Baseball’s inaugural franchise has had something of a troubling recent stretch. Their consistent mediocrity has been the only constant in a division that seemingly has a new top team every other year. In 2021, the Reds yet again managed to somehow both exceed expectations and still end up as the NL Central’s third place team.
They can try to retool and gear up for another run at a playoff appearance, or they can admit what the rest of the baseball world has known for some time, that they can’t win with their current roster and they should try to rebuild. Admittedly, which way they go this offseason seems to be completely out of their control. Their fate is in the hands of Nicholas Castellanos; if he accepts his player option they try to contend while they’ve got him, if he declines it then it’s time to hit the franchise reset altogether.
Conventional wisdom says that a player on an average team with an option to leave for a contender, while getting a pay-raise, will do just that. Castellanos will force the Reds to fold on 2022, and use this winter to rebuild their organization. So that is exactly what I’m trying to do here, in a little series I’m calling “The Offseason Dissection”. In an effort to examine what the Reds have now, and where they need to be come opening day of 2022, I’ve broken this team down position by position. I’ll talk who needs to stay and who needs to go. So with out further a do, let’s begin with the man who’s job that actually is:
Cincinnati has still only just recently appointed a new General Manager and Vice President of Baseball Operations, Nick Krall, in 2018. Krall kept the team relevant to a degree, with flashy trades and signings in his few offseasons to this point. Now though you have to ask the question, is he the guy you trust to blow things up and start over?
Scanning the market for alternative options, it’s pretty easy to pinpoint that the ideal candidate for a full-scale rebuild that’ll eventually do away with a 30+ year championship drought, is none other than Theo Epstein. He did it for the Red Sox and the division-rival Cubs, and most indications say he’ll be able to do it again with the next team he joins. Now whether or not the Reds are an attractive enough destination for Epstein is a different question. They’re a storied franchise for sure, but their small market status hardly holds a candle to his past employers and for that alone I think the Reds will have to either search elsewhere or run it back with their current GM.
Let’s for the sake of argument, say that Krall does keep his job, since he does have a strong track record of prioritizing player development which will play pretty big in a rebuild. The only early red flag is his pension for jumping the gun in pursuit of a win-now strategy, and this is going to require a lot more patience than that.
The Reds are among the few teams in baseball this upcoming season who are very likely to return the same coaches to the dugout, unless of course some get poached by other teams for better roles, and the group they’ve assembled deserves to stick around.
Former journeyman infielder, David Bell has been managing the Reds since 2018 and has fostered an environment of comradery. Bell has instilled a “Cincinnati against everybody” mindset, which has now led to some legendary brawls, but more importantly a sense of unity among the players on the team. Bell’s background in player development prior to becoming the Reds’ manager makes him particularly well-suited to sit at the helm of a rebuilding roster, soon to be littered with 20-somethings getting their first cracks at the pro level.
Alongside Bell, the Reds will return Pitching Coach, Derek Johnson (who helped Trevor Bauer to a Cy Young Award in 2020); and Alan Zinter is a long-time friend and favorite of Bell’s who came with him from the Giants’ Player Development department, making him equally well-suited to the task at hand.
The Reds’ rotation could see some pretty drastic changes at the top given the franchise opting for a new direction. Sonny Gray has been a revelation for Cincy ever since arriving there from a poor stint in the Bronx. Entering the final guaranteed year of his contract (before a team option for 2023), Gray is to be considered a very hot commodity because of his low salary and above-average production. Look for him to be the first of several trades to pad a rebuild effort. The team also has a $10-million option on Wade Miley, which is likely to be declined. Lastly, Luis Castillo, despite still being under team control for three more seasons, is a name that has been floated fairly often in trade discussions as a proven commodity who can bring back a plethora of prospects.
That means the Reds would return just Tyler Mahle and Vladimir Gutierrez from the rotation that closed out 2021. Both are serviceable young arms with mid-rotation upside, but nothing in comparison to the two young men we’ll see join them for next Spring: Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo. The former is a fire-baller, who has the promise of a longtime ace. The latter profiles as an excellent number two because of his nasty breaking pitches from a lanky left-handed delivery.
Not sure if we see both of those youngsters immediately out of Spring Training next season, I think the Reds could look to bargain hunt for a forgotten free agent starter who can profile as a trade asset with a strong start to 2022. I’d love to see them take an extended look at someone like Corey Kluber, Cole Hammels or Jon Lester. Any of them would make strong additions for veteran leadership, but perhaps more importantly, all are former aces who want to desperately prove that they belong on a contender’s pitching staff come October of 2022. Sign one (maybe two) and let them use you to audition for another job, then you flip them for whatever moldable assets you can get in July.
The Reds have an incredible talent for taking one team’s trash and turning it into treasure. After taking on Luis Cessa in a salary dump from the Yankees this past Summer, Cincy turned him into a late-inning stud. They did similar things with one-time Brave, Lucas Sims. They’ve also still got the ever-exciting (for many reasons) Amir Garrett and Michael Lorenzen in the ‘pen too.
There’s been some speculation that the Reds might be able to convert one of their coveted pitching prospects into a ninth inning role in the near future, but I don’t know that I love that idea. The starter pool is ever-thinning so intentionally taking one of your potential aces and asking him to reinvent his mechanics for a different job seems foolish at this stage. Instead I’d very much like to see the Reds take a different type of risk this winter.
Bringing Roberto Osuna back into baseball is a PR nightmare that no team has wanted to live since his 75-game suspension for domestic violence back in 2018. The Reds don’t have a whole lot to lose here, and everything to gain if it pans out. Osuna is still young enough to anchor a closer role in Cincinnati for at least another 5-6 seasons if healthy, or at the very least could turn himself into another top-tier trade piece for the Reds to use to get a prospect return at the trade deadline.
What the Reds decide to do with Tucker Barnhart’s $7.5 million club option is something to watch this winter. They could elect to decline it in the interest of saving money, accept it only to then trade him for more assets, or accept it with the intent of letting him play in Cincinnati through the All-Star break where his value in a limited catching market could prove to be even greater.
Regardless, we can assume Barnhart’s days are numbered as the backstop for the Reds. That makes this job Tyler Stephenson’s to lose in 2022. The team’s best catching prospect (#9 Matheu Nelson) is still playing Low-A ball and remains a ways away from a big-league job. They could elect to see what options exist for them in the Rule-5 Draft or courtesy of the non-tender deadline, or they could bring in a stop-gap backstop until a better option comes to fruition.
Most likely, Stephenson retains the job in 2022, but the Reds’ rebuilding efforts net them a more competitive catching prospect who could be big league ready by 2023.
First Base in the Great American Ballpark will belong to Joey Votto until he elects to hang up his cleats or changes his mind about pursuing that elusive championship elsewhere. If Votto were willing to waive his no-trade clause, the Reds would have to eat a lion share of the remaining two years and $50-million to facilitate a trade to any contender. Otherwise though, it looks like Votto is going to literally be playing for the Reds until he turns 40 and gets his farewell-tour through the bigs before retiring after the 2023 season. It’s not all sour grapes though, Votto remains productive well into his late-30s, it’s just a shame that he won’t be adding any team hardware to his mantle before it’s all said and done.
No sense in looking at replacements for now, unless they’re part of a prospect package that the Reds take back from any of their more likely trades.
Here’s another lock to stay in place on the Reds’ infield, but for far better reasons, Jonathan India. India broke on to the scene in 2021 because the Reds desperately needed him to. Thin at essentially every position up the middle, the former Third Baseman slotted over much more gracefully than some of the other Reds we’ll talk about, and was able to rack up stats on both sides of the ball.
He’s a slightly above average defender, but is helped to a lot of balls by his athleticism. Offensively, he appears to be a long-term leadoff option for the Reds due to his contact-driven approach and ability to get on base and steal bases.
Jonathan India is my runaway for Rookie of the Year in the National League in 2021, and has earned himself the right to be deemed part of the future plans for this storied franchise.
It’s never easy to say goodbye to someone who has been so good to you for so long, but that’s what Cincy will have to do this winter to move forward with their rebuild. Eugenio Suarez was among baseball’s premier hitters for the better part of the last decade, while playing a strong third base for the Reds. He’s destined to land on a fringe contender needing corner-infield help or as a hilariously too-good-for-this-job backup infielder on a super team when he hits free agency in a matter of weeks.
The Reds would likely be more inclined to part ways with Mike Moustakas this winter, but because he remains under contract for another two seasons at least, he’s relatively unmovable. They’ve got him, he’s not terrible, so they’ve got to play him.
But on a more positive note here, he’ll likely clear out of the way just in time to make room for one of my personal favorites from the 2019 Draft Class and #7 prospect, Rece Hinds.
As much as the Reds loved Suarez, they absolutely hated watching him play up the middle last year. The Reds’ lack of athletes to play Second, Short and Center was an appalling omission from their roster out of Spring Training. As we mentioned, they fixed Second Base with India, but now its time to address their needs at Shortstop in a similar way.
The Reds’ long-term Shortstop is Matt McLain, their #3 prospect and the 17th pick in the 2021 Draft. Still just in High-A ball at the close of the 2021 campaign, he’ll get a lot more work in the Arizona Fall League before ultimately getting a nice long look in Spring Training. It isn’t unthinkable for the Reds to promote the surprisingly-powerful, despite undersized infielder, but I do think he’s more likely to be setup as a September call-up in 2022, leaving a hole at the start of the year for a veteran replacement.
The Reds have brought in Freddy Galvis and Jose Iglesias for similar reasons before, and I suppose its possible one of them comes back to do it again, but more likely is that they choose someone else. My money is on Marwin Gonzalez. The switch-hitting super-utility man is desperate to reclaim another major league job after abysmal stints with the Twins, Red Sox and Astros led to him being out of baseball altogether at the close of 2021. He’ll come at a bargain basement price and in another situation of “if he plays well you can trade him” there really is no downside for a rebuilding team to take a flyer on a guy like Gonzalez.
Despite still having three more years of team control, those in the know believe that the Reds could be looking to sell high on Jesse Winker. If that is the case, he’d undoubtedly be their most attractive trade bait and net them a swarm of good young ballplayers. If he does get moved, this is an opportunity for Nick Senzel to finally get the fulltime job at a position fans have been desperate to see for him since his debut in 2019. Many believe that Senzel’s offensive woes have been accentuated by his inconsistent playing time and at-times random defensive assignments in the field. Giving him a regular home could be the stability he needs to reclaim the potential that once made him among baseball’s top 10 prospects in 2018.
In Centerfield, the Reds need to make another minor league call up happen sooner rather than later. Michael Siani has been hailed as one of the best defensive centerfielders in the minor leagues since his debut in the Reds system back in 2018. His work with the bat still leaves a lot to be desired, but for a team that once hailed Billy Hamilton as their franchise cornerstone, Siani’s speed on the bases should be just enough offensive juice to warrant a promotion.
For Reds Right Fielder, Aristedes Aquino, its time to piss or get off the pot in 2022. With Castellanos leaving, the job belongs to him and him alone out of Spring Training. He was an anomaly in the first 50 games of his big league career, hitting 19 homers in that insanely short stretch. In nearly three times as many games since then, Aquino has mustered all of 12 homers while batting .170 in 2020 and .190 in 2021. The hype upon his arrival in the big leagues warrants him at least one more shot at this next season, otherwise this will be a position of need when the Reds look to secure prospects through their many impending trades.