Two weeks ago, I laid out the Reds’ road to come. The team had 12 straight games against over .500 teams and nothing less than 9-3 would prove their contender status. The results depended on three names: Tyler Mahle, Curt Casali, and Yasiel Puig.
Well, the Reds went 7-5, falling short of the mark, but swept the Astros and split with the Brewers. Instead of clarifying if the Reds should be buyers or sellers, the two-week gauntlet felt like a hedged bet. Tyler Mahle pitched one stellar game and another so-so one. Curt Casali cooled off considerably, but still outhit Tucker Barnhart’s 14 wRC+ in the same span. Only Yasiel Puig met his expectations, hitting a scalding .400/.449/.867 with a 231 wRC+ over the stretch.
There still may not be clarity on the direction of the Reds 2019 season, but the past two weeks did make one thing clear: Yasiel Puig deserves an extension.
When the Reds traded for Puig in the offseason, I responded ecstatically. Finally, the Reds had a personality compliment to Joey Votto and a player who knew how to make the game entertaining. At the time, I wrote:
Watching the Reds for the past five years has been a miserable experience. A horrid, uncomfortable, depressing slog. In fact over the last five years, the Reds have the worst winning percentage of any major league team!
It’s been tough. We need some fun. We need some wins.
Well, Puig has brought fun in spades, and in the last two weeks, he’s started to deliver the wins as well.
While Puig’s overall stat line (.240/.286/.461, 88 wRC+) still leaves much to be desired, the underlying contact numbers prove his worth.
So far in 2019, the Reds have hit 71 balls 106+ mph. Yasiel Puig has hit 22 of them while Jesse Winker, Nick Senzel, Joey Votto, Josh VanMeter, Scott Schebler, Jose Peraza, Phil Ervin, Jose Iglesias and Kyle Farmer have combined for 21. In fact, only two other players, Eugenio Suarez and Derek Dietrich, have hit double-digit balls over 106 mph (17 and 11, respectively).
With Votto’s power declining and Derek Dietrich unlikely to continue his Zeus impression for the rest of his career, the Reds will need middle-of-the-order power to complement Suarez’s. Puig provides that.
Also, as Jason Linden pointed out on Twitter, extending Puig allows the Reds to move Nick Senzel back to the infield when top prospect Taylor Trammell is ready to come up. Imagine a lineup of Trammell, Votto, Suarez, Puig, Senzel, Winker, Iglesias/Peraza, Casali. While that 1-8 makes a lot of assumptions about the direction the Reds will take before Trammell is major league ready, it’s certainly worth salivating over.
It’s not as if paying for Puig will be an issue either. Doug Gray estimated before the season began that Puig might sign for a 4-year/$18.75 million extension, a number that would mean more money than any outfielder not named J.D. Martinez or Justin Upton has gotten in the past two offseasons. It sounds like a handsome price, but essentially, signing Puig to an extension of the sort just takes the money the Reds are currently paying Tanner Roark and adding it to Puig’s contract. Given that it’s already been reported the Reds will stay around their 2019 $133 million payroll in 2020, then that extra cash will be there.
Paying Puig now shows the Reds are committed to their window of contending, a window that should open next season and extend at least through Puig’s prime. And really, what other options are there?
The Reds could keep Senzel in the outfield, having him learn a corner so Trammell can play center, and extend Scooter Gennett. That’s a fine option, I guess. But consider that for the entirety of the 2017 and 2018 seasons, Scooter only hit three (3) balls with a 106+ mph exit velocity. In less than a fourth of the pitches seen, Puig has hit more than seven times that.
The Reds could make a run at another under-30 free agent outfielder like Marcell Ozuna, Nick Castellanos, or…Billy Hamilton? Ozuna has certainly outhit Puig this season and should command a comparable salary to Puig, making him a perfectly reasonable alternative. Castellanos also presents a similar batted ball profile to Puig and is a year younger than the current Red. However with Castellanos, there’s a massive dropoff in defensive value that you don’t see with Puig. The Reds won’t re-sign Billy Hamilton and shouldn’t.
Finally, the Reds could trade for a controllable outfielder like Clint Frazier. This option gives the Reds a solid outfield core with huge upside but will likely never come to fruition. The Yankees have already said they have no interest in trading Frazier and there aren’t too many other young, controllable outfielders that teams will move without demanding a haul of the Reds prospect depth.
Unless the Reds are ready to pony up for Marcell Ozuna, an unlikely possibility, a Yasiel Puig extension makes the most sense for the team. It gives the lineup a second legit power bat, allows Nick Senzel to move to a more natural extension, and keep this team lighthearted and fun for the foreseeable future.