The Cincinnati Reds seem to have a plan that doesn’t involve signing free agents of note. While no one has ever expected them to be in the top of the market, going after players who are getting $300,000,000 contracts (though, why not? They felt they could pay Joey Votto $250,000,000 a decade ago and the team has a lot more revenue coming in today than they did then from non-ticket sales and the only reason they aren’t bringing in more from ticket sales today is that they aren’t putting a good product on the field), they should be able to be in the mid-tier free agent market. And maybe in the future they plan to, but it sure doesn’t sound like it based on the things that Nick Krall is saying in public.
Krall has repeatedly said that they need to focus on building their foundation “from our minor leagues and our player development system”. Even if we ignore that the teams spending money on free agents are also trying their best to develop their minor league system in order to produce high-end big league players, it’s almost impossible for a team to get where you want to be on home-grown talent alone. Even when the Reds are able to point to the last time they had a home grown core that was very good they added high-end caliber players to that core. Mat Latos was a difference maker on the mound. Shin-Soo Choo was a difference maker at the plate. Aroldis Chapman, while technically coming up through the farm system was paid like a free agent for his time in Cincinnati because the rules for such signings were different then.
Those teams from 2010-2013 were good because the Reds had a strong core of home grown players AND they added in high-end talent in other ways – including spending some money. And maybe that’s a part of the plan if and when the “core from the minor leagues” ever shows up. But reading the public statements it sure doesn’t feel like that’s what is a part of it.
Last week Krall told Bobby Nightengale of the Cincinnati Enquirer that the team was exploring trades for low cost and controllable players in the big leagues. Again, there’s nothing wrong with those kinds of moves. But if that’s the plan, there could be a problem…..
What if Jon Heyman is right and the trade market is dead? I know that some of you just laughed over saying Heyman could be right (especially after the whole Arson Judge fiasco), but he’s not the only person out there saying that the trade market has basically closed up shop for the time being.
If more and more teams are feeling like the cost of good players is too much, then they will be looking to do one of two things: Look to the trade market to acquire players, which will make the market much more “expensive” in terms of what you have to give up to acquire those players, or be a team that’s trying to trade players that teams want.
One front office executive said this to The Athletic’s Jayson Stark:
“We talk about this all the time. Are we hunting good deals? Or are we hunting good players? The whole idea is to hunt good players. There’s a cost to that. And we don’t always get to control that cost.”
And that’s absolutely right. An individual team doesn’t get to control that cost. Other teams have a say in it, and at some point just because you don’t like what that cost is doesn’t change the fact that it costs that much to play. As someone who has been shopping for a home in the last few years I can certainly relate to the feeling that “this shouldn’t cost this much”, but it’s not 2018 anymore.
Now, you could argue that if Cincinnati can become a team that can get maximum value as a team looking to trade away players that teams want because they can no longer be comfortable in the free agent market, that it’s a good thing. And on one hand it is. What the Reds were able to do at the trade deadline in 2022 felt like a big shift in what they were able to get versus perhaps what they were expected to get and in a good way for Cincinnati.
On one hand being able to do that seems like a good way to build a team. But on the other hand if you’re in the position to compete then you don’t want to be selling at the trade deadline in order to “maximize trade value” because that’s going to almost assuredly maximize your chances of missing the playoffs.
This offseason isn’t nearly over yet, but it has seemed to scare more than a handful of teams who severely misjudged what the going rate of good baseball players is. The market in free agency changed. And that could mean that the trade market has changed, too. What a team believed the plan could be moving forward when the 2022 season ended may no longer be something that can work with the new market forces. Cincinnati could find themselves in a tough position if their plan involves simply relying on drafting, developing, and trading.