The rumor mill continues to churn without much action as spring training approaches, but the Reds are still on a quest to #GetThePitching. The team has already pulled off two trades during the offseason and is reportedly still looking to make a third. Reports have connected Corey Kluber to the Reds throughout the winter, and recent reports indicate talks are still happening. The latest update involves a potential three-team trade with the Indians and Padres:
San Diego’s interest in Kluber is primarily to flip him, sources say; he does not fit the Padres age-wise. Pads struggling to line up with trade partners. If they could get Kluber, they likely would want top Reds prospect Nick Senzel, whom Cincinnati does not want to move.
— Dennis Lin (@dennistlin) January 15, 2019
It’d take an enormous haul for the Reds to acquire Kluber, though that should come as no surprise. The 32-year-old is a two-time Cy Young winner and easily a top-five pitcher this decade. The question is whether that price is worth it.
Giving up Nick Senzel, the consensus top prospect in the organization and a crucial building block of the future, would not be easy. Although scouts haven’t quite called him a five-tool player, he does everything well. He hits for average and power, draws walks, has some speed, fields well, and plays multiple positions. By most accounts, he could’ve started the 2018 season in the big leagues. Some have even compared him to Astros third baseman Alex Bregman. Senzel has the potential to become an all-star and take the offense from very good to elite.
To get a pitcher like Kluber, you have to be willing to move a talent like Senzel. That’s fair.
The problem: the theoretical trade wouldn’t be a one-for-one. In all likelihood, the Indians or Padres will ask for multiple top-five prospects in return—perhaps even multiple top-three prospects. That means Cincinnati could lose either Taylor Trammell or Hunter Greene in addition to Senzel. If the Reds get Kluber without moving Trammell or Greene, they’ll certainly lose Tony Santillan and/or Jonathan India.
That’s a big hit to future Reds teams, and it begs the question: is Kluber worth that price?
On the surface, it’s easy to say yes. The Reds’ starting rotation was horrible last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. Despite improving through the additions of Alex Wood and Tanner Roark, the staff may not have the Reds at a point where they can compete in the NL Central. Wood and Roark, while solid contributors, are not the No. 1 starters that can push the team toward contention in 2019, especially in what is arguably the strongest division in baseball.
The logic behind acquiring an ace now seems simple enough: to finally put together a winning baseball team in 2019, the first in the Queen City since 2013.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
The Risks of Trading the Farm for Corey Kluber
Kluber would undoubtedly make the Reds better right now. He would push them into contention in the NL Central. Still, it’s unlikely the team would be favored over all three of the Cubs, Cardinals, and Brewers. Reminder: All three of those teams won 88 or more games last year, and two of them won 95-plus.
Would Kluber, along with Wood, Roark, Yasiel Puig, and Matt Kemp, push the Reds to the 90-win threshold? It’s possible, but that’s a steep mountain to climb. In reality, he’s not the missing piece on a team ready to compete for the World Series. The Reds have improved considerably during the offseason, but they still have question marks in the bullpen, center field, and — even with Kluber — starting rotation.
Beyond 2019, the trade would require the organization to severely deplete its minor-league assets. By trading Senzel, another top-five prospect, and likely yet another top-10 prospect for three years of Kluber, the team would inhibit its chances of competing beyond 2021. After that season, Kluber will be gone, Joey Votto will be another year closer to 40, and Senzel and Greene/Trammell/India will be in another organization. That would leave the Reds with little star power outside of Suarez. While not quite putting all the team’s eggs in one basket, it could come close.
Is three years of Kluber worth six or seven years of Senzel and/or Trammell/Greene/India?
Establishing long-term success is not as easy as the stupid Cardinals make it look. And they’ve certainly made big moves when the time was right. But what they do arguably better than anyone else is develop talent from within to sustain their success and replace players who are aging or having expiring contracts.
The Reds need to acquire outside players to make their team competitive. There’s no doubt about that. However, they also need to build a team that can compete for more than three seasons before starting the horrible rebuilding process all over again. They have the organizational depth to do that if they play their cards right.
Imagine this potential core leading the Reds in 2022: Eugenio Suarez, Jesse Winker, Luis Castillo, Jose Peraza, Senzel, Trammell, Greene, Santillan, India, Shed Long, and Jose Siri. That doesn’t include any other acquisitions the team could make. Take away several of those players, though, and the future becomes murkier.
What should the Reds do if they don’t acquire Kluber?
They can add to that tantalizing core above through free agency — without giving up the players who could develop and sustain a winning culture past 2021. If the Reds don’t sign Dallas Keuchel this offseason, they’ll have a shot at a top-of-the-rotation arm a year from now. Wood, Roark, Kemp, Puig, and Scooter Gennett are all free agents after the year, which frees up even more money to make a big splash. Among the notable starting pitching free agents are Gerrit Cole, Chris Sale, Madison Bumgarner, Chris Archer, Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello, Zack Wheeler, Jake Odorizzi, and Michael Wacha.
Standing pat with the current starting rotation for 2019 also wouldn’t be the end of the world. It would give new pitching coach Derek Johnson a chance to work with the untapped potential of the current group of young arms. Can he help Castillo become a dependable No. 2 starter or better? Can he develop at least one of Tyler Mahle, Michael Lorenzen, Amir Garrett, Cody Reed, Sal Romano, or even Robert Stephenson into successful big-league starting pitchers? All have struggled at times in their MLB careers, but they have age on their side and talent to work with.
Remember, Johnson helped guide Milwaukee to a 96-win season behind a rotation of Jhoulys Chacin, Chase Anderson, Junior Guerra, Brent Suter, and Wade Miley. There’s a reason the team aggressively pursued him. They needed a different voice to teach these young pitchers, and based on his track record, it could make an enormous difference. Why not give him a year to see what he can do with this group?
If one or more of those pitchers can reach their full potential, how big would that be for the future? If they flop, the Reds know they need to be that much more aggressive in free agency next year. In the meantime, the roster has improved enough that it won’t be a chore to watch the team like it has for the last four summers. The talk of #PositiveMomentum was thrown around last year at the trade deadline. It became nothing more than a running joke as the Reds crawled their way to another last-place finish. This year, though, momentum has a legitimate chance of building even without another huge offseason acquisition.
There’s no clear right answer for how the Reds should proceed with Kluber. He’s a rare talent and would make the club significantly better right now. If the team was on the verge of World Series contention, the answer is easier: trade Senzel and Greene/Trammell right now. If the team played in a weak division, go for it. But neither of those scenarios are reality. It’s risky to give up multiple huge pieces of the future when so many question marks still exist. The team can’t afford to make a shortsighted decision.
Every team ultimately wants to build a sustainable model of success. Doing that requires continually developing young talent; even the high-payroll Yankees and Red Sox need to develop young, controllable talent. Not every prospect pans out, but Senzel, Trammell, Greene, India, and Santillan are young players the Reds could build the franchise around. Keeping them and targeting free agents instead — whether this year or next — could establish a winning franchise for years to come.
Photo of Corey Kluber used under a Creative Commons license, which can be found here. Original photo was slightly altered.