When the rumor broke Thursday that the Washington Nationals had expressed to the Reds interest in Raisel Iglesias, I had a foot out the door about to leave town for 48 hours. I wrote a short news post and offered a couple sentences about a potential deal. Let me elaborate as we wait for another episode of Luis Castillo Unbound:
Raisel Iglesias is the Reds best pitcher. Iglesias throws a 100-mph fastball paired with a nasty slider and two other good pitches. He’s maintained a starting pitcher’s portfolio. Adding to the degree of difficulty in facing Iglesias is his release point, which varies from sidearm to regular overhand and points in between.
What a season he’s having. The young right-hander is striking out more than 30% of the batters he faces. He made 19 consecutive scoreless appearances. Iglesias has given up 8 earned runs, 4 in one game. Raisel Iglesias is just 27 years old, the prime of his career. Keep in mind that Iglesias missed an entire season defecting from Cuba. One year less wear-and-tear. Raisel Iglesias is not just the Reds top pitcher, he’s one of the best in baseball.
The Reds have FOUR and a half more years of team control over Raisel Iglesias. The Reds welcomed Iglesias with a 7-year, $27 million contract in June of 2014. The contract runs through the 2020 season. He’ll earn salaries of $4.2 million (2017), $5.2 million (2018), $5.7 million (2019) and $5.7 million (2020). Iglesias’ contract allows him to file for arbitration when eligible. That’s not until the 2019 season. Aroldis Chapman had a similar contract, but ultimately avoided arbitration with the Reds in 2014 ($5 million) and 2015 ($8 million).
But MLB’s service times rules established in the collective bargaining agreement control the timing of Iglesias’ free agency. He entered 2017 with 1.154 (1 year, 154 days) of service time. That means Iglesias can’t use up his six years of team-controlled service time until after the 2021 season. So even though the contract Iglesias has with the Reds covers the 2014-2020 seasons, he remains under team control through 2021. The last three seasons 2019-2021 would be arbitration-eligible years. Arbitration-year salaries don’t come close to the full value of what a player would earn on the open market.
Given Raisel Iglesias’ enormous talent for pitching, his age and bargain-basement contract that extends well into the years when the Reds hope to again be competitive, it seems nuts to consider trading him. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a more valuable long-term asset.
Except for one thing:
Raisel Iglesias will never be anything but a closer for the Reds. Yes, the Reds declared at the time he signed that they intended to use him as as starter. That was the case until Iglesias twice went on the disabled list for shoulder issues. Since then, the Reds have tucked Iglesias snug in the warm embrace of the bullpen. After a month of reliever sorting, Bryan Price is now using Iglesias in a standard closer role, 12 innings per month or 72 innings per year. Given the Reds recent history with keeping successful relievers in the bullpen and legitimate concern about the health of Igelsias’ right shoulder, we’ve seen the last of the lanky Cuban in the starting rotation.
Always. Be. Trading. Closers. In building a baseball team, holding on to a specific closer isn’t a high priority relative to other needs. It doesn’t take advanced math or a new statistic to figure that out. If you grasp that 70 is a smaller number than 200, or 1350, that’s all you need to know. Closers pitch only 70 innings a season and many of those are in low-leverage situations with 2-run or 3-run leads.
But one of the key insights we’ve gleaned from new stats that put an overall value on a player is how limited the relative value of a closer is. Over the last four seasons (2013-2016) only three relievers averaged at least 2 WAR per season (Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Dellin Betances). 107 position players and 53 starters averaged that much. The most valuable closer each of the past four seasons (4 different pitchers) earned about 3.0 WAR. Even if you assume Raisel Iglesias will be one of the most valuable closers the next four seasons, he’ll earn just a little more than 2 WAR per year.
As documented above, Raisel Iglesias is having an outstanding season for the Reds. We’d be thrilled if he could pitch this way for the Reds through the 2021 season. But the hard reality is that he’s only earned 1.1 WAR (FanGraphs) so far. Two-hundred and fifteen players (125 position players and 90 pitchers) have earned more WAR than Raisel Iglesias this year. That’s an average of more than 7 players per team. Tucker Barnhart has been more valuable than Raisel Iglesias.
Bullpens are important. Closers are part of that. Position players and starting pitchers are more valuable.
Yet, Raisel Iglesias does offer enormous trade value. Whether due to injury or ineffectiveness of their current bullpen, certain teams, particularly at the trade deadline, are desperate for an established closer. Their urgency is magnified by sitting at the brink of competing for an infinite-value World Series championship. In a way, overpaying for a closer kind of makes sense if your organization is in that situation and that’s the last piece you need. But the pressure on a GM or team President to win it all, after an owner has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build a championship caliber team, can distort priorities. For example, as dominant as the Chicago Cubs were last year, they perceived a need for a lock-down closer during the postseason. 108 years of going without can warp judgment. They gave up a shortstop, the #3 rated prospect in baseball and three other players for a few innings of Aroldis Chapman.
This season, the plight of the Washington Nationals stands out. Huge, unmet expectations the past few seasons. The Bryce Harper window shutting. Serial failure to find a solid closer. A manager publicly campaigning about it. It’s hard to imagine a mix more likely to produce overpaying for a closer. But the Nationals aren’t the only contender looking for another top arm to lock down the back end of games. It’s the Age Of The Bullpen™ after all.
Yes, other talented, established closers are on the market. But none come with as many years of team control as Raisel Iglesias. David Robertson and Mark Melancon have 8-figure contracts. Kelvin Herrera, A.J. Ramos, Ryan Madson and Justin Wilson are all free agent-eligible in the 2019 season. Iglesias comes packing that triple-digit fastball. He’s an instant solution, not just now but for the long term. Raisel Iglesias is at peak value.
The Reds should ask for the Sun and the Moon. Trading Raisel Iglesias, at this point of his career and contract, would be the biggest, most audacious move in the rebuilding process. Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Mat Latos, Aroldis Chapman and Alfredo Simon all had one year or less on their contracts. Jay Bruce had a year and a half, Todd Frazier had two. Dan Straily had four years remaining, but he’s a back-end rotation guy (and still fetched the Reds Luis Castillo and Austin Brice). None of those players would have contributed to the “next good Reds team.”
4.5 years of shutdown closer is worth a lot, especially to certain teams with particular kinds of ownership and management. The Reds should ask for much more than they received for any of those players. History indicates someone will pay it.
Don’t worry (much) about the next closer. Reds fans went through this angst about trading Aroldis Chapman. Some wanted Chapman to be a starting pitcher, others wanted him in the bullpen because of his unique effectiveness as a closer. Except — as good as Aroldis Chapman was, as addicting as were his many strikeouts, as thrilling as was that bullpen door opening and the radar gun — the Reds now have a new, effective closer in Iglesias. Does anyone miss Aroldis Chapman?
The queasiness we feel about letting Iglesias go should be tempered by the lesson of replacing the previous Cuban closer. Raisel Iglesias is no more irreplaceable than Aroldis Chapman proved to be. Who is to say that Michael Lorenzen, Ariel Hernandez, Wandy Peralta, Robert Stephenson or Keury Mella might not be a dominant closer? And those are just names drawn from the 40-man roster. We need look no farther than Iglesias himself for proof that closers come from unexpected places.
Conclusion If Raisel Iglesias had more than one shoulder that could manage the workload of a starting pitcher and the Reds intended to use him that way, his enormous value (talent, age, contract) would make him untradable. Sadly, that is not the world in which we live.
As the Reds are approached by other organizations about Iglesias, the front office and ownership must remain open minded. They need to maintain the same clear-eyed focus on the numbers and logic that moved Dan Straily for Luis Castillo. Sentimentality, risk aversion or anachronistic thinking will be crippling.
Raisel Iglesias offers excellent value to the Reds as the team’s presumed closer through 2021. Trading Iglesias isn’t necessary. The case for moving him is different from the brutal logic that compelled Cueto, Frazier and Bruce’s departures. The front office shouldn’t just take the best offer. They should drive a hard bargain like they did with Straily.
Reds fans are living in the glow of the Hunter Greene signing, Nick Senzel’s progress, Luis Castillo’s changeup, Ariel Hernandez’s curveball, and the solid major league play of Adam Duvall, Eugenio Suarez and Scott Schebler.
It’s breathtaking that the return for trading Raisel Iglesias this month could be the most important haul of the rebuilding process.