’Twas the Friday before Christmas, and the Los Angeles Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds came together for a real doozy of a trade: L.A. sent pitcher Alex Wood, utilityman Kyle Farmer, outfielders Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp, and cash to Cincinnati for pitcher Homer Bailey and prospects Josiah Gray and Jeter Downs. This deal isn’t as impactful on its own as, say, the trade that sent Paul Goldschmidt to St. Louis earlier this month, but it has important knock-on effects for both franchises: It sets up the Dodgers to make a run at this offseason’s top free agents, and specifically Bryce Harper, while providing the Reds with a solid veteran core that makes them a playoff sleeper for 2019.
This trade is a Dodger Special, a gigantic multiplayer deal with players on big contracts heading in both directions in an attempt to move money around. Once every year or so, a crop of expensive veterans either joins or leaves the Dodgers in one of these deals, depending on the team’s financial and on-field needs. Wood came to Los Angeles in the first place in a Dodger Special in 2015, and this is the third time Kemp has wound up in one of these deals — in fact, this is the second time Dodgers president of baseball ops Andrew Friedman has salary-dumped this specific Kemp contract.
The four biggest names in this trade — Puig, Wood, Kemp, and Bailey — are all on the last year of team control. Kemp is due $21.75 million in 2019, while MLB Trade Rumors estimates that Puig and Wood will make a combined $21.3 million in arbitration. Bailey will make $23 million next year, and it’ll cost another $5 million for the Dodgers to buy out his mutual option for 2020. Toss in the $7 million the Dodgers are reportedly sending to Cincinnati, and the Dodgers are offloading somewhere in the neighborhood of $8 million in cash. The luxury tax, however, is calculated using the average annual value of player contracts; Kemp’s contract is backloaded, Bailey’s even more so. That means L.A.’s savings against the tax will be about $17 million once the dust settles.
The Dodgers are almost certainly going to spend that money on free agents, and Harper will be the main target. This trade doesn’t guarantee Harper will sign in L.A., of course, but if the Dodgers trade away Puig plus two other major contributors for salary relief, and all they come away with is A.J. Pollock, it’d be a huge letdown, to say the least. Even after this trade, the Dodgers probably wouldn’t be able to fit Harper’s entire salary under the tax threshold, but they could make another move to clear space, or if all else fails, act like a big-market franchise and just pay the damn tax.
Either way, they’d better do something with this payroll flexibility because they didn’t get very much back in terms of players. Bailey signed his current six-year deal in 2014, when he was a solid no. 2 starter, but he’s been injured or ineffective almost since the moment he put pen to paper. After making just 26 starts between 2015 and 2017, Bailey made 20 in 2018, and he was just dreadful. Won-loss record obviously isn’t a great indicator of pitcher performance, but a 1–14 record, which is what Bailey put up last season, conveys something viscerally that FIP or WAR doesn’t. He’ll probably be released without ever throwing a pitch in a Dodgers uniform.
Downs, the no. 32 pick in the 2017 draft, was the Reds’ no. 8 prospect according to FanGraphs. (Yes, his name is Jeter, and yes, he’s a shortstop.) Gray, a second-round pick out of LeMoyne College in 2018, was 13th on that list. Both are years from the majors — Downs topped out at low-A last season, while Gray’s entire pro career consists of 12 starts in rookie ball.
The package Los Angeles gave up, however, features three players who could play a big role for the Reds in 2019. Puig is the biggest name, and the best player in the group. He has had his ups and downs as a player, but he’s been a near-mythical figure in baseball since the moment he arrived in Los Angeles in 2013. Puig is one of the great entertainers in a sport that prizes conformity, and at age 28 has turned into a real glue guy in one of baseball’s most successful clubhouses. His departure from Los Angeles is truly the end of an era, and it’s difficult to imagine Puig in a Reds uniform — really any uniform other than a Dodgers uniform — because of his outsize cultural impact.
Thanks to all Dodgers’ fans for the love and support, I’m really going to miss you guys and I’ll see you at spring training but this time with different team!!!!! pic.twitter.com/rgNLUBZ4IP— Yasiel Puig (@YasielPuig) December 22, 2018
But from a pure baseball perspective, Puig is an exceptional defensive right fielder who stole 15 bases in each of the past two seasons and has good power from the right side. Puig is a good bet to set a career high in home runs with the Reds: After bouncing from the lineup to the bench on and off for the past four years, he’ll probably find playing time easier to come by in Cincinnati, and while Dodger Stadium is a pitchers’ park, Great American Ball Park is like a driving range in a wind tunnel on the moon. This trade also reunites Puig with Turner Ward, the former Dodgers coach who took a job as Cincinnati’s hitting coach in November. Puig and Ward share one of baseball’s great bromances, which is a heartwarming counterbalance to the sadness of seeing Puig leave L.A.
Kemp is as bad defensively as Puig is good, but he posted a 121 OPS+ last year, making him a solid bench bat at the very least. Wood, an All-Star in 2017, took a step back in 2018 but was still a league-average starter over 151 2/3 innings. The 28-year-old Farmer had a hard time breaking into the lineup in Los Angeles, but has handled the bat well in Triple-A and can play third base in addition to catching.
The obvious question is why a team that lost 95 games last year would add veterans a year from free agency. For starters, the Reds weren’t as bad as their record last year indicated — after a 3–15 start they fired manager Bryan Price and improved substantially under his replacement, Jim Riggleman. But they still only played at a 72-win pace under Riggleman, and the Cubs, Brewers, and Cardinals — who, after making the aforementioned Goldschmidt trade, added Andrew Miller on Thursday — are still much more talented. On the surface, it looks like the Reds got a lot more expensive without materially closing the gap on their competitors.
But between this trade and the acquisition of former Nationals right-hander Tanner Roark earlier in the week, the Reds have added four solid big league starters without giving up much in the way of prospects, and because they moved off Bailey’s deal, it cost them only about $17 million in salary.
Now consider who these players are replacing. The Reds lost 95 games with three All-Star infielders — Joey Votto, Eugenio Suárez, and Scooter Gennett — because the rest of their roster was awful. These trades address those deficiencies.
Wood and Roark might be back-end starters on the Dodgers or Nationals, but Luis Castillo was Cincinnati’s best starting pitcher last season with a 98 ERA+, the same as Roark and seven points lower than Wood. In 2018, the Reds gave 556 plate appearances in the outfield to Billy Hamilton (68 OPS+) and 370 more to Adam Duvall (81 OPS+). In 2019, those plate appearances will end up going to some combination of Puig, Kemp, and 25-year-old Jesse Winker, who posted a .406 OBP in 334 PA last year. All of a sudden, there’s not even an obvious lineup spot for Cincinnati’s top prospect, Nick Senzel, who played second and third in the minors and is learning how to play the outfield. This lineup’s not only solid now, it’s deep.
On paper, this team is no worse than the Rockies, A’s, or Mariners were heading into 2018, and if everyone stays healthy and a couple youngsters break out, they could make the playoffs. And there’s so little to lose by trying. If this gambit doesn’t work out, Puig, Kemp, Wood, Roark, and Gennett are all free agents after next season, so the Reds aren’t tied up in any long-term contracts that would prevent them from building around Senzel, Winker, Castillo, and Suárez in 2020. The worst-case scenario is the Reds lose 90 games again and trade off their would-be free agents at the deadline and make back most of the prospect outlay they spent this week, giving their fans the chance to watch Puig for a few months in the process.
Moreover, Cincinnati has been linked to more substantial trade targets, such as Cleveland ace Corey Kluber and Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto. Either one would likely require the Reds to part with either Senzel or no. 2 prospect Taylor Trammell, a 21-year-old A-ball outfielder. But they’d also make the Reds a legitimate contender, and not just a team taking its free spin of the wheel.
The current fashion in baseball is for bad teams to try to spend as little as possible, and for good teams not to exceed the luxury tax. If they followed that trend, the Reds would never have made this trade. Instead, they’re taking advantage of the Dodgers’ self-imposed economic limits and are spending a little money to become much more competitive. It’s a clever bit of front-office maneuvering that will make Cincinnati much more interesting this season. More clubs should do the same.