Cincinnati Reds’ Small-Market Rebuild on Display in Chicago
The Reds had an interesting offseason, perhaps the most interesting in baseball, but they’re hoping they don’t end up living in interesting times. Regardless, this past winter offered a stark reminder of the differences in rebuilding strategies between large- and small-market teams.
To understand the 2019 Reds, and their offseason, we need to examine the 2018 Reds. They entered last season having been in full rebuild mode for several seasons and hoped to blossom into a .500 team, with an intent to genuinely contend in 2019. That did not happen, as the Reds instead went 67-95.
Of particular concern was a league-average season from would-be ace Luis Castillo after a breakout 2017, and Homer Bailey’s worst season as a Red (and, folks, that is a high bar). Yet not everything went wrong. Third baseman Eugenio Suarez responded to his preseason contract extension by posting a career high 4.2 bWAR. Closer Raisel Inglesias (whom the Reds also extended) delivered his third consecutive season of at least 2 bWAR, an impressive display of consistency from a bullpen arm.
The Reds also had career years from setup man Jared Hughes (3.3 bWAR), who is under control for two more years, and journeyman second baseman Scooter Gennett (4.2 bWAR), who enters his walk year in 2019. Top prospect Nick Senzel dominated in his first taste of Triple-A, slashing .310/.378/.509 over 193 plate appearances before being shut down with a finger injury. The Reds also placed three additional prospects in the top 100 league-wide.
Still, it did not bode well that four players had career years and yet the Reds only won 67 games. That pushed the brass into a decision: Press on for full-blown contention in 2019 or rebuild for one more year. The Reds chose option A, strengthening their team with three major offseason trades.
First, they swapped a low-level prospect to the Nationals for rental starter Tanner Roark. Next, they dug slightly deeper into the farm system and sent two of their top-10 prospects along with Homer Bailey’s contract to the Dodgers. In return they got a trio of useful pieces on one-year deals: outfielders Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp and pitcher Alex Wood (plus a long-term bench bat Kyle Farmer).
Finally, they traded another top-10 system-wide prospect, outfielder Shed Long, to the Yankees for starting pitcher Sonny Gray. The Reds immediately extended Gray through 2023 (including the option year), further proof of just how unhappy the righty was in New York.
To understand these moves, you need to view them through the lens of small-market logic. The Reds are trying transition from rebuild to contention, but they can’t afford to go after a Jon Lester in free agency as the Cubs did. Gray is basically the small-market equivalent, a former All-Star being shopped at a price that warranted a gamble on his return to form.
The Puig deal also made a lot of sense from a small-market context. In one trade, the Reds were able to extricate themselves from a bad long-term deal and provide a needed jolt of excitement for 2019. Cincinnati needs strong attendance (and the resulting revenue) to continue ramping up their spending as they enter contention.
By contrast, the large-market Cubs chose to swallow bad contracts and stockpile prospects until they were ready to contend. It never occurred to the Cubs to package Edwin Jackson with prospects. The Reds, however, needed to. By cashing in a significant chunk of their prospect depth, the Reds likely shortened their window of contention, but that is what a small-market team needs to do.
The Reds’ timing is also a function of being a small market team competing against wealthier rivals. They know that they can’t just wait out the Cubs and Cardinals and compete at a more opportune time. Both clubs have the revenue to keep their cores together and still supplement with free agents, a luxury the Reds do not have.
Viewed through this lens, I can understand the Reds’ aggressive moves to compete in 2019. Unfortunately for them, this also means having to restock the roster without Puig, Gennett, Roark, and Wood…and with a huge chunk of their farm system gone.