Why The Reds Should Trade Jesse Winker Or Extend Him

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These days, when baseball fans talk about the Reds, the general topic seems to be trying to pin down which, if any, of their three reportedly available starting pitchers will be traded following the transactions freeze. It’s hardly a secret that the Reds at least entertained talks involving Sonny Gray, Luis Castillo and Tyler Mahle prior to the lockout. They also placed Wade Miley on waivers and traded Tucker Barnhart. Both looked to be financially driven moves, and GM Nick Krall erased any doubt that was the case when publicly declaring a need to “align payroll to our resources” early in the offseason.

Trade chatter on each of Gray, Castillo and Mahle followed — understandably so. All three are only controlled another two seasons. If ownership is mandating a payroll reduction even for just the 2022 season, there’s an argument to be made that the best course of action is to turn one or more of those highly coveted arms into some young talent who’ll help in 2023 and beyond. Gray is set to earn $10MM in 2022 and has a highly affordable $12MM club option for the 2023 season. Castillo and Mahle are arbitration-eligible and projected to earn $7.6MM and $5.6MM in 2022, respectively, by MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz.

If the Reds are open to dealing any of those three quality starters who are controlled through the 2023 season, however, why isn’t there more talk of Cincinnati listening to offers on left fielder Jesse Winker? Like that trio of arms, Winker is controlled only through the 2023 season and figures to see his price tag rise substantially. He’s projected to earn $6.8MM in 2022 and, if he continues hitting at his recent pace, he’ll likely see that figure rise beyond $10MM in 2023.

First and foremost, let’s get one thing straight: Winker’s offensive proficiency hasn’t gotten nearly the attention it deserves. A former No. 49 overall draft pick (2012) and consensus top-100 prospect from 2015 to 2017, Winker has hit from the moment he got to the big leagues. That’s not an exaggeration; he slashed .298/.375/.529 in 137 plate appearances as a rookie back in 2017, and the only time he’s posted a wRC+ under 127 was in 2019, when he was “only” 11 percent better than league average (111 wRC+).

From 2017-19, Winker batted a combined .285/.379/.466 with 30 home runs, an 11.9% walk rate and just a 15.2% strikeout rate in 855 plate appearances — and yet his efforts went largely unnoticed. Even the Reds themselves signed not one but two free-agent outfielders to lucrative multi-year deals after that stretch, bringing Nick Castellanos and Shogo Akiyama into the fold. It’s true that the left-handed-hitting Winker has some notable platoon splits and isn’t regarded as a great defender, but production like that should’ve seemingly entrenched him in the outfield mix — not left him fighting for at-bats alongside Aristides Aquino, Nick Senzel and others.

Good as Winker was from ’17-’19, it was the 2020 season where things really took off. Winker struck out more than in the past, causing his batting average to dip to .255, but his walk rate spiked to 15.3% and his power went through the roof. He slugged a dozen homers and hit seven doubles in just 184 plate appearances — all while posting a .289 ISO (slugging percentage minus batting average). In 2021, Winker not only sustained much of that power surge but managed to drop his strikeout rate from the 25.1% he showed in 2020 back down to a 15.5% clip that falls in line with his 2017-19 numbers. Essentially, that 2020 spike in punchouts looks like a small-sample blip at this point. He’s never whiffed at even an 18% clip in any of his four other big league campaigns.

Over the past two seasons, Winker has appeared in a total of 164 games and tallied 668 plate appearances. He’s slugged 36 homers, connected on 39 doubles and posted a mammoth .292/.392/.552 batting line in that time. Great American Ball Park is a friendly place for hitters, to be sure, but park-neutral metrics like wRC+ (147) and OPS+ (140) suggest he’s still been anywhere from 40 to 47 percent better than a league-average hitter.

There’s little sense in trying to sugar coat Winker’s numbers against lefties. They are, quite simply, bad. He’s hit .199/.314/.338 (78 wRC+) against southpaws over the past two seasons, which is actually an improvement over his early-career woes. He still takes his walks (12.4%), but he’s fanned in 21.2% of his plate appearances compared to just 15.1% against righties. Winker’s 52.8% ground-ball rate against lefties is also vastly higher than his 43.6% mark against righties. And beyond that, 14% of the fly-balls Winker hits against lefties have been infield flies, compared to just 6% against righties. The walk rate at least lets Winker post a passable OBP against southpaws, but the damage he does comes when holding the platoon advantage.

Even if Winker is “only” a platoon player, however, he’s a platoon player who is not just productive against righties — he’s one of the best hitters in baseball against righties. From 2020-21, the only two players in all of MLB who have outproduced Winker against righties (by measure of wRC+) are Juan Soto (185) and Bryce Harper (179). Winker’s mark of 169 leads stars like Freddie Freeman, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Statcast generally supports his production, too; he was in the 74th percentile or better this past season in terms of strikeout rate, walk rate, average exit velocity, hard-hit rate, barrel rate, chase rate, expected batting average, expected slugging percentage and expected wOBA.

Excellent as Winker’s rate production has been, detractors might point out that he’s yet to reach 500 plate appearances in a given season. He’s had stints on the injured list in four of his five MLB campaigns, only staying healthy for the entirety of the shortened 2020 schedule. None of his issues seems to have been recurring; his career IL stints have come on account of a 2017 left hip flexor strain, a 2018 right shoulder subluxation, a 2019 cervical strain in his neck and an intercostal strain that ended his 2021 campaign. Winker is expected to be full-go for the start of Spring Training, but he has yet to put together a full 162-game season.

Still, plenty of clubs around the league would look past that injury history based on Winker’s career track record at the plate. As for the glove, Winker isn’t a great left fielder, but the likely implementation of a DH in the National League helps to quiet any such concerns. Furthermore, it’s not as though he’s unplayable on the grass. He posted a minus-5 mark in Defensive Runs Saved through 831 innings in left this past season (in addition to -1.9 UZR and -8 Outs Above Average) but is only minus-7 in 1669 career innings.

Winker is generally regarded as a better defender than either Castellanos or Kyle Schwarber, and most pundits expect both those players to command weighty contracts in free agency. Winker has been a better defender and better hitter than both over the past two seasons. There are surely teams that would rather part with prospects to acquire two years of Winker than pay annual salaries near (or in excess of) $20MM for Schwarber and Castellanos.

Frankly, any team that needs a left-handed bat and/or a boost in the outfield ought to be pounding on the Reds’ door in an effort to pry Winker away once the lockout lifts. He’s not without his flaws, but he’s an elite bat against right-handed pitching who can at least post a passable OBP against lefties. Winker won’t turn 29 until August, and while we can’t know his exact salary over the next two seasons, he’ll clock in at less than $20MM total.

All of that leads to the other side of the equation for the Reds. If they’re not going to trade Winker, now’s the time they should be mulling a multi-year extension with an eye toward making him a focal point of the lineup for years beyond his current slate of club control. By the time next spring rolls around, he’ll only be a year from free agency and may not be as amenable to negotiations — particularly not if he’s punched his ticket to another hefty arbitration raise with a strong 2022 season.

So, what might an extension cost? In terms of recent comparables, there haven’t been many outfielders to sign long-term deals when they’re sitting between four and five years of Major League service time. Randal Grichuk notched another four years and $47MM on top of what would’ve been a $5MM salary for his second arbitration year early in the 2019 season, but Winker has been a vastly more productive player. Adam Jones’ six-year, $85.5MM deal is a decade old at this point.

Winker should command something in the $15-18MM range for his remaining two arbitration seasons. Tacking on three years beyond that would seem a reasonable target for the Reds, though given his age, Winker’s reps might advocate for a longer deal over one that sends him back to the market as a 33-year-old. Mid-range corner outfielders like Josh Reddick and Avisail Garcia have reached/topped $13MM annual salaries on four-year deals in recent years. Castellanos received a $16MM annual salary on his first deal with the Reds — the same AAV the Astros gave to a much older but nonetheless productive bat-first player, Michael Brantley. Winker’s production should put him closer to Castellanos territory than Reddick/Garcia territory.

These are all generalities, of course, but a five- or six-year deal that values Winker’s free-agent seasons in the $16MM vicinity doesn’t seem outlandish. After all, were he to go year-to-year and continue at his current pace, he’d hit the market in advance of his age-30 season and could justifiably seek an annual salary more in line with whatever Schwarber and Castellanos land post-lockout.

Ultimately, the Reds could opt for the conservative route, holding onto their left fielder and going year-to-year with Winker through the remainder of his arbitration eligibility. If they’re truly willing to listen to offers on their top three starters, though, there’s little sense in not doing the same with Winker — unless an extension is expected down the line. Based on the team’s spending habits since the close of the 2020 season, an extension would register as a surprise. Perhaps it’s a hard “no” from the Reds, but listening to offers on Gray, Castillo and Mahle while turning away interest in Winker would be an odd line to draw in the sand.

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