It’s been known for a while that the Reds are in a difficult place. Stuck somewhere between contending and rebuilding, they’ve had good talent — but not enough of it — and it figured they’d have to make some decisions in 2015. There was sense in trying to win — in this wild-card era, it doesn’t take much — but, failing that, tearing down appeared to be the right course. And while it’s not like the outcome has already been determined, the 2015 Reds are coming into focus.
And they’re not great. Nor are they good. And at a few games below .500, it doesn’t seem like this is the year. Odds are, these Reds aren’t going to win the World Series. Now, to be fair, the World Series odds work against every team, and that’s not always a reason to sell off valuable pieces. But, for the Reds, this is Johnny Cueto’s contract year. Next year is Aroldis Chapman’s contract year. Doesn’t make much sense to keep Cueto if you’re not contending down the stretch. And without Cueto for 2016, it’s tougher to see Chapman belonging. Contention-wise, the Reds aren’t in a good position. But trade-wise, they’ve got some power.
Since the end of the winter, we’ve been waiting to see where the Phillies might send Cole Hamels. The rest of the trade market has been relatively unclear, because pretty much every other team had better chances of playing competitive baseball than this year’s Phillies. We have heard recently that the Brewers are somewhat open for business. The Rockies seem open to mixing things up, even if those things don’t yet include Troy Tulowitzki. But the Reds could offer two of the premier pieces. Cueto’s as good as almost any other starter. Chapman’s definitely as good as any other reliever. In one course, they could be dealt separately; in another, they could be packaged.
So it leads you to the question: What might the Reds be able to get back for their ace starter and their ace closer?
There are a few ways we could go over this. One is almost strictly mathematical, and it involves a concept known as "surplus value." The idea is basically to figure out the value of the players, over what they’re going to be paid. Then you just do the same for a potential return, where you assign different prospect values to different talent levels. This can work as a general model, giving you sort of a ballpark idea of what’s reasonable to expect. But thankfully we don’t have to get into this in this case.
Not only is it kind of abstract, it’s not as useful as real-world comparables. So, the preferred approach: review similar trades from the recent past. The best indicator of the market can be the same market from different baseball seasons.
Let’s break it up, and start with Cueto. Cueto’s an ace, even if he isn’t quite Felix Hernandez. He does have an injury history, but last year he threw almost 250 innings. And his salary’s an affordable $10 million this season. He’s a free agent after this year, and if he’s dealt, he won’t be eligible to receive a qualifying offer.
David Price was another ace who got traded midseason, but it’s not a great comp. Price cost more, and he also had another season remaining of team control, after the year in which he got moved. So while Price brought back two prospects and a mid-rotation starting pitcher, that can tell us only so much.
There was also the case of Jon Lester getting moved. That’s better — Lester was in his contract year. But Lester didn’t get moved for a prospect, bringing back Yoenis Cespedes instead. Cespedes, at that point, had a year and a half of remaining team control, at a moderate salary. The Reds would probably be looking younger.
So if we go back a few years, we can spot the Zack Greinke trade that sent him to the Angels. In return, the Brewers added a package highlighted by Jean Segura, who ranked in the middle of the top-100 prospects. Around Segura, there were two interesting and inferior talents.
And one might consider the trade that sent Cliff Lee from the Mariners to the Rangers. In Lee’s contract year, he netted the Mariners a package centered around Justin Smoak, who was an upper-tier hitting prospect with some big-league experience. While Smoak was the No. 13 Baseball America prospect before the season, though, there’s one consideration — that was before the compensation rules changed, so the Rangers got some value back when Lee signed elsewhere as a free agent.
For Cueto, then, you’d be expecting a good but not fantastic prospect as a centerpiece. It wouldn’t be a one-for-one, presumably; around the main prospect, there would be other interesting bits. Now we can try to look at Chapman. And immediately run into a problem.
See, pitchers like Chapman don’t get traded very much, because there aren’t very many pitchers like Chapman. This year, he’s under contract for just over $8 million. Next year, he might make $12 million or so. He’s absolutely, undeniably dominant. And he’s a pitcher you could give extra innings in the playoffs, if you so desired. Relievers get big markups in midseason trades, and relievers don’t get better than Chapman.
Last year, Andrew Miller got traded as a dominant reliever. However, it was Miller’s contract year, while Chapman has one extra. Miller fetched Eduardo Rodriguez, who was a good pitching prospect and quickly became an even better pitching prospect.
It doesn’t feel quite appropriate to draw this comparison, but we also saw Joakim Soria get moved. Soria was under contract for a year and a half, and he fetched a mid-tier prospect in Jake Thompson, plus a young reliever.
Huston Street got dealt, but he had nothing, really, on Chapman, plus he was in his contract year. He netted a decent prospect. Some years back, the Orioles picked up Chris Davis and Tommy Hunter for Koji Uehara, which is somewhat relevant, except that Uehara didn’t have Chapman’s level of stock. A comparison, though, I’m kind of fond of: Years ago, when he was under contract for another year, Mike Adams was flipped for Robbie Erlin and Joe Wieland. Adams was an unhittable reliever, although he wasn’t a closer. The next fall, Baseball America ranked Erlin No. 53, and Wieland No. 74. Adams, then, got two mid-level pitching prospects.
The best actual trade comp we have is Craig Kimbrel, who is one of the few relievers who can come close to matching Chapman’s performance. Unfortunately, while Kimbrel is similar to Chapman on the mound, the trade circumstances were different. Kimbrel wasn’t traded midseason, and Kimbrel’s also under a long-term contract. Still, despite his fairly large salary commitment, Kimbrel netted Matt Wisler — BA No. 34 prospect — plus some bit parts. Though some thought the trade an overpay on San Diego’s end, what happened happened.
For Cueto, you’re looking at a main piece around the middle third of the top-100 prospects. For Chapman, it feels similar, although Chapman should have a bit more value. Maybe one main guy around No. 26-50, or two guys from the 51-75 tier, roughly speaking. If the Reds move Cueto and Chapman, they should get at least two quality prospects, and very possibly three, to say nothing about the peripheral talents that would also be exchanged. There are the headliners, and there are the secondary pieces, and the secondary pieces have value all their own.
Where it gets really interesting is if you can imagine a Cueto and Chapman package. On their own, neither Cueto nor Chapman would be likely to return an elite-level prospect. Teams are just too possessive and protective of those. But, bundled, the Reds could opt to concentrate value. Instead of getting two prospects individually worth $X, they could get one prospect worth $2X. For Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, the Cubs got Addison Russell, and while the A’s probably wouldn’t do that again, it’s something to remember.
Not that there are so many obvious fits. The preseason top prospect was Kris Bryant, and, well, yeah. Then there’s Byron Buxton, but the Twins have no business getting involved in these negotiations. Russell is staying put, and the Dodgers won’t give up Julio Urias or Corey Seager since they don’t really need Chapman like they could use Cueto. The Astros aren’t dealing Carlos Correa. It goes on like this. Even the Red Sox, who at one point might’ve been open to moving Blake Swihart, aren’t a perfect fit, because now Swihart’s starting.
But the Red Sox could build a package around Eduardo Rodriguez (and more). Maybe Rodriguez and Henry Owens would get the Reds’ attention; maybe the Reds prefer Manuel Margot. You wonder if the Blue Jays might elect to get involved, even though right now they’re in last place. What they need is a good starter and a good reliever. Cueto and Chapman fit them perfectly, and then the Reds could ask about Daniel Norris and/or Jeff Hoffman. This would probably require the Blue Jays to play better baseball for the next month or two, but it’s a possibility.
Possibilities will abound — if not for a Cueto/Chapman package, then for each of them separately. It doesn’t look like the Reds are going to be a factor this year come playoff time. But this coming July, they might turn out to be the most important team in baseball.