The Reds made a huge splash this offseason with a star studded trade, sending Homer Bailey and prospects to the Dodgers for Matt Kemp, Alex Wood, Kyle Farmer, and Yasiel Puig. Immediate reception of the trade was positive from Reds fans, but as the 2019 season got underway, the Reds side of the equation took a turn for the worse. Kemp was released. Wood, injured in Spring Training, hasn’t thrown a pitch in a Reds uniform. Farmer has been a nice piece off the bench, and has provided some roster flexibility with his ability to play Catcher, but not much else. And through the first few months of the season, Yasiel Puig was hitting well below his career numbers to the point of mediocrity.
But hold on friends! Puig, in signature dramatic fashion, has come back with a vengeance on the 2019 season. Since June 10th through the writing of this sentence, the Wild Horse has literally been the best hitter in the league, hitting .388/.430/.806, good for a wRC+ of 210 (h/t Chad Ulysses Dotson). His hot streak has made his overall numbers on the season skyrocket, and should he continue this trend, he’ll easily surpass his career numbers in the second half of the season.
The Reds roster has a slight outfield problem. Top prospect Taylor Trammell has all but stopped playing Center Field in the minor leagues, perhaps because the front office isn’t sold on his arm. Other prospects such as Aristides Aquino, Josh VanMeter and Brian O’Grady have had spectacular seasons so far, but could just be a flash in the pan. Scott Schebler, once thought to perhaps have what it takes to be a starter in Right Field, has seemingly had his ability to hit a baseball sucked out of him by aliens from Moron Mountain.
So is Yasiel Puig the answer in Right Field for the “Next Good Reds TeamTM”? How might the Reds tame the Wild Horse, and lock him into the stables of an extension? Let’s take a look at the possibilities.
Contract extensions have been a boon for the Reds in recent years. This front office is very good at recognizing talent on the roster and locking it down for multiple years. Although Tucker Barnhart has struggled offensively this season, he still provides a level of leadership behind the plate that the pitching staff seems to respect immensely, and his defensive numbers were trending upward prior to his injury. Eugenio Suarez has one of the most valuable contracts in the league, and is starting to heat up in his own right. And, although the major players have changed since the time of the signing, let us not forget about Joey Votto’s contract, and how he’s been worth every single dollar (and then some).
So it’s easy to see why fans are clamoring for the club to get a deal done with Puig before he can test Free Agency. So why not do it? It certainly makes sense from a financial standpoint. The team is the lone bidder, and typically has easy access to the player and his management in order to get a deal done. Two extensions for similar players – Aaron Hicks and George Springer – have been good for both the player and the team. Let’s take a look at those deals:
As you can see, these deals are very different. In the Hicks deal, the Yankees are very clearly trying to lock up a young talent for a long time. They’ve signed him to a modest salary through 2025, his age 35 season, with a team option for 2026. That team option is $2M higher than the AAV of the rest of the contract, and serves as a good goal for Hicks to strive for.
Springer’s contract, on the other hand, is a master stroke by the Astros. In extending Springer, they make him happy by giving him some job stability and a cool $12M paycheck each year, something the team didn’t have to do considering Springer’s arbitration situation. The contract only pays Springer through 2019, at which point he’ll have his 2020 salary decided through the arbitration process. He’s still under control by the Astros, but his 2020 salary won’t be set until this Winter.
But why is this ultimately a win for the Astros? They can cut bait or decide to continue to play ball well before the Yankees will have that opportunity with Hicks. If the team decides they’d like to continue to pay the 30 year old Springer to play baseball for them at the contract’s end, they’re still in the driver’s seat for an additional extension. However, as most smart baseball clubs know, players tend to take a dive at 30 years old. Springer is certainly an exception to this rule, having already accrued 3.2 fWAR at the time this article is being written, but if he had been plagued by injuries, or had been affected by the same colorful aliens who got to Scott Schebler, the Astros have the ability to simply walk away.
Both contracts above have their merits, and I could see the Reds signing Puig to either of these deals. If I’m the Reds, and I can get Puig to agree to a deal structured similarly to Springer’s, I take that check to his locker and run. Unfortunately talks between the team and Puig have yet to begin, and all indications point to Puig being destined for testing Free Agency. Time will tell, but in the meantime, let’s assume the Wild Horse breaks free from his reins and gallops through the open field of Free Agency.
Free Agent Signing
The free agent market has been a weird one for the past few seasons. Teams aren’t afraid to leave the table if star players are demanding more money than their market value determines they’re worth. That hasn’t stopped guys like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado from getting paid, but as out there as Puig is, he isn’t close to that stratosphere.
However, there is some precedence for contracts for guys similar to Puig’s ability level. Last offseason A.J. Pollock and Andrew McCutchen both signed Free Agent deals. It’s important to note that both of these players are older than Puig, and both of them are likely past their prime, whereas Puig is likely right smack in the middle of his. Let’s take a look at those deals:
It should be noted that both of these deals are loaded down with incentives. Let’s take a look at Pollock’s for example. His deal features a 2022 opt-out that becomes available if he accrues 1,000 plate appearances over the course of the 2020-2021 seasons (2 years), OR 1,450 plate appearances over the course of the 2019-2021 seasons (3 years). An additional player option is added on to the end for the 2023 season. Both opt-outs have a $5M buyout. The 2023 buyout escalates depending on the amount of plate appearances in the 2022 season, as well as MVP voting results from the 2019-2022 seasons, up to a possible total of an extra $25M should he win the MVP award in 2019, ‘20, ‘21, and ‘22 seasons.
Needless to say, you’re right if you’d think the Reds would rather sign Puig to an extension rather than duke things out with his agent in Free Agency. On top of some of these ludicrous and technical add-ons, the Reds will also have to contend with 29 other teams who may want to bring Puig in to bolster their offense.
Because of all the negotiating, Free Agent deals have the high probability of being longer and more expensive than contract extensions. While not yet 30, it’s likely any Free Agent deal Puig signs with the Reds will bring him well into his 30s, at which point it’s likely the Reds will have better options arriving either from the farm system or through other means. That being said, I wouldn’t be opposed to a contract laid out similarly to McCutchen’s with the Phillies.
This is where things get really interesting, and (if possible) more complicated. As most readers here know, teams have the opportunity to offer a one-year ‘Qualifying Offer’ contract to all players with expiring contracts at the end of the season. This Qualifying Offer is the mean of the top 125 salaries in baseball, which should land right around $18M. This happens before Free Agency, but allows for the players to talk to other clubs to get a sense of the market for them. If the player accepts the deal, the club signs him to a 1 year, ~$18M contract immediately. If he refuses, he enters the Free Agent market and the team is rewarded with a compensatory draft pick, either between the first and second or second and third rounds of the following year’s MLB Draft.
Offering a Qualifying Offer to Puig is right in the center of the decision making matrix for the Reds. A QO for Puig is at the same time a lot to pay for a player, but potentially just right for his skill set. It’s also at the same time too short of a contract (you’d like to get him for his entire primer), but it might also be nice to not be locked in to a long term agreement with a player as volatile as Puig.
It should be noted that the fewest ever Qualifying Offers were made last offseason, as a whopping 7 players were offered QO’s. Only one (Dodger pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu) accepted his deal. The other players were clearly going to get more money in Free Agent deals than they were offered in their QO. Puig is right there in that sweet spot. If his second half continues to see him hit as good or better than his career numbers, I think the Qualifying Offer is a no-brainer for the Reds. If the team decides Puig is worth one year at $18M, you can’t lose in this situation. If Puig accepts, great! The Reds have a solid player for the 2020 season. If he doesn’t accept – great! The Reds have an extra (somewhat high) pick in the 2020 draft.
Ultimately, extending the QO is the decision I would make with Yasiel Puig if a short extension along the lines of George Springer’s is off the table. Again, contingent on him being a good hitter for the rest of the season, I would put things in his hands. Want to give it another run? Great, let’s sign the QO and we’ll do it again next year. If not, it was fun while it lasted, and the Reds will be able to make additional offseason moves accordingly.
If you were running the team, what would you do with Yasiel Puig? Let us know below!