The Astros and Cubs — two teams still wearing their uniforms — did it. So will the Reds.
It’s when we’ll know for sure that the rebuilding is finally over. Or at least when the Reds front office thinks that moment has arrived. We’ll see those final roster moves. Dick Williams will package a group of talented young players for an established star. Something along the lines of the Mat Latos deal with the Padres. Williams will fill out the bench and bullpen with productive veterans. If necessary, the club may even sign an impact free agent. The telltale sign: Bob Castellini’s major league payroll will spike.
The Reds are not there, just yet. But they’re close.
Opening Day, 2019.
Mark it down. That’s when the rebuilt Reds launch into the cosmos of contention. 2018 will be the final season devoted to rebuilding. The Reds took important steps forward during 2017, but too few. The pitching and middle infield didn’t sort out. But all the pieces can be there for 2019.
To reach that deadline, the Reds can’t stand pat this offseason. On the contrary, 2019 liftoff depends on a smart and aggressive pre-2018 hot stove. Certain trade assets have crested at peak value. They have to be cashed before shoulder joints fray, players age out or the clock strikes twelve.
The new Reds front office rightly boasts about the audacious Dan Straily-for-Luis Castillo trade. We’ll learn in the next few months if that was just a one-off Marlins Madness larceny, or if the Reds have the daring to repeat that tactic going forward.
How do the Reds get to “go” in 2019? Here’s a blueprint for the offseason and 2018 roster management:
[By assumption, players remain healthy. Of course they all won’t. Think of this as a topline scenario. Torn muscles and ligaments are Dick Williams’ inevitable, real-world problem.]
Catcher: Devin Mesoraco, whose contract expires at the end of 2018, and Tucker Barnhart should start 2018 sharing time. A RH/LH platoon split could be a starting point, though Mesoraco must earn enough early playing time for the team to trade him at the mid-season deadline. To do that, he has to prove he’s recovered from his broken foot and is a productive player. Once he’s traded, Stuart Turner gets called up. Tucker Barnhart, new extension in hand, should then get a big majority of the starts.
Going into 2019: Barnhart and Turner are the catching tandem. Outside chance the second catcher is Chris Okey. The club may need to pick up a veteran back-up catcher if Turner doesn’t hit better. Tyler Stephenson’s ETA is 2020.
Infield: Joey Votto and Eugenio Suarez are set at the corners. Suarez is too good at third base to move him again. Absent an outside acquisition through trade, Jose Peraza starts at shortstop. Dilson Herrera is out of options, so he makes the Opening Day roster. He’s the starting second baseman on March 29. Hopefully he can establish trade value. Scooter Gennett is the perfect example of a sell-high candidate. But the main reason to move Gennett isn’t to give Dilson Herrera or Jose Peraza playing time. You trade Gennett to make room for Nick Senzel, who should be called up after the Super Two deadline in 2018 to play second base.
Going into 2019: Votto (1B), Senzel (2B), acquired guy (SS), Suarez (3B); Peraza (bench), veteran 1B/3B (bench)
Outfield: Based on Dick Williams’ interview with Mo Egger last week, it sounds like he’s leaning toward a rotation of the four returning outfielders, including Jesse Winker. Williams says that could keep Adam Duvall fresher for the end of season and take pounding off Billy Hamilton. [Note: That would have been smart in 2017, too.] The odd-man out each night, except when it’s Hamilton, would be a good pinch hitter.
Such a rotation could work in theory, but it’s hard to trust Bryan Price to give Jesse Winker sufficient playing time. It’s also impossible to see the Reds rotating Billy Hamilton out often enough. A biggish bat on the bench in 2018 is a waste relative to possible trade returns. Rotation means too little opportunity for Jesse Winker to develop.
Trade Adam Duvall to Price-proof regular playing time for Winker. Also trade Billy Hamilton. 2019 would be Hamilton’s final season with the Reds, absent a horrifying-to-imagine contract extension. The Reds should move Hamilton now, while his speed and defense retain net value to certain clubs. The 2018 outfield should be Winker, Scott Schebler and a centerfielder to be acquired by trade. Phil Ervin could be the Reds fourth OF or playing every night for Louisville. Patrick Kivlehan makes the 2018 roster as an IF/OF back-up with good pop off the bench.
Going into 2019: Winker (LF), acquired guy (CF), Schebler (RF); Ervin (bench), acquired 5th OF. Taylor Trammel’s ETA is 2020.
Starting Pitchers: Anthony DeSclafani, Homer Bailey and Luis Castillo have earned rotation jobs. It would be awesome, though unfamiliar, to live in a world where all three are making starts. Legitimate skepticism about DeSclafani’s return has to incorporate his recent healthy starts in Arizona, including one of seven innings.
After those three, you have a cluster of pitchers: Robert Stephenson (24), Brandon Finnegan (24), Sal Romano (24), Tyler Mahle (23), Amir Garrett (25), Cody Reed (24) and Michael Lorenzen (25). Thanks to a couple injuries and 67 wasted starts, the hard reality is there simply isn’t enough data from 2016 and 2017 to project which of those young pitchers should be in the rotation.
The Reds should form a 2018 tryout crew of those seven pitchers. The club should guarantee each one at least a dozen major league starts to show what they have and build their trade value. The rest of the season they pitch in the Reds bullpen or start for Louisville.
If the top three guys are healthy, that leaves two slots for the tryout. Lorenzen and Finnegan should start in April and May with the understanding that innings limits will dictate moving them to the bullpen in June. After that, other guys get their turn. Injuries and needed time off will create additional opportunities. Even in the best case, DeSclafani shouldn’t throw an entire season of innings.
Going into 2019: (1) Castillo, (2) big acquisition in 2018-19 offseason, (3) DeSclafani, (4) Bailey, (5) best of the tryout crew. Hunter Greene (!) ETA is 2020.
Bullpen: Default pen is Raisel Iglesias, Kevin Shackleford, Wandy Peralta, the 2018 Feldman and three or four of the tryout starters. Maybe Austin Brice. Maybe Ariel Hernandez (meh).
Whether or not the Reds trade Iglesias this offseason is a momentous decision. He’ll be 28 by Opening Day, is cost controlled on team-friendly terms and under contract through 2021. Iglesias is arguably the heftiest chip the Reds have besides players (Senzel, Castillo) who it doesn’t make sense to trade. On the one hand, he’s an established top-tier closer. But, he’s still just a closer. Always be trading closers, especially ones with a mini-history of shoulder issues.
Going into 2019: No idea. Doesn’t matter now. See below.
Trade assets: Adam Duvall, Billy Hamilton, Scooter Gennett and Raisel Iglesias. Trade Wandy Peralta if you can get a good prospect. At the deadline, trade Devin Mesoraco and Dilson Herrera.
Trade targets: With those assets, the Reds should be able to acquire a few important pieces: (1) a starting centerfielder who is at least average on defense and above average hitting, (2) a young starting shortstop with emphasis on defense, but also upside at the plate, and (3) a young relief pitcher who isn’t a closer but plausibly could become one.
You have questions or comments?
Any specific trade suggestions?
Yep, glad you asked. Here are three.
But … Gennett’s home runs, Duvall’s RBIs, Raisel’s slider and Billy’s stolen bases. We love these things.
Yes, we do. But those players have large question marks going forward. Remember, we’re working toward 2019, not 2018. The time to trade them is now. Stay focused. We loved Dan Straily, too. Close your eyes and picture Luis Castillo averaging 98 mph with a low walk-rate.
The idea of only giving those young pitchers 12-15 starts is … unusual.
It isn’t ideal. You’d rather give fewer pitchers more opportunity and experience. But who would you leave off that list and say you’re confident he isn’t one of the best remaining pitchers? It’s important to get this right. Even if you took one pitcher off the tryout list (Lorenzen?) you still have six and are in the same weird spot. Blame the 67 wasted starts last year, man, not the messenger.
Well then, what about trading young pitching? The Reds have a lot of it.
That will happen eventually. But trading pitchers from the tryout list now would be selling low. Every one of them needs another season of development to raise value. Wait for next offseason, or at least the trade deadline, for that.
What about the idea the Reds should sign an innings-eating starter, like Scott Feldman?
You’ve got to be kidding. That’s the exact opposite of what the Reds need. Given the enormous log jam for starting opportunities, it makes zero sense to sign a guaranteed-contract starting pitcher. In fact, it’s hard to imagine anything more likely to undermine a productive 2018 season. Sure, the club can wait and see how Bailey, DeSclafani and Castillo look early in spring training. But even in the remote and soul-crushing event that all three of those guys can’t pitch on Opening Day, the Reds have more than enough healthy, in-house arms to fill a rotation.
Who would be the team’s closer if the Reds trade Raisel Iglesias?
I’m not saying “anyone can close,” but you won’t find a mention of Raisel Iglesias as the Reds closer before 2016. Closers are everywhere. The Reds should acquire a promising young reliever through trade. One of the tryout starters (Lorenzen, Romano, others) could close. Rookie Davis. Did you see Kevin Shackelford ‘s numbers? Potential relievers are working through the Reds system (Jimmy Herget, Zack Weiss, Keury Mella, Vlad Gutierrez).
The club has until Opening Day of 2019 to settle on a closer. That’s a long time from now. Until then, it barely matters. The 2018 Opening Day closer is the lowest, of low priorities.
Should the Reds sign Zack Cozart to a new contract?
The proper focus on 2019 makes this an easier decision. The answer, sadly, is no. The odds that Cozart, who would be 33, could still provide above-average defense throughout 2019 are low. And while Zack Cozart with plate discipline was wonderful to watch, it’s an open question if he’ll sustain his production. The aging curve for middle infielders is brutal. The Reds have assets to trade for a good, young, much-less-expensive shortstop.
What about acquiring a front-of-rotation starting pitcher?
Patience. Make this move before 2019, not now. Trading for a star with three seasons left and using one up in 2018 is inefficient. Plus, the starting pitcher tryouts are vital and slots have to be available. Dick Williams has wisely ruled out a top of the rotation signing. We’ll be writing about candidates a year from now.
So another rebuilding year?
Yes, well sort of, and we all wish that wasn’t the case. But 2018 could and should be different than the past two seasons. We could see new young players — important pieces of the final product — at shortstop, left field, center field and second base. Many of the young pitchers should leap forward. We’ll enjoy full seasons of Luis Castillo and Jesse Winker, and a half year of Nick Senzel. The outline of a contending team should emerge.
I notice a bit of hesitation in your voice.
Well, much of that advancement depends on the front office operating with the same nerve and guile as they did with Dan Straily. It is essential that the roster not stagnate this offseason. The club has to evaluate their personnel with clear eyes and march without deviation toward Opening Day, 2019. That includes healthy turnover. If spring training arrives and folks like Scooter Gennett, Adam Duvall, Billy Hamilton and Raisel Iglesias are still around, the club will have thrown away its best shot.