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The Reds were competitive in 2021 but ultimately came up short of a Wild Card berth. Cincinnati now faces the potential departure of one of their middle-of-the-order hitters, which would leave general manager Nick Krall needing to find some other way to bolster the offense while restructuring a bullpen that was among the league’s worst in 2021. There’s a strong core already in place, but the pressure to supplement it effectively continues to build as the club’s window of contractual control over some key players gets smaller.

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Guaranteed Contracts

Joey Votto, 1B: $57MM through 2023 (includes buyout of 2024 club option)
Mike Moustakas, 3B: $38MM through 2023 (includes buyout of 2024 club option)
Eugenio Suárez, 3B: $35MM through 2024 (includes buyout of 2025 club option)
Sonny Gray, RHP: $10.667MM through 2022 (no buyout on 2023 club option)
Shogo Akiyama, CF: $8MM through 2022
Players With Contractual Options

Nick Castellanos, RF: Can opt out of contract’s remaining two years and $34MM
Wade Miley: LHP: $10MM club option ($1MM buyout)
Tucker Barnhart, C: $7.5MM club option ($500K buyout)
Justin Wilson, LHP: $2.3MM player option; if Wilson declines, Cincinnati holds a $7.15MM club option ($1.15MM buyout)
Total 2022 commitments (assuming Castellanos opts out and Wilson exercises player option): $90.467MM

Projected Salaries for Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)

Luis Castillo — $7.6MM
Jesse Winker — $6.8MM
Tyler Mahle — $5.6MM
Tyler Naquin — $3.6MM
Amir Garrett — $2.2MM
Kyle Farmer — $2.2MM
Luis Cessa — $1.6MM
Lucas Sims — $1.2MM
Jeff Hoffman — $1.1MM
Nick Senzel — $1.1MM
Non-tender candidates: Garrett

Free Agents

Michael Lorenzen, Mychal Givens, Asdrúbal Cabrera, Mike Freeman, Delino DeShields Jr., R.J. Alaniz
The Reds hung around the postseason picture all season, even looking like Wild Card favorites into September. The Cardinals streaked to the National League’s final postseason spot near the end of the year, though, leaving the Reds on the outside looking in for the seventh time in the past eight years.

Cincinnati already made one key decision, signing manager David Bell to a two-year contract extension last month. Bell has been at the helm for three seasons of generally average play, but the front office was evidently pleased enough with his locker room presence and decision-making to give him some security moving forward.

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With Bell’s status now certain, Krall and his staff can turn their full focus towards the roster. Nick Castellanos is all but certain to exercise his opt-out clause and test free agency, where he’d be a strong candidate to land a $100+MM deal. Going to nine figures wouldn’t be totally unprecedented for the Reds, but it would require a sharp turnaround from their most recent spending habits.

The Reds were among the most active teams in cutting costs last winter on the heels of a season with no gate revenue. Cincinnati traded away one of the game’s best relievers, Raisel Iglesias, in a move that amounted to little more than a salary dump. They sat out the offseason shortstop market and entered the year running an ill-advised experiment with Eugenio Suárez at short. And there were rumblings last winter about the Reds considering moving some of their arbitration-eligible starting pitchers, although there’s no indication such talks ever got particularly far.

It seems reasonable to expect owner Bob Castellini to greenlight more spending this offseason after a comparatively normal campaign. There’s a line between not further slashing payroll and winning the bidding on a top free agent, though. Even if Castellini signs off on a payroll near 2019’s franchise-record $149MM level — a significant uptick over this past season’s $132MM mark — retaining Castellanos while adequately addressing the roster’s other deficiencies could be a challenge.

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Assuming Justin Wilson exercises his player option and Castellanos opts out, the Reds will enter the winter with a little more than $90MM on the books, in the estimation of Jason Martinez of Roster Resource. Exercising Wade Miley’s $10MM club option would push that total near nine figures. Cincinnati could buy Miley out and reallocate that money, but that’d require parting ways with a pitcher who quietly tossed 163 innings of 3.37 ERA ball this past season despite playing his home games in one of baseball’s more hitter-friendly environments.

Exercising Miley’s option and then putting him on the trade market could be something of a middle ground — allowing the front office to recoup some talent without taking on additional salary. Even in that instance, the Reds would be moving on from a highly affordable deal for a key member of the rotation, though. The most likely outcome still seems to be Cincinnati exercising the option and bringing Miley back, but that’d seem to further decrease the chances of a Castellanos return.

The Reds also have to make a $7MM decision on longtime catcher Tucker Barnhart. The 30-year-old is a career-long member of the organization who’s a generally capable backstop, but rookie Tyler Stephenson already looks like one of the better offensive catchers in baseball. It seems likely they’ll pay Barnhart a $500K buyout instead of exercising his $7.5MM club option. That’d give Stephenson the primary job, although doing so probably requires bringing in a cheaper veteran backup this offseason.

Elsewhere on the diamond, Jesse Winker has one corner outfield spot locked down after a second consecutive huge season. There’s no longer much doubt that Winker is one of the game’s best hitters, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the front office kicks around the possibility of an extension. Winker is under control via arbitration for two more seasons. Projected for a solid $6.8MM salary already, he might not feel pressured into considering a below-market extension at this point. Still, there’s little harm for Cincinnati in at least gauging his asking price on a potential deal.

The rest of the outfield would be an open question if Castellanos opts out, as would the potential designated hitter if the position comes to the National League in collective bargaining this winter. None of Aristides Aquino, Shogo Akiyama nor Nick Senzel look like slam-dunk regulars going into 2022. Tyler Naquin probably did enough this season to lock down a spot somewhere alongside Winker, but either of center or right field (with Naquin manning the other position) would be an area of need.

The free agent center field market is barren behind Starling Marte and utilityman Chris Taylor, both of whom might price themselves out of the bidding for Cincinnati. Mark Canha could be a lower-cost alternative to man right, while Jorge Soler offers a broadly similar skillset to Castellanos (strong exit velocities with below-average defense) for cheaper, albeit with much less consistency at the plate. Avisaíl García, Joc Pederson and Kole Calhoun are among the other alternatives who could be available on the open market.

The outfield could be in line for some turnover, but Cincinnati could be content to fill next year’s infield internally. Franchise icon Joey Votto is locked into the middle of the order following an otherworldly second half. Jonathan India should probably win the National League’s Rookie of the Year award after hitting .269/.376/.459 to seize the second base job.

The Suárez shortstop experiment fell flat, but Kyle Farmer quietly stabilized the position with a nice season after taking over in May. A former catcher, Farmer adapted surprisingly well to shortstop and hit a fine .263/.316/.416 over the course of 529 plate appearances. He’s a 31-year-old utilityman who entered the 2021 campaign with a career .242/.297/.370 slash line, so the front office probably wouldn’t be entirely enthused to hand him the job again heading into 2022. They needn’t do that, though, since top prospect José Barrero looks poised to run with the position at some point.

Barrero hasn’t yet done much at the big league level, but he’s coming off a .306/.392/.592 showing in Triple-A. Baseball America slotted him as the top prospect in the Cincinnati farm system midseason, and the 23-year-old is widely expected to be a fixture in the dirt at Great American Ball Park in the not too distant future. Farmer’s quiet stability gives the Reds some leeway to be patient, but he could easily slide back into a utility role if Barrero begins to translate his immense talent into big league productivity.

For the first time in five years, third base looks like a question mark for Cincinnati. Not only did Suárez struggle defensively in his early-season move to shortstop, his offensive production cratered. Suárez hit 31 home runs, but it came with his worst walk rate since 2016 (9.8%) and a meager .198 batting average. While he still has the potential to do damage in any given at-bat, Suárez’s offensive consistency has dropped off significantly over the past two seasons, and the Reds began to curtail his playing time later in the year.

There’s a case for the Reds to look for an upgrade at third base, but that’d require pouring even more resources into a position where the club already has Suárez and Mike Moustakas on significant contracts. Moustakas will be looking for a bounceback season of his own after struggling to a career-worst .208/.282/.372 showing while being obviously hampered by a foot injury. It’s not an enviable position to be in, but the Reds seem likely to run things back with Suárez and Moustakas in hopes that at least one can regain some of his prior form. The front office certainly didn’t envision a Suárez/Moustakas platoon when signing those players to long-term deals, but that might be the best option for Bell to get production from that position moving forward.

The front office might also feel their work in the rotation is already done, particularly if they exercise Miley’s option. Luis Castillo rebounded from an awful first two months to post a characteristically strong second half. Sonny Gray had his third consecutive solid season after coming over from the Yankees during the 2018-19 offseason. Tyler Mahle is one of the better young pitchers around the league, and Miley’s coming off a very good season as mentioned.

The Reds could probably do better than Vladimir Gutierrez in the final spot, but top pitching prospects Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo are on the doorstep of the big leagues and could be factors themselves next year. Cincinnati might look to add a low-cost innings eating type at the back end — especially if Miley ends up elsewhere — but the core of a potential playoff rotation is already in place.

A trade involving Gray or Castillo can’t be completely ruled out, since the club reportedly fielded offers on both players last offseason. Gray will make just under $11MM next season, while Castillo is projected for a $7.6MM arbitration salary. Both pitchers are under team control through 2023.

Cincinnati is looking to compete immediately, making a Gray or Castillo deal still seem unlikely. Krall downplayed the importance of trade talks involving their top pitchers last winter, characterizing those discussions as a matter of due diligence. More conversations of that nature will surely take place in the coming months, but there’s no pressing need for the Reds to force a trade involving either player.

The biggest priority for the Reds this offseason — aside from retaining or replacing Castellanos — has to be revamping the bullpen. Reds’ relievers were among the worst in the league at preventing runs last season, largely due to walk and home run issues. There’s a strong case, in fact, that the bullpen was the biggest reason they missed the playoffs.

Even after adjusting for park effects, the Reds outhit the Cardinals in 2021. The two teams’ respective rotation ERA’s (4.01 for St. Louis, 4.03 for Cincinnati) were almost identical. The biggest separator between the Reds and the NL’s final playoff team was a gap of more than a full run in ERA (3.97 versus 4.99) from the relief corps.

Making matters worse, Cincinnati’s best reliever, Tejay Antone, will probably miss the entire season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in September. Michael Lorenzen is set to hit free agency, as is deadline pickup Mychal Givens. The Reds can take a broad approach to talent acquisition, scouring the waiver wire and non-tender markets for relievers they like. But it’d be a surprise if they didn’t also add at least one obvious upgrade to the late innings mix.

To their credit, Cincinnati already did some of the bullpen heavy lifting at the trade deadline, picking up Luis Cessa and Wilson from the Yankees. They’re both likely to return, joining Art Warren and Lucas Sims as the top internal options. That still leaves some high-leverage innings to be shouldered though.

Ironically enough, Iglesias is easily the top free agent reliever available. Signing him is likely to cost a hefty three-plus year salary and potentially a draft choice, should the Angels make him a qualifying offer. It’d be a shock to see the Reds meet that asking price just twelve months after trading him away. Instead, they’ll look at least a tier down.

Kendall Graveman and Kenley Jansen might still prove too pricey for the Reds’ liking. The third tier of relievers — which includes players like Corey Knebel, Héctor Neris and Jeurys Familia — could still offer some much-needed help. If Cincinnati looks for a southpaw to pair with Wilson, Aaron Loup, Andrew Chafin and old friend Brooks Raley should be available without coming at prohibitive costs. The Reds could look for creative ways to bring in a controllable reliever via trade as well, just as they did this summer with the Cessa pickup.

Bullpens are often highly volatile, and it’s not hard to envision the Reds constructing a passable relief corps by hitting on just one or two offseason additions. But that’ll require identifying a few key targets from a group of pitchers that (Iglesias and Graveman aside) all come with their own question marks. Krall and his staff have surely already begun to pore over the possibilities, but any bullpen restructuring requires both an adept talent acquisition process and some element of luck.

If Castellanos leaves, the front office will need to figure out how to replace most of his middle-of-the-order production at a lower cost. They might very well have to bank on a repeat of last season’s marvelous production from Votto and a bounceback from either of Suárez or Moustakas. And they’ll no doubt have to hit on an addition or two to the late innings to fix a bullpen that proved untenable in 2021.

None of that is impossible, and the Reds’ rotation and handful of high-end position players gives them a contending core around which to build. There’s not much margin for error for Krall and his group this winter, though, and a bad start to next season would intensify rumors about potential trades involving Gray, Castillo and Winker, each of whom has a dwindling window of remaining team control.

The Reds have a real chance to be competitive in 2022, but they’re also in some danger of never realizing the full potential of this central group of players. How well they handle the potential loss of Castellanos and their hit rate on bullpen upgrades this offseason might ultimately determine whether this group can ever make a deep postseason run.

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