The Cincinnati Reds are in trouble heading into 2014. That might sound like a controversial statement, though it really shouldn’t be, considering how circumstances have changed in the NL Central. The St. Louis Cardinals, fresh off a trip to the World Series, will get the benefit of a full season of their celebrated young pitching and have finally filled their black hole at shortstop. TheMilwaukee Brewers will have Ryan Braun back along with Matt Garza in their rotation, and while the Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t added anyone of note, a full year of Gerrit Cole and the impending arrivals of Gregory Polanco and Jameson Taillon should make them dangerous once again.
And the Reds? The sum of their offseason has been to import bench players Brayan Pena andSkip Schumaker, who combined for minus-0.8 WAR last year. They watched Shin-Soo Choo and his .423 on-base percentage depart for Texas, and they plan to replace him with Billy Hamilton, who has elite speed but enormous questions about whether he can get on base enough to use it, as evidenced by a .308 OBP in Triple-A last year. When Brandon Phillips drops from 103 runs batted in to 70-something, it’s not going to be because he’s playing any worse; it’s going to be because he won’t have Choo on base all the time to drive in. For a team that finished only 15th in wRC+ even with Choo last year, that’s a big problem.
The Reds need to do something, and that something is to trade Homer Bailey, for reasons we’ll get to in a moment. But more importantly, the loopholes of the current collective bargaining agreement mean that they would be best served to do it before Opening Day.
If you’re sick of hearing about Nelson Cruz, Stephen Drew, Ubaldo Jimenez, Kendrys Morales andErvin Santana by now, know that you’re not alone. The presence of the qualifying offer on their heads has undeniably caused a drag on their free-agent values, to the point that they all remain unsigned as we head into the second week of February.
Take, for example, a solid-yet-hardly-great pitcher like Ricky Nolasco, who signed with Minnesota for four years and $49 million in November. Nolasco and Santana were born a single day apart from each other in December 1982, and are coming off somewhat similar 2013 seasons. (WAR has them as being equal.) Since Nolasco was traded from the Marlins to the Dodgers in July, he was able to go into the market unfettered; since Santana was a Royal all season long, he’s hurt by the offer, and the latest rumors have him potentially needing to settle for a three-year deal.
This all impacts Bailey and the Reds, because he’s heading into the final year of his contract, with most reports indicating that there isn’t a long-term contract coming from the team. After five years of stops and starts in attempting to become a reliable regular starter, Bailey has put up 417 innings of very solid baseball for Cincinnati over the past two seasons, contributing approximately 6 WAR to the Reds. Assuming he’s neither extended nor injured, he’ll head off to free agency next winter as an appealing second-level starter behind the trio of Jon Lester, Max Scherzer and James Shields, pending movement by their current teams to retain them first.
The Reds could allow him to play out the season and then depart, like the Royals appear to be doing with Santana. They could trade him in July, like Miami and Chicago did with Nolasco and Garza. Or they could be proactive about it and trade him before Opening Day rosters are set, which is the deadline set in the CBA for whether or not a player can receive a qualifying offer.
That’s an easy benefit for a team going after Bailey, because not only would they get him for an entire season, rather than just 10 starts or so if he were a trade-deadline acquisition, they would also be gaining the right to offer Bailey a qualifying offer and receive the pick that would come with his presumed departure. That’s a valuable asset, and it’s something Cincinnati could and should use as a bargaining chip in any discussions, as long as they happen before Opening Day, when it disappears.
Cincy set to fall off
For the Reds, that makes this a math problem. Is it more valuable to them to have the production Bailey would provide in 2014 and the ability to tender an offer themselves, or is it better to reap the rewards of trading Bailey and the pick for a larger return?
The Reds fancy themselves contenders this year, so it’s more likely than not they’ll hang on to Bailey, but that may be a miscalculation in a tough NL Central. The rotation is deep, with Mat Latos, Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake and Tony Cingrani joining Bailey, but the lineup is thin behind the wonderful Joey Votto and right fielder Jay Bruce.
Phillips has been on a steady decline for several years (his wOBA has fallen from .353 to .325 to .307), left fielder Ryan Ludwick is 35 and has been a 2-WAR player once in the past four seasons and Hamilton is beyond unproven. It was merely a decent offense last year; without Choo, it will be a decidedly below-average attack.
Since Bailey, Latos, Cueto and Leake are all headed toward free agency in the next two years, the team is going to have to make some tough decisions about which part of their rotation they keep. Trading Bailey now, when his value is at its highest, could help fill that offensive gap while leaving behind enough of a rotation to remain competitive.
To fully maximize his value under the current rules, the clock is ticking toward Opening Day. As soon as it arrives and the ability for other teams to tender Bailey a qualifying offer disappears, so does part of his trade value.
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