Earlier today Jon Heyman of MLB Network tweeted out that the Pittsburgh Pirates were looking to get back a “young, controllable catcher” in return for All-Star outfielder Starling Marte. The Cincinnati Reds have spent their offseason pursuing ways to upgrade their offense. They went after both Yasmani Grandal and Didi Gregorius, but came up short. They landed Mike Moustakas to slot in at second base for the next four or five years. And rumors persist that they are interested in outfielders Marcell Ozuna and Shogo Akiyama, too.
While it’s always better to go out and just spend money to acquire players rather than spend money and have to trade away talent to acquire players, sometimes the latter can be the better option if the fit is right. On paper, Starling Marte is a better option than any of the outfielders that the Reds are interested in on the free agent market. Last season he hit .295/.342/.503 for Pittsburgh with 31 doubles, six triples, 23 home runs, and he stole 25 bases. And he did all of that while playing center field. He also has experience in left field. His 120 OPS+ in 2019 is better than any single season that Mike Moustakas has ever had, just to add some context to how valuable his offensive output was – and that’s without considering he also added 25 steals.
His contract isn’t bad, either. He would be under team control through the end of the 2021 season. Marte is due $11,500,000 in 2020 and there’s a team option for $12,500,000 in 2021 with a $1,000,000 buyout. That would take him through his age 32 season before he would reach free agency. He’s not quite a rental, but also not a long-term investment.
Cincinnati also has exactly what the Pirates are looking for, a young and controllable catcher. The Reds #3 overall prospect, and an overall Top 100 prospect, Tyler Stephenson is coming off of a season where he hit .285/.372/.410 in Double-A, good for an OPS+ of 130. He then went to the Arizona Fall League where he hit .353/.421/.549 in 57 plate appearances. While he’s probably in need of some time in Triple-A next year, he’s on the verge of being Major League ready.
Trading a guy like Tyler Stephenson wouldn’t be an easy deal to pull the trigger on for the Reds. He’s been the Reds top catching prospect since he was drafted, and after a few years of dealing with injuries he has really put things together the last few seasons. Cincinnati was willing to bring in a guy like Yasmani Grandal, which would have made the Stephenson situation a bit different without a clear path to the big leagues – but the current catching situation in Cincinnati isn’t there. Tucker Barnhart is a free agent in two or three years depending on if the Reds are willing to pick up his option for 2022 at a price of $7,500,000 ($500,000 buyout). Grandal would have been around longer than that if he had signed with Cincinnati.
The Reds would certainly be going for it if they made this kind of deal. Starling Marte would be a big improvement to the 2020 Reds. And it would signal that right now is more important than the future, especially if Cincinnati had to give up a top prospect with a position opening in the near future, too.
There are a lot of moving parts in a deal like this. The Reds would need to weigh winning now versus the future of needing to find another catcher down the line. They would need to weigh how it would shake out their outfield and who would play where, with Marte, Nick Senzel, Jesse Winker, and Aristides Aquino all players who would be looking for significant playing time. There’s a reason the guys who make these decisions get paid the big bucks. It’s not an easy choice to make on a lot of these kinds of moves.