It wasn’t an encouraging start to the winter for Reds fans. After trading Tucker Barnhart and waiving Wade Miley in moves that amounted to little more than salary dumps, general manager Nick Krall famously spoke of “aligning … payroll to our resources.” That hinted at a lack of forthcoming additions, and indeed, the Reds have yet to sign a free agent to a major league deal this offseason.
That said, the Reds haven’t yet orchestrated a sell-off. Barnhart’s a well-respected veteran backstop, but Tyler Stephenson is ready to assume an everyday role. It’s harder to defend cutting Miley, controllable via $10MM club option and coming off a 163-inning, 3.37 ERA season. Yet the soft-tossing Miley is always walking a fine line relying on weak, ground-ball contact. If his run prevention regresses closer to last season’s 4.52 SIERA, that option price would be more reasonable than an immense bargain.
Krall predictably didn’t offer specifics about the franchise’s payroll target for 2022. Currently, they’re projected for $115MM in player expenditures, including estimated salaries for arbitration-eligible players (via Jason Martinez of Roster Resource). That’s a touch shy of last year’s season-opening $122MM mark (according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts). Perhaps the Reds have already “aligned” their payroll by parting with Barnhart and Miley and letting Nick Castellanos hit free agency.
If the Reds were either looking to cut costs or add some young talent to the organization, the most straightforward way to do so would be by further subtracting from the rotation. Cincinnati’s top three starters — Luis Castillo, Tyler Mahle and Sonny Gray — are all under club control through 2023 (assuming free agency trajectory isn’t affected by the new collective bargaining agreement). And unlike some other Reds with notable salaries (i.e. Mike Moustakas, Eugenio Suárez) whom the Reds might want to trade, the rotation members should be in high demand around the league.
Castillo, projected by MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz for a $7.6MM salary in his penultimate arbitration season, tossed 187 2/3 innings with a 3.98 ERA last year. That was his highest mark in three years, but the 29-year-old found his footing after a tough start. He posted a 2.73 ERA from June onwards, with his generally excellent combination of strikeouts (26%) and grounders (59.9%).
Simply ignoring the first two months of the season, when Castillo had an awful 7.22 ERA and subpar 19.3% strikeout percentage, is obviously simplistic. Yet the right-hander’s three-year track record is excellent, and he possesses a fantastic arsenal. Owner of one of baseball’s best changeups and a fastball that averages north of 97 MPH, Castillo seems the most likely of the Reds starters to offer top-of-the-rotation production over the next two years. He’s been the subject of trade rumors in each of the last two offseasons, but reports about the team’s willingness to make him available have varied.
As with Castillo, it’s not clear how willing the Reds seem to be to trade Mahle. He hasn’t been the subject of as many rumors as his top rotation mates this winter. Yet there’d be plenty of appeal if Cincinnati were amenable to moving him. At 27, he’s the youngest of the Reds top trio of starters. Projected for a $5.6MM salary in his second-to-last arbitration year, he’s likely to be the most affordable. And one could make the case he’s coming off the best 2021 campaign of the three.
Mahle’s 3.75 ERA was lower than either of Castillo’s or Gray’s marks. His 27.7% strikeout rate and 8.4% walk percentage bettered the others’ respective figures. He’s not the elite ground-ball guy those others are, but Mahle looks to have made the leap to quality mid-rotation arm over the past two seasons.
Mahle misses bats with both his mid-90s heater and his two secondary pitches — a cutter-slider and a split. The development of the latter offering has proven especially useful in helping the right-hander overcome platoon troubles, as he leans somewhat frequently on the split when facing left-handed batters. After giving up a massive .290/.384/.547 line when at a platoon disadvantage through his first three MLB seasons, he’s held southpaws to a pitiful .194/.280/.306 mark since the start of 2020.
Gray is playing out the 2022 campaign on a $10.667MM contract, and he’s controllable for 2023 via $12.5MM club option. That makes him the costliest of the Reds starters, yet it’s still an obvious bargain for a pitcher who has been as effective as Gray has since landing in Cincinnati.
The right-hander has posted above-average strikeout and ground-ball marks in all three of his seasons with the Reds. Gray may not have quite as pristine of control as Castillo or Mahle possess, but his walk rates aren’t all that concerning. Last year’s 4.19 ERA is more fine than great, but he posted respective 2.87 and 3.70 marks over the two prior seasons. And the 32-year-old Gray was among the sport’s best pitchers at suppressing hard contact, with the Reds mediocre team defense perhaps explaining a bit of a gap between his actual ERA and estimators like FIP, SIERA and xERA — all of which pegged his performance between 3.25 and 3.99.
On the surface, Gray looks like the pitcher the Reds might be most willing to make available. Trading him would knock more money off the books than would a Castillo or Mahle deal, perhaps freeing some room for the front office to address needs in the outfield and/or bullpen. Yet Castillo or Mahle would probably pull stronger returns if they were moved. Trading Gray alone be something of a half-measure: not enough to bring in an influx of impact young talent, while further weakening a roster that finished marginally above .500 last season and has lost or is likely to lose both Miley and Castellanos.
Krall and his staff seem to be in a difficult spot, overseeing a roster that looks a bit shy of contention but without the financial backing to fix its most glaring deficiencies. How they choose to proceed with their trio of high-end starters is yet to be determined, but there’s a compelling argument to move any of the group, as well as a sound case for keeping the entire rotation intact. After all, with two years of control apiece, they should each still be in demand (barring injury) if the team is sputtering by next summer’s trade deadline.
We’ll let MLBTR readers weigh in on the situation. How should the Reds proceed coming out of the lockout?
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