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The Reds Are Hedging Their Bets...But Why?

By almost any measure, this upcoming baseball season should be one of the most anticipated and exciting in recent Reds memory.  The youth movement is fully underway – and for once, the hype appears to be justified.  Elly De La Cruz quickly established himself as one of the league’s brightest proto-stars last year, exceeding what were already massive expectations for a then-21-year-old rookie.  Between hitting for the cycle, stealing home, and throwing absolute piss missiles across the diamond, De La Cruz is already on the short-list of brightest young prospects in the MLB.  His presence alone would be enough to get a winner-starved town like Cincinnati hyped, but he’s far from alone.

Hunter Greene is the closest thing in baseball to a De La Cruz-version of a starting pitcher.  Matt McLain burst on to the scene and looked like a ten-year vet while batting in the middle of the Reds lineup from almost day one.  Late season call-ups Christian Encarnacion-Strand and Noelvi Marte acquitted themselves nicely, and a once-putrid bullpen saw a remarkable turnaround that went from team weakness in 2022 to outright strength in 2023.  Now, with reinforcements by the way of multiple relievers, potentially two starting pitchers and a middle-of-the-order bat acquired through free agency, the Reds appear to be back on the fast-track to contending.

This is all great news.  Then, what’s the problem?

Let me be fair: I’m happy about all the moves the Reds made this offseason.  In a vacuum, they’re all great additions.  Frankie Montas is a low-risk/high-reward signing that could turn into the steal of free agency if his injury woes are behind him.  Jeimer Candelario will step into the middle of the Reds lineup and provide a durable and dangerous bat.  Nick Martínez could fill multiple roles as a starting pitcher or long-reliever, and regardless of where he ends up he should still be a reliable innings-eater for a team that needed to go to its bullpen early and often last year.  And speaking of bullpen, guys like Emilio Pagán, Brent Suter and 2023 deadline addition Sam Moll should go a long way toward stiffening an already-serviceable group of relievers.

But for as good as these additions are individually, looking at this group as a collective doesn’t quite inspire the same excitement.  Baseball isn’t played in a vacuum.  Unfortunately, the Reds play in a National League with behemoths like the Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies, not to mention last year’s defending NL Champs the Arizona Diamondbacks – and it’s not totally unreasonable to think every one of those teams could be better than they were last year.

The Braves fell wildly short of expectations following a dominant regular season, but with Ronald Acuña Jr., Matt Olsen, Spencer Strider and a bevy of All-Stars returning, you can be sure the Braves will be out to prove their early exit in 2023 was a fluke.  The Dodgers, meanwhile, only added the biggest star in baseball in Shohei Ohtani.  He may not pitch in 2024, but his bat is still elite.  Oh, and the Dodgers went out and acquired Yoshinobu Yamamoto, the top pitcher in Japan and someone who can do a nifty Ohtani impression on the mound too.

The Phillies also return who’s who of baseball royalty, including perennial MVP-candidate Bryce Harper, two stud top-of-the-rotation starters in Aaron Nola and Zach Wheeler, and everybody’s favorite perpetual Mendoza-line straddler Kyle Schwarber.  They looked like the team to beat in the NL until they ran into destiny in corporeal form – the Diamondbacks.  For all the hype De La Cruz gets, Corbin Carroll is easily the best young player in the NL right now, and it’s not particularly close.  Having an all-around gamer like Carroll is a sweet deal all its own, but the Diamondbacks decided not to rest on their laurels and added sluggers Joc Pederson and Eugenio Suárez to an already formidable lineup.

In comparison, the Reds roster feels…somewhat incomplete.  They’re long on potential and short on production.  De La Cruz, McLain, Encarnacion-Strand, and Marté are all outstanding prospects in their own right, and they all deserve the massive hype they’ve gotten up to this point, but they’re still prospects.  They might turn into stars, but they might not.  To suggest that the Reds lineup is anything more than a question mark (albeit a fantastic looking question mark), is absurd.

For better or worse, it looks like the Reds are done making significant moves.  What you see is what you’ll get in 2024.  There are plenty of reasons to be excited, but there’s also plenty to worry about too.

Maybe if the Reds extended one of their promising youngsters, this offseason wouldn’t have felt so incomplete.  And frankly, it’s a bit of a mystery why the Reds haven’t locked up one of the aforementioned quartet already.  The Reds handed Greene a six-year, $53 million contract barely a few weeks into the 2023 season, and all he’d done up to that point was tease us with his tantalizing talent.  Perhaps the Reds have something similar in mind this year.

De La Cruz is the obvious candidate.  With his remarkably unique skill-set and obvious marketing potential, you’d imagine the Reds ownership would be drooling at the proposition of a decade or more of Elly headlines.  It certainly wouldn’t be cheap, but let’s face facts: signing him now would be significantly cheaper than trying to sign him on the open market.  The Reds aren’t going to be outbidding the Yankees or the Dodgers in free agency.  Their best bet is to lock him up as soon as humanly possible.

There’s significant recent precedent for this too.  The Kansas City Royals just locked up star 23-year-old shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. to an eleven-year, $288.8 million contract just over a month ago.  The Tampa Bay Rays handed the then 20-year-old Wander Franco an eleven-year, $182 million contract before he’d even played a full MLB season back in 2021.  Neither team had to extend them, but if you believe in someone, why wait?

Of course, the Franco contract is informative of the risks involved in handing a young, relatively unproven player a mega-deal.  Last year, authorities in the Dominican Republic accused Franco of having an inappropriate relationship with a minor, and now his baseball career is in jeopardy.  There’s no reason to believe De La Cruz is involved in anything remotely similar, but the risks don’t stop at personal behavior.  Let’s not forget how De La Cruz struggled in the second half of the season – it’s quite possible he’s more that player than the one who lit the MLB on fire in early summer.

The Reds, though, aren’t really in a position to take a wait-and-see approach.  They’re hedging their bets in 2024, but they shouldn’t.  The free agency clock is already ticking, and their young stars are getting more expensive by the minute.  There is certainly risk in handing a big contract to a hypothetical game-changer, but for a small-market team, there’s risk in any decision.  

There's a risk in signing a big-name free agent who could regress.  There’s a risk in trading prospects who could turn into difference-makers for veterans who could disappoint.  There's a risk in locking up a youngster.  For teams like the Yankees and Dodgers who can just throw more money at problems, this is less of a big deal.  The Reds, sadly, don’t have that luxury.

It’s not that the Reds offseason has been bad, per se.  It’s just that they could have done more.  Their payroll sits at $84.6 million, almost $65 million below league average.  Their payroll in 2021 was $126.6 million.  They might not have Yankees- or Dodgers-level revenues, but they can definitely spend more than they are now.  Of course, the Reds are not obligated to extend someone just to make me feel better – but to quote Matthew McConnaughay in Dazed & Confused, “It’d be a lot cooler if they did.”

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