Item: During the 2012-13 off-season, the Chicago Cubs signed free agent starting pitcher Scott Feldman to a one-year, $6 million contract. Feldman pitched well for the Cubs in early 2013. In 15 starts his ERA was 3.46 and FIP was 3.93. On July 2, the Cubs traded Feldman to the Baltimore Orioles. They turned three months of Scott Feldman into 4.5 years of Jake Arrieta (yes, that Jake Arrieta) and 4.5 years of bullpen stud Pedro Strop.
Item: During the 2013-14 off-season, the Cubs signed free agent starting pitcher Jason Hammel to a one-year, $6 million contract. Hammel pitched well for the Cubs in early 2014. In 17 starts his ERA was 2.98 and his FIP was 3.19. On July 5, the Cubs traded Hammel to Oakland in a deal that returned Addison Russell, Billy McKinney and Dan Straily from the A’s. Jeff Samardzija was a more important part of the Cubs outgoing package. But Hammel was no slouch. 1.5 years of Samardzija and half a year of Hammel brought the Cubs 6 years of Russell, the #3 prospect in baseball; six years of McKinney, the #2 prospect in the Cubs system now; and Straily, a pitcher who became part of the trade to the Astros for Dexter Fowler.
Signing players to one-year deals and flipping them at mid-season is a proven rebuilding tactic for the Cubs. Let’s call it the Epstein Flip. Pulling it off takes on-target scouting and accurate analytics. The team has to be in a particular situation – in a rebuilding phase and have to have the money to track down a quality pitcher on the free agent market who is looking for a one-year deal. The Feldman and Hammel acquisitions were deliberate sign-to-trade moves by the Cubs.
The Cincinnati Reds enter the 2015-16 off-season in perfect position to execute an Epstein Flip.
The Reds need an extra starting pitcher to begin the season. Homer Bailey will miss the first month. From last year’s staff, only Anthony DeSclafani (184 IP) can pitch the entire season. The rest – Raisel Iglesias (124 IP), John Lamb (160 IP), Michael Lorenzen (156 IP), Keyvius Sampson (135 IP), Brandon Finnegan (105 IP) and Robert Stephenson (134 IP) – will face innings limits of varying severity. Yes, the Reds could divide up the season and get by with only these names. But prudence suggests adding another arm to the mix, one that could cover the available innings the first half of the year.
The Reds could neatly fuse the innings-eater common sense with the opportunism of the Epstein Flip. The club could and should comb the free agent pool for pitchers where the market dictates a one-year deal and choose a good one. Let him pitch for half the season while Bailey gets back in the groove and the young arms sort themselves out. Then trade the new starter at the deadline, like Feldman and Hammel.
The Reds should have enough payroll to avoid curb shopping this off-season if they can figure out a couple of the trades that have been rumored. Keep in mind they’ll only be paying half a year’s salary to this starting pitcher. A $6 million man traded at the deadline only costs $3 million.
But not just any starter will do. He has to project to pitch well in the first half to build his value. That bar isn’t super high. Scott Feldman and Jason Hammel weren’t Clayton Kershaw. But Jason Marquis and his type won’t cut it, as we saw last year.
That brings us to Bronson Anthony Arroyo.
Bronson Arroyo will be 38 on Opening Day, all parts of him other than one ligament as old as Saturn. Bill Clinton was President when Arroyo began his major league career with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The tall, durable right-hander pitched a full season (32 starts, 202 innings) for the Reds in 2013. He signed a 2-year deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks, but after 14 appearances, the guy who hadn’t missed a start since puberty, suffered a torn UCL and underwent Tommy John surgery in mid-2014. Since then, he’s been traded to Atlanta and then the Dodgers. That involved a bunch of contract dumping, but no pitching. The Dodgers just paid Arroyo a $4.5 million buyout for the 2016 season to avoid ponying up an $11 million option.
Bronson Arroyo, always a free spirit, is now a free agent.
Yesterday, John Fay spotted Arroyo having lunch across the street from GABP. We now know the pitcher was in town talking to the Reds about making a return. The Reds, wisely, aren’t jumping in to anything. They want to make sure Arroyo is healthy before contract talks move too far. Arroyo is headed back to his home in Florida, expecting a normal off-season throwing. If Arroyo can prove he’s recovered, it sounds like there is strong mutual interest.
That raises the question: Is Bronson Arroyo an option for the Epstein Flip?
Well, he sure wouldn’t cost $6 million. His contract will be for one year comprised mostly of incentives based on innings pitched.
Arroyo hasn’t pitched since mid-2014 – a layoff nearly a year longer than Bailey’s. It’s possible that his recovery from surgery will be slow and gradual, meaning he isn’t a strong candidate for a fast-starting innings consumer. But given the way Bronson Arroyo pitches, it wouldn’t be surprising if he was ready in April and able to throw a complete season. With a new elbow ligament and time to rest up, Arroyo might well be in a great position for a deadline trade.
That’s where the real risk arises. Can the Reds avoid falling in love with a returned-to-form Bronson Arroyo?
Arroyo could take care of the innings the Reds need covered. But the arrangement has to be temporary. Nothing is more important to the Reds rebuilding this year than developing their young starting pitchers. If Bronson Arroyo ends up starting 30+ games for the Reds, it’s a problem. Barring a significant trade that brings in another pitcher, by mid season the Reds need their rotation to be comprised of Bailey, DeSclafani, Iglesias and the most promising young guys.
If the Reds sign on, Arroyo’s return will be sold to fans as providing a wise mentor for the young pitchers. In fact, that pitch has already begun. “Price thinks I could help the clubhouse,” Arroyo said to Fay. But the Reds can’t let that become an argument for keeping him around all year. Arroyo can demonstrate work ethic and teach the kids a few tricks over five months (Feb-July).
In a way, resigning Bronson Arroyo is such a Reds inside move – the comfort of familiarity. With Walt Jocketty’s players from St. Louis mostly retired, bringing back former Reds is next generation in-group bias.
That said, Arroyo’s return would go over well here. He’s uber-popular with the beat writers because Arroyo speaks to them sans cliché. Reds fans would love to see #61 back on the GABP mound, befuddling hitters while wearing a Cincinnati uniform. If Arroyo proves healthy over the next couple months, the Reds should give his well worn tires a kick. After conducting a broad search of the free agent pool, it may turn out that Bronson Arroyo is the best guy for the job.
But the club only has one shot at the Epstein Flip. There’s no sensible room for adding two veteran pitchers to the rotation and keeping one all season. In an off-season that promises infamy for shipping off a bunch of popular players, bringing a fan favorite back will present a great public relations temptation. If the organization doesn’t have the stomach to trade Arroyo in July, they’ll miss a valuable sign-to-trade opportunity.
Given that significant opportunity cost, the Reds have to resist nostalgia. Avoiding sentimental attachment hasn’t been one of the organization’s strongest qualities. The club needs a Jason Hammel not a Jason Marquis.