by Matt Wilkes

Cloudy in Cincinnati: Reds trade Sonny Gray to Twins

With the lockout over, free agency and the trade market are back in full swing, and the Reds now have gotten involved — although not in the manner fans were hoping. On Sunday, the team continued its fixation on cutting payroll as it dealt right-handed pitcher Sonny Gray to the Twins for 2021 first-round pick and right-handed pitcher Chase Petty.

The Reds also sent 24-year-old minor-league pitcher Francis Peguero to the Twins.

The Implications

The trade is a clear signal that saving money — not winning in 2022 — is the top priority for the Reds. It’s not a surprising outcome, as the writing has been on the wall the entire offseason. In fact, it was on the wall last offseason. But it’s nonetheless disappointing.

Gray, who turned 32 in November, was under contract for just over $10.1 million in 2022 and had a $12 million option for 2023, a bargain for a pitcher of his caliber. That proved too rich for the cost-cutting Reds, who’ve now jettisoned three key pieces from last year’s team without adding a single external player to the 40-man roster so far. Although Petty has plenty of upside, it’s hard not to see the move as a salary dump.

Gray ends his three-year stint with the Reds having helped revitalize a rotation that was one of the league’s worst before his arrival. In 68 starts with the Reds, the right-hander posted a 3.49 ERA, 3.57 FIP, and 3.58 xFIP in 366.2 innings. His 28.5% strikeout rate is the highest among all starting pitchers in Reds history with at least 200 innings pitched.

In 2021, Gray was limited to 26 starts and 135.1 innings as he dealt with a lingering back injury. The right-hander was solid when healthy, putting up a 4.19 ERA (5% better than league average) and even better peripherals — a 3.25 xERA, 3.99 FIP, and 3.66 xFIP.

Gray’s absence leaves a gaping hole in the Cincinnati starting rotation that already faced uncertainty after the front office gave away Wade Miley. Barring additional trades, it seems the only guaranteed spots in the rotation belong to Luis Castillo and Tyler Mahle. Vladimir Gutierrez will also get a spot, in all likelihood. Beyond that, the last two spots could come down to Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo, Graham Ashcraft, Reiver Sanmartin, Tony Santillan, Jeff Hoffman, and Riley O’Brien. There’s lots of upside in that group, to be sure, especially with the first three names, all of whom are top-10 prospects. The Reds could also sign a low-cost free agent to fill or compete for the spot.

The Return

For a pitcher of Gray’s caliber and cost, the return — particularly that the Reds only got one player — feels light.

Let’s be clear: Petty isn’t a nobody. He was the 26th overall pick in last year’s draft. He was the Twins’ No. 7 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline. He slots in at No. 4 for the Reds. Other outlets, such as FanGraphs, aren’t quite as high on Petty. But he was taken out of high school, which means his long-term outlook is risky and he’s likely three to five years away from making any impact in the major leagues.

His portfolio is similarly risky, although his upside is tantalizing. Similar to Hunter Greene, Petty is a flame-thrower. The right-hander hit 102 mph in high school and routinely sits in the upper 90s with his fastball. Petty pairs the pitch with an above-average slider and a still-developing changeup. In his senior season of high school, he struck out 99 batters in 48.2 innings. The 18-year-old threw only five innings in the minor leagues after he was drafted last June.

But here’s the rub: scouting reports feel there’s a chance Petty ends up as a reliever in the future because of his high-effort delivery and fairly slender frame (6-foot-1, 190 pounds). You can get a good look at his delivery here:

What’s Next?

That 2019-2020 offseason sure seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it?

The days of free-agent spending and being in win-now mode turned out to be short-lived. The Reds still have some ingredients of a good team. A few additions to patch up clear deficiencies on the roster could make them contenders. Instead, the front office has only made subtractions. It’s abundantly clear that ownership and the front office don’t intend to make the necessary additions. The hyperfocus on cutting payroll also casts doubt on whether the team will invest in extensions for players such as Mahle, Castillo, and Jesse Winker.

From day one, general manager Nick Krall has made it no secret that the number one goal this offseason is shedding payroll and focusing on building up the farm system. From the infamous “aligning payroll to our resources” quote to most recent “eliminating peaks and valleys,” he’s reminded fans every time he’s spoken to the media since October. In addition to Gray, the Reds waived starting pitcher Wade Miley and traded catcher Tucker Barnhart to the Tigers prior to the lockout.

Was the Gray trade the final cost-cutting move the Reds have in store? It’s difficult to say without knowing the exact dollar amount Reds ownership has given the front office. Castillo and Mahle have also seen their names pop up in trade rumors.

So far, the team has moved on from Gray, Miley, and Barnhart, while Nick Castellanos and Michael Lorenzen became free agents. Lorenzen has already signed with the Angels, and it seems the Reds won’t even make an effort to bring back Castellanos. Those five players combined to earn just north of $36 million in 2021. The Reds would surely like to get the contracts of Mike Moustakas and Shogo Akiyama off the books, but Krall has said the team won’t attach prospects to trades to move high-priced veterans.

The Reds still must go through the arbitration process with eight players, which will raise payroll a bit. But the team isn’t going to come anywhere close to the $132 million it spent last season. Per FanGraphs Roster Resource, the Reds current payroll is estimated at $107 million. That’s less than the team spent on the 2018 team ($108 million) that went 67-95.

Given the high price tags for Castillo and Mahle in the trade market and the lack of trade value for Moustakas, Akiyama, and Eugenio Suarez, the Reds could be done cutting payroll for now, though it’s far from a guarantee. There’s no reason to expect they’ll be players in the free agent market. If the team makes any signings, expect to see a curb-shopping approach. Nothing the team has done in the last year — and for the majority of their existence — would indicate any other strategy is in play.

Photo by Larry Radloff/Icon Sportswire

Matt got hooked on Reds baseball after attending his first game in Cinergy Field at 6 years old, and he hasn’t looked back. As a kid, he was often found imitating his favorite players — Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn, Sean Casey, and Austin Kearns — in the backyard. When he finally went inside, he was leading the Reds to 162-0 seasons in MVP Baseball 2005 or keeping stats for whatever game was on TV. He started writing about baseball in 2014 and has become fascinated by analytics and all the new data in the game. Matt is also a graduate of The Ohio State University and currently lives in Columbus. Follow him on Twitter at @_MattWilkes.

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Darrin
Darrin
6 months ago

Clearly Reds ownership are not in it to win anything. Gray at $10M as you said is a bargain in today’s market. Here’s hoping the Castellini’a will do us a favor and sell the team!

kmartin
kmartin
6 months ago

If Castillo starts off April of 2022 like April of 2021 and Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo are not strong out of the gate, April could be a brutal month given the schedule.