Cutting Reds payroll and arbitration tenders: Stephenson, Goodwin, Casali

Yesterday’s post made the case that Reds ownership will force the front office to cut players from its base roster if it wants to do any new spending, say on a shortstop. That reality is based on tens of millions in losses in 2020, lingering uncertainty in 2021 and the way the Castellini family has operated the Reds in the past. 

So if that’s right and the goal becomes finding ways to reduce current payroll, players and pitchers fall into two categories: the position players and pitchers who have guaranteed contracts and the ones who are arbitration eligible. Teams can cut payroll by trading players with guaranteed contracts or declining to enter the arbitration process with the arbitration-eligible. The remainder of the players on the roster, those with less than three years of service time, would earn league minimum and not be a source of cutting payroll. 

Non-tendering arbitration-eligible players

Let’s look first at the Reds players who are eligible for arbitration. The Collective Bargaining Agreement between MLB and the MLBPA covering the 2021 season stipulates that players who have accumulated three years of service time are eligible to have arbitrators judge the fairness of the team’s salary offer. Nine Reds players are arbitration-eligible with respect to their 2021 salaries: 

  • Luis Castillo ($5.8 m)
  • Archie Bradley ($5.7 m)
  • Michael Lorenzen ($4.4 m)
  • Brian Goodwin ($3.6 m)
  • Jesse Winker ($3.4 m)
  • Tyler Mahle ($2.5 m)
  • Curt Casali ($2.4 m)
  • Amir Garrett ($1.4 m)
  • Robert Stephenson ($600,000)

The dollar amounts in parentheses are estimates by MLBTR of how much each player will earn in arbitration using past practices. Arbitrators base their decisions on what comparable players have been paid in recent years. 

But the front office can decline to start the arbitration process for any of those players by refusing to make an initial offer (“tender”). You’ll see this referred to in verb form as the club “non-tendering” a player. Over the past decade or so, the average number of non-tenders league wide is about 40 per season, or a little more than one per team. Craig Edwards wrote in FanGraphs this morning why he thinks the league’s financial situation will create a deluge of non-tenders this winter. 

Non-tendered players typically become free agents. For example, last year the Reds non-tendered Jose Peraza and Kevin Gausman. The year before, they non-tendered Billy Hamilton. All three found homes with other teams. 

December 2 is the deadline for when teams have to tender contracts to their arbitration-eligible players for the 2021 season. 

Trading players with guaranteed contracts

Because of the strength of the MLBPA, the standard Major League contract is guaranteed. That means that a player with a contract gets paid even if he gets injured or cut, so teams can’t get salary relief from those players by simply releasing them. Assuming the player doesn’t retire — which would relieve the team from the guarantee — the only way for the club to avoid paying is to trade the player.

The Reds have nine players under contract: 

  • Joey Votto ($25 m, 2024)
  • Mike Moustakas ($14 m, 2024)
  • Nick Castellanos ($14 m, 2023)
  • Eugenio Suarez ($10.8 m, 2025)
  • Sonny Gray ($10.2 m, 2023)
  • Raisel Iglesias ($9.1 m, 2022)
  • Wade Miley ($8 m, 2022)
  • Shogo Akiyama ($7 m, 2023)
  • Tucker Barhnart ($4.2 m, 2022)

The year in parentheses is the season when that player becomes a free agent, not taking into account option years or opt outs. So, for example, Sonny Gray has a guaranteed contract for the 2021 season of $10.2 million. He has another guaranteed year with the Reds in 2022. In his case, the Reds can pick up his 2023 option for $12.5 million. Assuming the Reds do that, Gray would then become a free agent in 2024. 

With a trade, the new team would become responsible for the player’s salary. Often, part of the trade deal includes the old club agreeing to pay part of the player’s salary. But one way or another, the player gets full payment. 

One final way the club can get salary relief is a combination of the two categories, by going through arbitration with players and then trading them at some point before Opening Day. 

Non-tender candidates

Of the nine Reds players eligible for arbitration, six of them are safe. Luis Castillo, Jesse Winker, Michael Lorenzen, Tyler Mahle, Archie Bradley and Amir Garrett are all more than worth their projected salaries. That doesn’t mean they should or will end up in a Reds uniform on Opening Day, though. There are good arguments for trading one or more of those six players. That’ll be covered in the next post. For now, let’s get back to the possible non-tender candidates. 

Robert Stephenson

Stephenson pitched only 10 innings in 2020 season and he was not so good. His xFIP (4.88) was 10 percent worse than league average. Stephenson was coming off a promising 2019 when the right-hander had an xFIP (4.01) over 64 innings, 10% better than league average.

The decision whether or not to make Stephenson an offer will be a close one. The Reds may not want to risk giving him a Major League contract, which they would be doing by tendering an offer. Stephenson has no options left, which means he would have to make the major league team out of spring training or risk being lost to waivers. But if the Reds do elect to tender Stephenson, his stats have been so bleh he’s projected to make a salary right around league minimum. They Reds may decide to tender him as a way to keep payroll down. Stephenson, if he’s good enough to make the team, would be cheaper than signing a veteran off the scrap heap for that last bullpen spot. 

So while there are arguments on both side of his tender decision, what the Reds decide to do with Robert Stephenson isn’t material to what we’re doing here, which is finding ways for the Reds to cut payroll. 

Brian Goodwin

The Reds acquired Goodwin with a month left in the 2020 season. The 29-year-old left-handed outfielder filled a need for the Reds when the timing of Nick Senzel’s return from COVID was in doubt. The Reds needed an OF who could play center. Goodwin played in 20 September games for the Reds, mostly in CF, occasionally as a pinch hitter. In 55 plate appearances, he hit .163/.236/.327 with a RC+ of 46 (that means run production 54 percent below league average). 

Even if the Reds weren’t looking to trim payroll, non-tendering Goodwin would be an obvious choice. The club has four returning outfielders ahead of Goodwin. $3.6 million is too much to spend on a 5th outfielder. They can fill that roster spot better and more cheaply elsewhere. 

Curt Casali

Casali had an outstanding 2020 season for the Reds. He played in 31 of the 60 regular season games and hit .224/.366/.500. Don’t get stuck on that batting average. Casali walked more than 15% of the time, raising his on-base percentage to .366 which is terrific (league average was .322). You can’t say he earned those walks because he batted in front of the pitcher because pitchers didn’t hit last year. Further, Casali hit 6 home runs and 3 doubles, leading to an isolated power (ISO) of .276, second only to Jesse Winker among Reds regulars (league average .173).

Overall Curt Casali’s run production (wRC+) was 131, or 31 percent above league average, again second among Reds regulars. As good as Casali’s numbers were in 2020, they were even better against left-handed pitching. That makes Casali an exemplary platoon match with another catcher who hits RHP. FanGraphs composite defensive metric in 2020 had Casali in positive figures. 

At a salary of only $2.4 million, you’d tender him unless … well, unless one of your top prospects was a 24-year-old right-handed catcher who was ready for Major League playing time. 

That Tyler Stephenson exists presents the Reds with four options in dealing with Curt Casali: (1) non-tender Casali and go with Stephenson and Tucker Barnhart in a yet-to-determine distribution of playing time, (2) tender Casali and go with Tyler Stephenson and him, try to trade Barnhart and don’t worry about platoon splits, (2) tender Casali and go with Barnhart and him, keeping Stephenson cooling in the minor leagues, or (4) tender Casali but trade him to create playing time for Stephenson. 

Of these four options I favor the last one.

Tyler Stephenson’s time has come to play in the Majors. Whether that’s as a full time catcher and Casali is the #2, or using Stephenson in the short end of a platoon with Tucker Barnhart, the young catcher has to start getting at bats and big league experience behind the plate.

I’d tender Casali and try to trade both him and Tucker Barnhart. Deal the one where you get the best return. Given his hitting stats in 2020, that will almost certainly be Casali. He should be easy to trade to a team looking for a solid backup catcher, a team putting together a catching platoon, or a team who wants to try three catchers and would like one with pinch-hitting matchup pop against LHP. 

Casali should be easy to trade. The return won’t be Francisco Lindor, but it should be worth the effort. Say, a solid minor league player. 

Next post, trading Reds players under contract. 

Featured image:

Steve Mancuso

Steve Mancuso is a lifelong Reds fan who grew up during the Big Red Machine era. He’s been writing about the Reds for more than ten years. Steve’s fondest memories about the Reds include attending a couple 1975 World Series games, being at Homer Bailey’s second no-hitter and going nuts for Jay Bruce at Clinchmas. Steve was also at all three games of the 2012 NLDS, but it’s too soon to talk about that.

5 Responses

  1. 7buzzinhornets says:

    Doesn’t being a gold glove defender at the toughest position in baseball mean anything these days?

    • Steve Mancuso says:

      Sure. So does batting 20% below league average. Offense and defense both matter. The combination sets the value for Barnhart. One of the big strategic problems the Reds ownership and front office have had the past 10 years is not churning their roster enough. They wait to trade players until they have little value. Smart organizations, ones that aren’t at the big-spending end of the spectrum, (think Rays and Cardinals) are willing to move established major leaguers when the time is right.

  2. MichaelA says:

    As always, great article Steve! The Reds are in a tough financial spot right now. How they choose to get better and manage the payroll will be the story of the offseason. I am on board with all you stated above between Goodwin, the catching situation etc. More needs to be done though and if the team really wants to take the next step, I believe they should be very active in the trade market. Looking at the team there are offensive and defensive issues. To get better, the Reds may need to get really creative and may have to do something that they (and I) don’t like. That is parting with someone they don’t want to lose. Looking over the roster and salaries, to me, the most attractive player/salary is Suarez. His combination of talent, salary, age, etc. could bring the most attractive package. If the Reds can get the package to make the team better offensively and defensively, then I think they need to consider it. The players they have aside from Suarez have some defensive flexibility. This could be an avenue for the Reds to improve.

    • Steve Mancuso says:

      If the front office feels Jonathan India could step in and play 3B, I’d shop Suarez. Suarez’s drop off last year is concerning. It may significantly reduce his trade value. Suarez did hit 15 homers and his walk and power numbers remained excellent. Related — I don’t know why the organization so thoroughly abandoned the idea of playing Nick Senzel in the IF, but he used to be a good 3B. How hard is it to find or develop a CF?

  1. November 26, 2020

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