Is Reds window of contention closing?


Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The Reds seemingly boast the hottest commodity in modern sports: a youth movement.

As it stands, Cincinnati’s five-deep rotation features a rock-solid helping of young guns, starring Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Tony Cingrani, Homer Bailey, and Mike Leake, all south of 27-years-old, all in their prime. Their two biggest bats, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, are still on the right side of 30. And Billy Hamilton was born in the 90s.

Which is why it might seem ludicrous to suggest that the window is closing. That Cincinnati might struggle to sustain the success that led them to three playoff births in four seasons. That if nothing changes, it’s now, or never.

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Sometimes youth movements keep moving and fail to stay.

Three factors are closing the Reds window of contention. Fans can only hope management didn’t lower the blinds.

1. That rock-solid rotation isn’t on solid ground.

The strength of the Cincinnati Reds right now, and a huge reason Bryan Price ascended to the Manager’s seat, is the young pitching rotation. The fact that the aforementioned Latos, Cueto, Bailey, Leake, and Cingrani combo, alongside Aroldis Chapman, are all 27 or younger, speaks to an organization that groomed a worthy stable of young arms. It’s an affordable core that keeps an inconsistent offense in the mix on a day-to-day basis.

But it’s fleeting. The Reds have yet to ensure that any of their prized pitchers beyond Cingrani will still be in the Queen City two years from now. Consider the contract situations.

Johnny Cueto: signed through 2014, with a 2015 team option. 2016 free-agent.
Mat Latos: signed through 2014, with a 2015 arbitration option. 2016 free-agent.
Homer Bailey: as of now, would reach free agency in 2015.
Mike Leake: signed through 2014. 2015 free agent.
Aroldis Chapman: signed through 2014 with a 2015 player option (read: will want a raise)

Hot prospect Robert Stephenson can’t replace all of that production. And in their negotiations with Homer Bailey this offseason, the Reds have shown reluctance to pay market value for a young pitcher in today’s bloated salary era. So what happens when 2016 rolls around? Are the Reds suddenly bereft of the arms that guided them to contention? Who, if anyone, do they decide to pay?

And Reds fans can be forgiven for worrying about this front office’s choice in who to pay the big bucks. For whatever reason, veteran relief pitchers have earned paydays while none of their young arms have been locked up in recent seasons. For example, the Reds traded (now 26 year-old) Travis Wood to the Cubs, getting Sean Marshall (now 30 y/o) in return. Over two seasons, Marshall has earned $7.6 million to pitch 71 innings and compile a 1.9 WAR. Wood, for Chicago, has pitched 356 innings and compiled a 5.1 WAR in that span…for about $1 million.

Which brings us to another issue, the issue: money.

2. Payroll problems. 

Already, the Reds might be out of their comfort zone.

Baseball-Reference projects the Reds to have the 6th highest payroll in the National League next season (12th overall) at around $105.5 million. This might already be stretching the limits of where Cincinnati is willing to go, considering they will likely never have a lucrative local TV deal like those teams in larger markets are securing by the buckets (i.e. the Dodgers).

And a certain contract is about to get more expensive.

Joey Votto’s contract, which extends through the end of forever or 2023 (whichever comes first), starts out light. He earns an affordable $12 million payday this season, $14 million next season, seemingly allowing the Reds to build around him in the short term. Except they’re not spending. And if they’re not spending today, what will their stance be in 2016, when his salary hits $20 million. Or in 2018, when it climbs to $25 million?

Barring a change in organizational philosophy, or an influx of cash, the belts in Cincinnati might only get tighter.

Consider that in 2016, when all of those pitchers come off the books, Votto, Brandon Phillips, and Jay Bruce will be earning $46 million of a payroll that might not far exceed $100M. The 25-man roster suddenly looks daunting. Paying top-level pitchers suddenly looks less than possible.

So what, you might say. That’s a good base. And as for the rest, restock. Reload. Why pay for extra slices of steak when you have your own cattle in the farm system? It works for the Cardinals.

The theory makes sense. But the execution might be out of reach.

3. Stars of today will fade, stars of tomorrow are missing.

For one, that solid base might not be as solid by 2016 and beyond. Brandon Phillips will be 34 years old, playing a position that, historically, ages very poorly. His defensive skills that make him so valuable might not hold up into his mid-30s. Votto will be 31, and probably still very valuable, but also past the usual prime of a player with his skillset. Bruce, meanwhile, has yet to meet his potential with consistent production. By his age 30 season, we’ll know what he is.

But even assuming that those three stars stay bright in Cincinnati, three players does not a contender make. And despite their recent reputation of improving from within, the Reds might be running out of goodies in the pantry.

ESPN’s Keith Law recently rated the Reds’ farm system 16th in Major League Baseball; to translate, that’s average at best. More problematic for the Reds’ title hopes is the fact that division rivals in St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Chicago all boast a stronger core of minor league talent, meaning the division around them will only strengthen as 2016 approaches.

Meanwhile, the Reds minor league system, across all levels, posted the worst winning percentage last season. And though I’ve been told by more than one minor league coach that winning isn’t the focus, development is, this is still troubling for the talent being assembled in Louisville, Pensacola, and Dayton. There’s a reason that only Stephenson and Hamilton made’s top 100 prospects list this season. Beyond them, there are only question marks and to-be-determined.

It’s hard to build from within without the tools.

So enjoy the youth movement while it lasts. For now, in 2014, the core remains. But beware the hope for tomorrow.

The Reds might just be running out of wait-until-next-years.