Soooooo…the Reds are making some moves, huh? Big moves. Emilio Pagán – that get you going? How about Nick Martinez? Yeah, is that doing it for you? Oh wait, can’t forget Jeimer Candelario!
Okay, so unless you’re a pretty hardcore baseball fan, you’ve probably never heard of those guys. And you might be wondering, why? Why did the Reds sign three guys I’ve never heard of to some of the biggest contracts on the roster? Why should I care? Why am I still rooting for the Reds in the first place? I’ll try to answer each of those questions one at a time:
Why did the Reds sign three guys you’ve never heard of to big deals?
Well, for one thing, the bar for a “big” Reds contract is pretty low. Pagán will make $8 million this year – certainly not cheap, but by no means outrageous for a productive reliever. Martinez will make $14 million – maybe a bit of an overpay for an average starter/long-reliever, but affordable nonetheless. And Candelario? He’ll get the most at $15 million – a big raise from his $5 million salary in 2023, but still within range of a typical starting infielder’s.
All told, that’s about $37 million in additional payroll for 2024. According to Spotrac, the Reds currently sit at about $60 million in salary commitments for the upcoming season. That’s nothing. Go back to 2021: the Reds had $126 million in salary commitments. So basically, the Reds should still have enough left over to sign Pagán, Martinez and Candelario again, and maybe add another $10 million player or two. So, what does this all mean? It means if the Reds are serious about contending in 2024, this is only the beginning.
So why should you care about these signings?
Because – at the very least – the additions of Pagán, Martinez and Candelario help raise the Reds’ floor. This team went 82 - 80 last year. After adding three solid players to an ascending roster, hitting that benchmark again should be a breeze. Of course, going 82 - 80 again isn’t the goal – but you have to start somewhere.
Regression – like it or not – is a real thing. The Reds got tremendous performances from just about every rookie who made an appearance in 2023. Spencer Steer, Matt McLain, Elly De La Cruz, Andrew Abbott…the list goes on and on. The Reds may have as much young talent as anybody at the major league level, but counting on repeat performances from so many young players is courting disaster. Every one of the Reds tremendous 2023 rookie class may go on to make multiple All-Star teams, but that doesn't mean improvement is guaranteed in 2024. Progress in sports (and especially baseball) often happens in fits and starts – the signings of Pagán, Martinez and Candelario take some pressure off the young guys from having to save the day.
And why should you continue to root for the Reds?
Because they might be really good in 2024! And because – almost certainly – the Reds aren’t done making moves. I already mentioned how the Reds had a $126 million payroll in 2021 – that was less than three years ago! Today, even after bringing in three veterans, the Reds sit about $66 million below that number. Whether it's a trade or another signing in free agency, the Reds aren’t done yet – at least, they shouldn’t be.
Joey Votto’s monster contract is off the books. So are the leftovers from Mike Moustakas’ contract. Their payroll last year was miniscule. Nearly every impact player from 2023 was either still in arbitration or in pre-arbitration, and the Reds white-hot July led to some much-greater-than-expected attendance during the dog days of summer. No matter how you slice it, the Reds cannot cry poor.
So, how does it all fit together?
Pagán is the simplest – he’s going to be a high-leverage reliever. Last year, the Reds got career performances from Alex Young, Ian Gibaut, Lucas Sims and Alexis Díaz, as well as solid performances from Fernando Cruz, Buck Farmer and Derek Law. Obviously, it’s not impossible for each of these guys to repeat their incredible 2023 performance, but to bank on it? Not a good bet.
Enter Pagán. He may have some issues allowing the long ball (and that’s certainly a scary proposition for a pitcher in the cramped confines of Great American Ballpark), but he generates lots of strikeouts and last year he posted his lowest home run rate of his career. Even if he dips a little in that department, he should still be a reliable arm on the back end, adding to a sneaky excellent bullpen that also features 2023 trade deadline acquisition Sam Moll.
Martinez’s role, though, will be one that’s determined in Spring Training. Last year, Martinez made nine starts for the San Diego Padres, and it appears he will be given an opportunity to be a starter once more for the Reds. He’s not spectacular by any means, but he should be a significant upgrade over the motley cast of #4 and #5 starters the Reds trotted out last year (Luke Weaver, anyone?).
But even if Martinez ends up in the bullpen, he should add a dependable long-relief arm that the Reds lacked. The Reds starters were…inconsistent, to put it mildly. The bullpen was no stranger to saving the day after a starter couldn’t last two innings. But in those situations, it was “all hands on deck” as the bullpen tried to stop the bleeding. With Martinez in the fold, the Reds now have a long-reliever to eat innings when the starter just doesn't have it. For a bullpen that was taxed all year, this is a godsend.
Finally, we have Candelario, who was solid as a corner infielder and part-time designated hitter for both the Nationals and Cubs in 2023. Candelario might not be the biggest free agent name out there, but he gives the Reds another consistent presence in the middle of their lineup, as well as another option to round out their infield. What the Candelario signing means though, in the macro sense, is that the Reds are likely looking to trade one of their young infielders – and that player is likely Jonathan India.
Now, I know many of you are India fans who just went into a conniption fit after reading that, but hear me out: Candelario might not be able to replace the sentiment fans have for India (a fan-favorite, to be sure), but he can certainly replace his numbers. And while India and Candelario might be about equal in terms of production, there’s one key area where India has Candelario beat: trade value.
At just 26-years-old, it's possible that India’s best days are ahead of him. For the 30-year-old Candelario, they’re probably not. Though India’s stock probably isn’t as high as it was back in 2022 when he was named Rookie of the Year, he’s certainly talented enough to be the centerpiece of a blockbuster deal – maybe for Dylan Cease, perhaps? So while Candelario may not have India’s cache in Cincinnati, his bat has made India’s expendable. At the very least, he gives the Reds added flexibility to address other needs.
With Pagán, Martinez and Candelario in the mix, the Reds may not have jumped into the ranks of definitive contenders yet, but they’ve put themselves in position to continue to improve while safeguarding against predictable regression. It’s still not enough, but then again, the offseason isn’t over. Frankly, with the glut of infielders (Candelario, India, De La Cruz, McLain, Christian Encarnacion-Strand, Noelvi Marte) on the roster, a trade feels like an inevitability. And fortunately, the trade deadline isn’t on Christmas; it’s in late July or early August. There’s still plenty of time for roster tweaks. The Reds’ offseason isn’t done yet – it’s just getting started.