Monday, March 4, 2024
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Mike Moustakas and a Lesson in Small Market Baseball

Mike Moustakas while in a Kansas City Royals uniform. Photo Credit – Keith Allison (Marked for Re-use)

About a week ago, the Cincinnati Reds made a roster transaction that one could argue was years in the making. It was a move that ushered in a new era of Reds baseball–one that changed the landscape of all of Major League Baseball. It was a move that, at the very least, is seismic in its magnitude. What may this transaction be, that by its existence morphed the landscape of sports? The Reds designated infielder Mike Moustakas for assignment.

Ok. That might have been a bit dramatic.

Cincinnati signed Mike Moustakas to a 4 year, 64 million dollar contract during the winter of 2019. To many, it seemed to be a great deal as it ushered in an era of competitive Reds baseball at the conclusion of a 6-year long rebuild. In addition to Moustakas, the Reds acquired Nick Castellanos with another 4-year, 64 million dollar contract, which, unlike the Moustakas deal, had opt-outs after every season. Castellanos, of course, would opt out of his Reds deal and sign with Philadelphia before the 2022 season. The team made a few other complimentary moves, such as signing Wade Miley and Shogo Akiyama.

This was a huge offseason for the Cincinnati Reds. It ballooned team payroll to the highest in franchise history at a total of 165 million dollars. This spending gambit was successful, as the team went to the postseason for the first time since 2013 in 2020. However, it wasn’t as successful as the team would like, as they failed to score a run in the wild card series and failed to return to the postseason in 2021 after a late-season collapse. After the offseason proceedings of 2021 (which many deem to be a “fire sale”), the Reds would win a paltry 62 games in 2022.

Reds fans such as @bryce_spalding bemoaned the unfortunate tenure of Moustakas.

Mike Moustakas’ career with the Cincinnati Reds really defines the era of Reds baseball that he participated in. His debut with the team in 2020 was filled with excitement and expectations of greatness–much in line with the expectations of the team as a whole. His performance (105 wRC+, .5 fWAR) was just above average but the general consensus on his season was disappointing. He greatly underperformed the next season, posting a 69 wRC+ in an injury-riddled campaign. Last season was rock bottom for Moustakas, which turned out to be arguably his career-worst as he posted a paltry .214/.295/.345 slash line with a 76 wRC+. He struck out at a higher rate than he had ever done in his 12 year career and seemed to lose the defining aspect of his profile–his power.

I really don’t mean to kick a man while he’s down because Mike Moustakas deserves positivity at this point in his life. His vast injuries while a Red likely contributed to his downfall–which is at no fault of his own. Moustakas was placed on the injured list a historical amount of times and was only able to compete in 184 games over three seasons. Cincinnati now has the chance to trade Moustakas and the 22 million that he is entitled to for 2023 (a figure which includes a 4 million dollar buyout for 2024). This is an unlikely prospect which means that Moustakas will likely be cut from the team. 

Per MLB.com’s transaction log.


I doubt that his career is over, as there are always struggling teams willing to give washed-up veterans another chance. I hope that Moustakas bounces back. He’s a good guy and good for the game. It just didn’t work out in Cincy.

The real moral of the Mike Moustakas era for Reds fans is not that Moustakas underperformed and had a disastrous tenure in a Reds uniform–it’s that his contract was and is a disaster for the team. 

Historically, the Cincinnati Reds are not a high-spending club. Given the nature of baseball, this isn’t surprising since they reside in one of the smallest markets in baseball. The 2019 offseason was an outlier because of the amount of money spent by the team on free agents. Contracts like the one given to Moustakas are historic when it comes to the franchise’s tendencies. Even then, a 64 million dollar deal is dwarfed when looked at in the context of the wider Major League landscape. 

Recently, the Mets (and Giants) agreed to terms with Carlos Correa for massive 300 million dollar deals. If the Correa contract with the Mets doesn’t collapse like San Francisco’s, this will push New York’s total, adjusted payroll way past 400 million. This figure, which is historically high, would quadruple that of Cincinnati’s. To make things more daunting, Cincinnati doesn’t even have the smallest payroll in baseball–a feat belonging to the Oakland Athletics. Their total, adjusted payroll for 2023 is currently 70 million dollars. There is clearly a parity issue in baseball.

The Moustakas disaster will likely have a painfully sustained effect on the Cincinnati Reds front office. His salary made up 8%, 11%, and 14% of the team’s total payroll in 2020, 2021, and 2022, respectively. For comparison, Max Scherzer’s 43 million 2023 salary is only projected to be 14.5% of New York’s 2023 payroll (without Correa). This means that Mike Moustakas’ 2022 salary of 16 million means the same thing as Max Scherzer’s 43 million dollar salary does to the New York Mets.

What this will mean for the Reds is that they will likely avoid long contracts and instead operate on a one-year, mercenary type format when it comes to building a team. We’ve already seen this take place with players such as Tommy Pham, Donovan Solano, Curt Casali, Hunter Strickland, and Wil Myers. Moustakas brought failure upon a team hamstrung financially, which will probably steer the team to avoid significant financial commitments moving forward.

This model will likely be unsuccessful as the past six World Series champions have had relatively massive payrolls. Recent baseball has taught us that you must spend to win. Moneyball is over.

But alas, this is the way of the small market baseball fan. Misery will be the status of the Cincinnati sports fan after the NFL season and things are going to stay the same until there is a significant change in the philosophy and fortune of the Cincinnati Reds. 

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Payroll figures via Spotrac.com. Statistics via FanGraphs.com. You can follow Max’s Sporting Studio on Twitter at @MSportingStudio and the author of this article at @BeckhamGrayson.

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