I know, it seems incredibly premature to be talking about the July 31 trade deadline just a week after Opening Day. Right now, the Boston Red Sox are 2-6, while the Seattle Mariners are 7-1. Compared to the rest of the season, practically no baseball has been played yet with still so much left to go. But if you’ll hear me out, I think this year’s deadline may be one of the most important trade deadlines the Reds will go through, and I think it’s crucial to define the goals and expectations for this year’s team and the teams of the future now, so that we can act with clarity and guidance in July. With an enormous amount of talent on this roster set to leave at the end of the season, and a team projected to compete on the outer fringes of the National League, the Reds have a wide range of options in how they move forward, and the decisions they make could improve the team dramatically or come to haunt them for years.
But First, A Note About Being “All-In”…
I’m not the first to point out that the common notion that the Reds are “all-in” in 2019 is misguiding. Steve Mancuso wrote a great piece about how the Reds went “in” this season, but not “all-in”. Here’s an excerpt from that piece:
No, the Reds are not all in. They’re just IN. Being all in would mean trading several of the top five prospects to win in 2019. The Reds didn’t come close to that. IN feels like all in because it’s the first time since Shin-Soo Choo the Reds have tried. We’ve forgotten the difference.
Had the Reds truly emptied the tank to go win-or-bust in 2019, Nick Senzel would be in Cleveland right now and Corey Kluber would have pitched in Cincinnati on Opening Day. If they had sold out for wins this year, Taylor Trammell would be taking reps in Miami’s farm system while J.T. Realmuto received the new battery of Reds pitchers. If the Reds had no consideration for their future past 2019, they would have emptied the piggy bank somewhere in the free agent market for Dallas Keuchel, Bryce Harper, Craig Kimbrell, or any other of the numerous big-name players available this past winter. But as it stands, the Reds doled out only one major league free agent deal – to lefty reliever Zach Duke – and traded none of their top 5 prospects (and only 2 of their top 10), and their farm system remains one of the ten best in baseball. Their payroll is the highest in team history, but only if you don’t account for inflation, and after 2019, over $60 million in salary will come off the books. The Reds still have Nick Senzel, Hunter Greene, Taylor Trammell, Jonathan India, and Tony Santillan. If the Reds had “sold out” for 2019, they would have been able to bring in even more major league talent – massive amounts, in fact – at the expense of that young and cheap talent they have so carefully collected in their rebuild cycle.
The reason this is important is because we need to define what the objectives for the 2019 season were to begin with, before we forget later this year. The Reds are trying to win, yes, and perhaps more so for the short term than they have in previous years. But winning as many games as possible was never the primary objective this season. With that in mind, let’s turn our focus to…
The Mid-Season Trade Deadline
This past offseason, the Players Association and Major League Baseball agreed to a number of cosmetic rule changes, one of them being the elimination of August waiver trades in favor of a single, July 31st midseason trade deadline. There are several consequences of this, including not having to try and figure out how on earth waiver trades work anymore, but the most important result of the change is that teams will no longer be able to exchange players after July 31, which decreases the time and increases the urgency with which teams have to decide the fate of their season, and their strategy going forward.
This is especially interesting for the Reds, who have a glut of players on the last years of their contracts, and are expected to compete mostly on the fringes of the National League this year. Of the 5 major leaguers the Reds acquired in trades this winter, 4 of them – Alex Wood, Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, and Tanner Roark – are free agents at the end of 2019, with only Sonny Gray inked to a long term extension. Throw in second baseman Scooter Gennett as well as relievers Jared Hughes and David Hernandez, and the Reds have plenty of potentially valuable assets to move at the deadline, should they chose.
And that may be a hard choice to make: the Reds are expected to compete only at the fringes of the National League this year. While you can squint and see the team overperforming expectations, if things fall our way – Luis Castillo blossoms into an ace, Sonny Gray returns to his Oakland self, Joey Votto is again an MVP candidate, the team sends an entire infield to the All-Star game – it is much more probable that the Reds will finish at or just above .500 on the season. I picked the Reds to win 84 games this year, which is on the optimistic side of realistic, but still unlikely to be enough to get them to a Wild Card spot. Especially considering the immense competition they face in the National League: it isn’t hard to imagine the Pirates, Reds, Cardinals, Cubs, Brewers, Mets, Phillies, Braves, Nationals, and Rockies all finishing between 80 and 90 wins this year. In a situation like that, 84 wins is unlikely to get you even close to the Wild Card.
This will put the Reds in a particularly tough decision making spot come mid-season. I’ll ask you now, in April: if in July, the Reds are in third place, 7 games back of the division; and 5 games out of the second wild card, with three teams ahead of them, would you buy, sell, or hold at the deadline? Right now, in April, it’s easy for me to say that those Reds should sell. But in the moment, it might not be so clear: if we’re coming off a streak of winning 20 of the last 30 games, after having just sent four players to the All-Star game, and with the Cubs and Brewers faltering, you might be able to talk yourself into thinking that we have a shot in the second half of the season. I know in that situation, I would absolutely feel that urge. And the Reds front office has felt it before, too.
Though I’m sure many readers here need no reminder, it is worth retelling the sad tale of the Matt Harvey debacle. Acquired in May of 2018 from the Mets, Harvey was a reclamation project, a troubled pitcher on the last year of his contract hoping to turn it around with a change of scenery. He entered Cincinnati with a 7.00 ERA in 8 appearances that season, but steadied himself nicely, pitching to a 4.44 ERA in his next 14 starts with the Reds. He appeared to be an obvious trade chip, but the Reds were in the midst of an Era Of Good Feelings, having gone 36-29 in their last 65 games before the All-Star Break. Despite being 13.5 games behind in the NL Central with clearly no hope at a postseason appearance, the Reds held on to Matt Harvey through the deadline, saying they wanted to keep the “positive momentum” going through the rest of the season, and trading away good players would hurt in that goal. The Reds, of course, went 19-36 after the trade deadline, another last place, 90-loss finish that Harvey could not have helped (the Reds went 6-7 in his 15 starts after the deadline). Matt Harvey walked at the end of the season, eventually signing a one-year deal with the Los Angeles Angels, leaving Cincinnati with nothing to show for his tenure here other than an 11-13 record in 24 starts in a 90-loss season.
Though it’s an isolated example, it shows exactly how easy it can be to make poor decisions when your goals are not clearly defined and your decision making is motivated by short-term results. Matt Harvey had value to the Reds only if they had serious intentions of, and a realistic chance of, doing something meaningful with their 2018 season. But that was never a possibility, and by holding on to Matt Harvey for the remainder of the season, they lost 95 games instead of perhaps 97, and missed the opportunity to cash in on some prospects who may have had a chance at helping the Reds in more meaningful seasons to come.
Making the Right Moves
This is not to say that the Reds have to sell all their last-year players this July in order to properly navigate the trade deadline. There are certainly scenarios in which it would make sense to hold on to players like Yasiel Puig and Scooter Gennett, and potentially even scenarios in which they should add to the team mid-season as well.
The crux of this argument is that the criteria used to determine which route to take must be made well before hand, without the emotion and excitement of the moment to cloud those decisions. I don’t know what those criteria should be – I have my ideas, but your mileage will vary depending on who you ask. What do you think it would take to make the Reds buyers in 2019? Being within 3 games of the wild card? Being over .500? Both? There aren’t exactly wrong answers here, what makes the playoffs realistic depends entirely on how much you believe in the Reds and disbelieve in their competition. But I would urge you to consider that question now, and not later. And if the Reds front office is reading, (and why wouldn’t they be? I’m sure this would be the best use of their time) I would urge them to do the same.