Late on Monday night Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported that he’s hearing from other teams that the Cincinnati Reds are open to trading All-Star starting pitcher Sonny Gray. The initial reaction to that news involved some confusion and some four-letter words if I was reading twitter accurately.
The Cincinnati Reds made the playoffs in 2020, going 31-29. That’s not a great record, and it only made the playoffs because the playoffs were expanded in a shortened season (though it seems Major League Baseball wants to keep them expanded – but that’s something that the players association has to agree to do). in a full season, 31 wins translates to 84 wins. That’s usually not enough to make the playoffs.
The Reds, despite what feels like just recently coming out of a rebuild, aren’t a young team by comparison to the rest of baseball. Their hitters were the 4th oldest group in baseball. The pitching staff was the 12th oldest group in baseball. It’s an old team.
While there doesn’t seem to be anyone outside of Joey Votto who, by a typical bell curve, should be on the down swing in terms of their production, there’s not many guys who should be on the up swing, either. Nick Senzel, Jesse Winker, and Tyler Stephenson – if he’s playing a significant role on the team in 2021 – should be “up swing” guys.
The pitching staff almost assuredly isn’t going to get better in 2021. Trevor Bauer is unlikely to return. Anthony DeSclafani is also unlikely to return (though more likely than Bauer, who seemingly is just going to be out of the price range for the Reds). While I believe that the Reds were better than they looked during 2020, and their 84-win pace was probably lower than I felt it would have been had they played a full season, the fact is that the 2021 Reds are going to have to add players – and good ones – just to get back to that 84-win pace team given what they lost in Trevor Bauer.
So how does trading Sonny Gray make the 2021 Cincinnati Reds better? Well, that’s a tough one to make much sense of. If the plan is to compete for the playoffs in 2021, then trading Gray doesn’t help accomplish that goal. The team needs to be add talent to what’s already returning to seemingly compete for a playoff spot. The only way the Reds can trade Sonny Gray and compete for a playoff spot, without something completely unforeseen happening, is if they don’t just win a trade of Gray, but laughably win that trade. The Reds aren’t a marginal win away from being where they want to be (competing for a championship). They are a superstar away. For as good as Sonny Gray is, and as good as his contract is, they aren’t landing Fernando Tatis Jr. or Ronald Acuna Jr. in return for him – and that’s the kind of laughably winning the trade kind of deal it would take for trading Gray and still competing in 2021 that’s needed.
Sonny Gray has an absolute bargain contract. He’s due just under $32,400,000 over the next three seasons (third year is a $12,000,000 team option). Moving him for monetary reasons – at least ones that revolve around spending the money in “better ways” – doesn’t make sense. There’s almost no possible way a team is going to be able to replace his production for lesser money.
If the Reds are going to trade Sonny Gray and do so in order to try and make the franchise better, then it is almost going to have to be a move made for the long term future rather than for the next few years. Following that plan would be awfully confusing given that they have much of their team locked up for the next few years.
Let’s go down the rabbit hole of that plan, though. In order for the Cincinnati Reds to improve by means of trading away Sonny Gray, they would need to trade “now” for “the future”. Sometimes those kinds of trades can work out quite well. And sometimes you wind up trading Johnny Cueto, Todd Frazier, and Aroldis Chapman for 10 players who combined for 0.8 WAR in their Cincinnati Reds careers, with only one player from those trades – Brandon Finnegan – still remaining in the organization.
Prospects, even very good ones, often don’t pan out as hoped. If you are going to trade a star for prospects you need to be 100% certain about what they are. And you better be sure that they won’t miss. The Reds “rebuild” failed because the farm system, while highly rated at the time, didn’t come through as planned or as hoped. Much of the rebuild was planned around a rotation that was going to feature the likes of Robert Stephenson, Brandon Finnegan, Amir Garrett, Cody Reed, Sal Romano, Keury Mella, John Lamb, and or Tyler Mahle. The organization had a whole lot of quality starting pitching prospects entering the 2016 season. Fast forward to the start of the 2021 season and only one of those pitchers is still a starter, and he didn’t even begin the 2020 campaign in the rotation – though it feels that Tyler Mahle will be there to begin 2021.
What that led to was the organization having to go about trading prospects for proven big leaguers in order to turn things back around in both 2019 and 2020 after years of being among the worst team in baseball. A lot has changed in the organization since those days. Cincinnati has revamped their farm system. The farm director is different. So is the scouting director. As is the international scouting director. They’ve brought in Kyle Boddy as the new pitching coordinator. C.J. Gillman was brought in as the new hitting coordinator. Chris Tremie was hired to be the new field coordinator. The Reds have gone about trying to improve drafting, signing, and developing over the last two seasons. The entire top of the farm system and scouting system is different – across the board – than it was just three years ago.
We haven’t had a chance to really see too much of those changes take effect yet. The scouting changes aren’t likely to be visible for a long time given that even the better players from a draft tend to take anywhere from 2-5 years to reach the Major Leagues depending on how old they were when drafted. For internationally signed players it’s usually even longer given that they sign, mostly, at 16-years-old. When it comes to the developing of these guys, for the most part, they haven’t gotten much time to implement the “new stuff” that they would be bringing to the table. Without a 2020 minor league season there was not just limited interaction with the players who were able to participate in instructional league or the guys who played at the alternate site in Mason as a part of the 60-man player pool.
The Reds front office probably has confidence in their scouting and development staff to get things right. They better have that belief, otherwise why are those people still employed? If the Reds are going to trade Sonny Gray to try and improve the team in the future, the scouts need to be right. But it’s not just that, the development staff needs to also do their job. And as always – you need some luck on your side. If you acquire a pitcher, that pitcher can’t have an arm injury that alters his career.
All of this is basically to say that it’s going to be really tough for the Cincinnati Reds to trade Sonny Gray and come out ahead. Trading him for proven big leaguers probably isn’t going to get them where they want to be. And trading him for prospects is going to require a whole lot of things going right, and it also goes against the current competitive timeline that the team established literally last offseason. Perhaps they can get it done, but consider me highly skeptical that making a trade of Sonny Gray right now would be one you could look back on and tout as one that ultimately improved the Reds.