The time between now and the July 31 trade deadline may prove as consequential as any two weeks of the Reds multi-year rebuilding process. The team is close to being a contender. That seemed unimaginable in April. But we Reds fans now sense in our bones the wait is months, not years, for a team in the mix.
The organization still has a shopping list, though. It includes a few essential big-ticket items.
A clear-eyed, sound course of action remains ahead. But there’s a risk that ownership and management will allow the team’s recent run of success, and fondness for current players, to get in the way of the rebuilding process reaching its full conclusion. It wouldn’t be the first time meddling by this ownership group botched the timing of a few key trades.
The Reds front office must avoid going wobbly at the finish line.
As we’ve learned the past three seasons, rebuilding can appear to weaken the team in the short run. An example is trading Todd Frazier without an obvious replacement at third base. Another is dealing Aroldis Chapman without a proven closer in waiting. The Reds allowed Zack Cozart to walk without an heir apparent at shortstop.
Then Todd Frazier became Eugenio Suarez and Scott Schebler. Raisel Iglesias ably assumed Aroldis Chapman’s role. Jose Peraza has done better at short than many expected. And so on. Players who seem difficult to replace at the time, aren’t.
A few needed steps await the Reds. Popular, valuable players must be moved to make room for rising talent and acquire additional pieces to fill significant gaps. The front office must continue to operate from three principles: (1) sell high from positions of depth, (2) take advantage of situations where specific players are more valuable to other teams than they are to the Reds, and (3) place a presumption against moves that require untested, major position changes to succeed.
It’s axiomatic to say the Reds focus must remain on the next four years, not the upcoming three months. It’s important to recognize that advice is just as relevant to trading current players as it is to which ones to acquire.
The front office had a plan in place for the trade deadline, knowing that judgments about players would need to be re-evaluated based on 2018 performance. Dick Williams should take into account what has transpired the past three-and-a-half months. New hard data about individual players is extremely valuable.
What Williams must ignore are gauzy narratives about chemistry and squishy bromides about keeping the team together that operate to frustrate needed roster improvements.
Success breeds chemistry, not the reverse.
The Reds owner and his close counselors need to give Williams, Nick Krall and their hard-working staff the latitude and support for making a few final decisions to optimize the rebuilt Reds.
It’s imperative the front office not get sidetracked by success or lose its nerve as the trade deadline approaches.
1. Acquisition of one or two solid starting pitchers has become the clear-cut highest priority
Luis Castillo’s small step backward should temper enthusiasm from his rookie season. Castillo, who has pitched about a half-run worse in 2018 than 2017, might still become an ace, but it’s clear that can’t be counted on. Anthony DeSclafani has shown he’s healthy enough to be a solid rotation piece. Tyler Mahle, only 23, has a promising future as a reliable starter. On the other hand, Homer Bailey has called into serious question his viability in the rotation. Sal Romano has a long road ahead and is a candidate for the bullpen or AAA to work on another pitch.
While the diminishing role for starters argues against selling the farm to chase an ace, adding one or two strong rotation arms would be a massive benefit to the Reds. Whether this acquisition happens now, in the offseason, or both depends on the market for Raisel Iglesias and Scooter Gennett.
2. Jose Peraza’s 2018 performance has reduced the urgency to look for a top-of-the-organization shortstop
Peraza has hit well for two months. His walk-rate remains low and Peraza is yet to hit with much power. In March, the shortstop position was a gigantic question mark for the Reds. Peraza’s 2018 average-ish performance has shrunk uncertainty to non-crisis levels. I wouldn’t say he’s the shortstop of the future based on a couple of months – Peraza has had these streaks before – but he might be. If Jose Peraza fades in the second half of 2018, shortstop would re-emerge as an urgent need in the offseason. But it isn’t now. That said, organizational depth at short is an issue and remains a second-tier priority.
Joey Votto, Eugenio Suarez (and his brilliant extension) and Tucker Barnhart are locked in for a few years, all having excellent seasons.
3. Trade Scooter Gennett based on organizational depth
Scooter Gennett’s popularity with Reds fans recalls the same affection toward Todd Frazier, as does the opposition to trading him. Gennett’s strong 2018 season has shown 2017 wasn’t a fluke. Sure, his power is off a bit, his defense remains suspect and there are warning signs his batting average is due to fall. But Gennett has proven he has value.
The case for trading Gennett has more to do with the principle of selling high from a position of organizational depth than the risk of backsliding. The Reds have Dilson Herrera now and Nick Senzel next year, alternatives that weren’t as clear in the case of Frazier.
Could the Reds move Scooter Gennett to the outfield? Maybe, but he’s only played 16 games there as a major leaguer, and none this year. Right now, the club shouldn’t rely on it absent an extended trial. Keeping Gennett or signing him to an extension based on the assumption that he’s a passable outfielder is an unnecessary gamble. The Reds have Jesse Winker, who shows early signs of being an excellent major league hitter, and Scott Schebler, who has done well as a leadoff hitter, to play corner outfield.
An extension for Gennett would be a risky use of tens of millions of dollars that could go to other needs. It would start in 2020, a month from Gennett turning 30. The aging curve for second basemen in their 30’s is steep.
If the Reds can get two solid pieces for Gennett, they should move him and create space for Herrera and Senzel. If they can pair Gennett with another player and land one of the starting pitchers they need, it’s an obvious step.
The Reds struck gold in signing Scooter Gennett off the Brewers’ trash pile. He’s been terrific on the field and hit a home run in the All-Star Game. The front office would deserve an A+ if they capitalize on their fortune and turn him into even more value for the future, a la Dan Straily.
4. Aggressively shop the veteran relievers (evergreen)
Jared Hughes and David Hernandez have been successful signings so far. Each is under contract a second year. Given that free agent relief pitchers are extremely unreliable from year to year, and the H&H Boys have exceeded expectations, it’s the right time to move them.
Even the best relievers are erratic year to year. For each of the past three seasons, if you made a list of the Top 60 relievers, you’d find fewer than half those names on that same list the following season. About 15% of the Top 60 relievers one season have negative value the next. That’s how fleeting success is for the vast majority of relievers.
Hughes and Hernandez were unsigned by their previous teams. The list of bullpen blowouts the Reds have signed in recent seasons (Kevin Gregg, Yovanni Gallardo, Caleb Cotham, Steve Delabar, Burke Badenhop, Ross Ohlendorf, Drew Storen, can I please stop now?) makes it hard to credit the front office with a secret formula for identifying free agent relievers. They’ve been lucky this time, so far. One good thing can be said, the Reds didn’t spend much money on either guy.
The case for trading Hughes and Hernandez is finding a trade partner that expects the relievers be reliable for a few more months and next season. Hughes and Hernandez have a lot more value to those teams than they do the 2018 Reds. If either brings back a young spare part or a legit prospect, it would be well worth it.
Always be selling high on relievers, especially ones over 30. Hughes and Hernandez are 33.
5. Trade Raisel Iglesias for a starting pitcher
The urgency to trade Iglesias isn’t high. The Reds could trade him in the offseason or even at next year’s July trade deadline and a healthy Iglesias would remain a significant value to the receiving team. The danger, of course, is that he’ll get hurt or go into a slump. That’s no small consideration. The real threat of a shoulder injury is why the Reds 2016 Opening Day starting pitcher is in the bullpen.
So why look to trade Iglesias now? Because this is the time of year when contending teams are often willing to pay an irrational amount for relief help. Iglesias has appeal for the entire range of contending teams, from big stack spenders to frugal organizations who find extra value in his modest salary.
The case for trading Iglesias starts here: Raisel Iglesias is the easiest path to a compelling starting pitcher. While bullpens overall are important, individual relievers throw about 70 innings a year. Iglesias pitches 12-13 innings a month, several of those aren’t high leverage because of closer rules. Quality starters are much more important. Iglesias is the one asset that guarantees the Reds a huge return.
The Reds have a long list of pitchers who could assume the closer role with little to no drop off. When the Reds were contemplating trading Aroldis Chapman, Iglesias wasn’t on anyone’s list as the Reds next ninth-inning guys. Effective closers come from surprising places. Let’s not hold on to Iglesias too long like the Reds did with Chapman.
Always be trading successful closers to teams that overvalue them.
6. Finish the Matt Harvey project
Harvey is a free agent at the end of the season. The Reds traded for him to see if they could turn him around at the deadline. So far, it’s worked better than anyone imagined. If Harvey keeps pitching well, he’ll sign a longish deal as a free agent for more money than the Reds should pay. Matt Harvey isn’t going to agree to a cheap extension with the Reds to pitch in GABP. But every successful start he makes in the next two weeks adds to what the Reds can ask. Simon for Suarez, Latos for DeSclafani, Straily for Castillo.
7. Get something for Billy Hamilton
Billy Hamilton is what he is as a player. Depending on how the rest of 2018 goes, there’s even a reasonable case for non-tendering Hamilton next year. He earns $4.6 million in 2018. His salary could increase to nearly eight digits in his last year of arbitration before becoming a free agent.
If the Reds could trade Hamilton for a cheaper, better-hitting version of himself, even at the expense of a little defense, they would be doing well. Or they could sign a decent free agent CF in the offseason for a year or two, to bridge the gap to Taylor Trammell. Hamilton (or Adam Duvall) could be a second piece, say along with a reliever or Scooter Gennett, to snag one of those starters. Making a deal for a satisfactory starting pitcher is way more important than holding onto a last few fun memories of Billy Hamilton in a Reds uniform.
Scott Schebler could play center for the rest of this season, if necessary.
That’s the right plan for the next two weeks as I see it.
The Reds rebuilding suffered massively from a halting, indecisive start. They have the opportunity now to see it fully through to conclusion. The finish line is not a place to be distracted by shiny objects. The Reds front office must stay focused on its vision of the future and resolutely march toward it.
Steve grew up in Cincinnati as a die-hard fan of Sparky’s Big Red Machine. After 25 years living outside of Ohio, mostly in Ann Arbor, he returned to the Queen City in 2004. He has resumed a first-person love affair with the Cincinnati Reds and is a season ticket holder at Great American Ball Park. The only place to find Steve’s thoughts of more than 140 characters is Redleg Nation. Follow his tweets @spmancuso.