rookie Davis split 2015 between New York's Class A and AA teams, and both third baseman Eric Jagielo (who suffered a season-ending left knee injury in mid-June) and second baseman Tony Renda (who had been acquired from the Nationals during the year) spent their seasons in Double A. Righty reliever Caleb Cotham, who posted a 2.37 ERA with 9.6 strikeouts per nine in 57 minor-league innings and a 6.52 ERA in 9 2/3 innings for the Yankees, should serve as a middle-relief piece for Cincinnati.
In December, Frazier, who hit 35 homers for the Reds but tailed off significantly in the second half, was sent to the White Sox in a three-team deal. In return Cincinnati got a trio of prospects from the Dodgers, two of whom—infielder Jose Peraza and outfielder Scott Schebler—may have more bearing on the 2016 squad. The 21-year-old Peraza began the 2015 season with the Braves and all over various top 100 prospect lists, albeit with little agreement as to where he sat (24th on ESPN's, 38th on MLB.com's, 54th on Baseball America's, 92nd on Baseball Prospectus') and was traded to Los Angeles on July 30. The combined .293/.316/.378 he hit in two Triple A stops with 33 steals but just 17 walks in 521 plate appearances doesn't look like much, but he did begin the season as the youngest regular in the International League.
A second baseman in Atlanta's system, Peraza dabbled in centerfield as well last year, but he has the range and arm strength to play shortstop and could become a viable above-average regular there. With incumbent Zack Cozart—an above-average defender who suffered a season-ending right knee injury in June—in his second year of arbitration eligibility, there's no need to rush Peraza, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see Cozart traded and Peraza promoted at some point this season. Alternately, Peraza could find himself in the bigs even sooner if Phillips is dealt (more on which below). As for third base, Eugenio Suarez, who hit .280/.315/.446 with 11 homers but just 17 walks in 398 PA filling in for Cozart, will take over for Frazier.
The other big piece of the Frazier deal is Schebler, a 25-year-old lefty swinger who hit .241/.322/.410 with 13 homers at Triple A Oklahoma City and three in 40 plate appearances for the Dodgers. He's a fourth outfielder who can play all three spots but works best at a corner; Baseball Prospectus' Chris Crawford wrote of him, "There's plus raw power in his lefthanded bat, but his swing length and lack of bat speed make the hit tool below-average and drag the power down a tick as well." Barring a bigger move for an outfielder, he's likely to wind up on the Opening Day roster as a placeholder for prospect Jesse Winker.
Of the various free agents, relievers Manny Parra, who made 40 appearances totaling 32 1/3 innings, and Burke Badenhop, who made 68 appearances over 66 1/3 innings, are still on the market, as is gritty utilityman Skip Schumaker, who hit just .242/.306/.336 in 268 plate appearances. Gone is catcher Brayan Pena, who hit a typical .242/.306/.336 and made a career-high 84 starts due to Devin Mesoraco's hip injury; he signed a two-year, $5 million deal to serve as Yadier Molina's backup in St. Louis. Mesoraco, who underwent hip labrum surgery on June 29, is expected to be ready for spring training and to reclaim the starting job.
Unfinished Business: Trading Bruce and Phillips
Bruce, who turns 29 on April 3, is coming off his second down season in a row—a 0.8-WAR clunker in which his 26 homers were accompanied by a .226/.294/.434 line, with just a .587 OPS over his final 48 games. He' s affordable but not cheap, with $12.5 million due his way in 2016 as well as a $13 million option and $1 million buyout for '17, and he has an eight-team no-trade provision in his deal. Once the big free-agent bats—Yoenis Cespedes, Chris Davis and Justin Upton—find homes, he could be moved to a team in search of a more down-market solution, with clubs such as the Giants, Orioles and Indians mentioned in connection, though the last of those was recently added to his no-trade list.
Speaking of no-trade situations, Phillips's 10-and-5 rights quashed a December deal that would have sent him to the Nationals, who instead signed free-agent infielder Daniel Murphy. The 34-year-old Phillips is coming off his best season since 2012, with a .294/.328/.395 line, 12 homers, 23 steals in 26 attempts and solid enough defense to be worth 3.5 Wins Above Replacement (baseball-reference.com version), matching his combined '13–14 total. He's due $13 million this year and $14 million next, however, an amount of money that reportedly was too rich for the Diamondbacks' tastes. Walt Jocketty, the team's president of baseball operations, has said that Phillips will begin the season with the Reds "in all likelihood," so it doesn't sound as if anything is imminent.
Preliminary Grade: D+
Particularly if he stays at shortstop, Peraza is a solid acquisition, but the overall package Cincinnati got for two years of control over Frazier was viewed around the industry as lighter than expected. The same can be said for what the Reds received for Chapman, and while the circumstances surrounding that situation were out of their control, they had already passed up the chance to deal him last July or August, when an acquiring team could have had him for two postseason runs instead of one, thus resulting in a larger return package. The above grade could rise if Bruce and Phillips are traded and if the talent Cincinnati receives in return will help in 2017 and beyond.