The Reds Need to Lock up Their Budding Stars

Here’s why signing Luis Castillo, Tyler Mahle, and Jesse Winker to long-term contracts is in everyone’s best interest.

In 2010, the Cincinnati Reds were the surprise champions of the National League Central division. You may remember that team. They won 91 games behind young stars like Joey Votto (the NL’s Most Valuable Player at age 26), Jay Bruce (23 years old), and Johnny Cueto (24), along with more established veterans such as Scott Rolen, Bronson Arroyo, and Brandon Phillips.

 

The 2010 season ended with a thud, a NL Division Series sweep at the hands of the Philadelphia Phillies, but there was real reason for optimism as Cincinnati moved into the off-season. Then, that winter, the Reds front office made a couple of smart moves that would ideally set up the team to be competitive for the foreseeable future.

First, in early December, Cincinnati inked Jay Bruce to a six-year, $51-million dollar contract. He’d just finished a season in which he hit .281/.353/.493 with 25 home runs. He was due to be arbitration-eligible that winter, and so the Reds bought out all his arbitration years, along with two years of free agency. Bruce rewarded the club by making three All-Star teams during the span of the contract, on the way to a career that will ultimately see him inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame.

About six weeks later, Cueto also signed a long-term contract with the Reds. He was arguably the best starter on that memorable Reds team, and he still had three years of arbitration ahead of him before he could be an unrestricted free agent. By signing him to a four-year, $27-million contract, the Reds bought out those arbitration years, plus his first season of free agency.

Things didn’t turn out the way we had hoped with the Reds teams over the following few years, but these were smart deals designed to help the team compete over the long haul. The strategy of locking up young stars to long-term contracts has been employed by most organizations in the league. I could write far more about why the strategy is an intelligent one, but in short, it’s a way to ensure actual talent on your roster at a (somewhat) cost-effective rate without dipping into unknowns of the free agent market.

Let’s fast forward to the current version of the Reds. The team keeps treading water, but who knows? Maybe they’ll make a surprise run to the Central division championship this year. Whether that happens or not, Cincinnati management would be wise to emulate the winter activities of the 2010 club. By which I mean the Reds have a trio of young stars at a similar point in their careers as Cueto and Bruce, and the front office needs to do everything in their power to negotiate long-term contracts with all of them. Let’s look at each in order.

Jesse Winker, by most metrics, has been among the top five hitters in baseball this season. I don’t have nearly enough space in this week’s column to extol his virtues (maybe next week), but over at Fangraphs Devan Fink has evaluated all the metrics and believes that Winker is the real deal:

This leaves us with an interesting question: What to make of Jesse Winker? I do think he is one of the best hitters in baseball; the numbers reflect that, and his statistical performance has come in a large enough sample to back me up. The platoon splits can be presented as an argument against that: How can you call someone one of the best hitters in baseball if he doesn’t perform against pitchers of both handedness? But with the vast majority of his plate appearances coming against righties, plus some extra platoon savviness by the Reds, I don’t have an issue saying that Winker has turned himself into one of the better, if not best, hitters in the game.

Winker is due to be arbitration-eligible for the next two winters before he can dip his toe into the free agency waters. The Reds need to try to buy out those arb years and secure him to a contract that buys out at least a couple of his free agent seasons, preferably more.

Tyler Mahle, at age 26, has been the ace of Cincinnati’s staff through the season’s first two months. He’s 4–2 with a 3.42 ERA and has gotten consistently better throughout his MLB career. There’s reason for optimism that he’ll continue to improve; at every stage of his professional career, he’s simply had a knack for getting hitters out. I’m serious, go check out his minor league stats. Mahle may never be a long-term ace like Cueto, but he’s destined for a long career as a No. 2 or No. 3 starter. There is great value in a player like that.

Like Winker, Mahle will be arbitration eligible for each of the next two seasons before becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2024. Now is the perfect time to make sure he’s a Red for the next few seasons.

Finally, we have the complicated case of Luis Castillo. Well, it’s complicated only because, unlike Winker and Mahle, he’s been simply horrific so far in 2021 (1–8, 7.22 ERA). To me, however, signing Castillo to a long-term deal should be Cincinnati’s top priority over the next eight months. This hot take, of course, presumes that he’s healthy. The Reds have more information than we do on this point, but he doesn’t seem to be obviously injured; his velocity is in line with career averages, for example.

Like his teammates, Castillo won’t be a free agent until 2024. If the Reds are convinced that he’s still the pitcher we’ve seen in previous years—a budding ace who has already made one All-Star team—this winter might be the best time ever to negotiate with a pitcher who has demonstrated the ability to dazzle opposing hitters.

There’s a lot more to this equation, obviously, than the Reds deciding to offer contracts to these guys. The players have a say in it, too. Winker, Mahle, and Castillo may not want to stay with an organization whose commitment to winning is uneven at best. But there are benefits for the players. They would almost certainly be able to make more money over the next two years than they would from the arbitration process, and they gain some security in a time when the free agent process is more of a mystery than ever, given what we’ve seen the last two winters.

To be sure, Reds management will have more work to do this off-season than just locking up these three players. Renegotiating Nick Castellanos’ deal to keep him in Cincinnati should be a priority as well, and General Manager Nick Krall will have to try to fill gaping holes at shortstop and in the bullpen. But signing Winker, Mahle, and Castillo to long(ish)-term contracts is important. They are a little older than Bruce and Cueto when they signed contracts after the 2010 season, but retaining these guys would at least ensure a base of real talent to build around for the next few years as the Reds try to figure out a way to get competitive in this division.

If nothing else, signing any of these players would go a long way to repairing the fractured relationship with Reds fans that has developed in the wake of owner Bob Castellini’s complete refusal to go “all in” on putting a winning team on the field. It would be a start, anyway, if the ownership group even cares.

Pay attention to the news reports over the winter. If the Reds don’t make a real effort to sign Castillo, Winker, or Mahle (or any one or two of the trio) to contracts this off-season, it’ll be an indication of business as usual. But if the Reds are able to lock up one or more of these guys, maybe, just maybe, it will be evidence that the team is getting serious about building a winner sometime soon.

Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, Redleg Nation Radio. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available in bookstores and online.

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