Back on August 28th, Reds beat writer Zach Buchanan quoted Reds GM Dick Williams in the Cincinnati Enquirer. Here’s a quick excerpt:
“We’d like to get the most talented player we can get,” said Reds general manager Dick Williams. “We’ll just have to see what that money level is. I think we’d rather concentrate our resources on fewer players that have a chance to be more impactful for us than we do going out and getting a bunch of low-dollar guys.”
This quote is completely devoid of the typical front office speak that most sports fans are used to hearing when managers and GMs speak to the press. Instead, Dick Williams is pretty black and white here: We’re going to try to get the most talented player we can get. This quote, made in the context of starting pitching, means that the Reds are likely in the market for a top-of-the-rotation starter.
It’s one of the clear holes this team has. While it’s true that a few of the younger pitchers in the system took big steps forward, none of them figure to be ace-type pitchers in 2018. Anthony DeSclafani is likely the closest the club has to a sure thing when healthy, but Disco’s health over the past two seasons has to leave even that statement in doubt. Luis Castillo was electric in his rookie season, but to count on a player so young to be the ace of the staff would be irresponsible to say the least. Homer Bailey, while showing signs of good things toward the end of the season, probably isn’t an ace even if he’s 100% healthy. Young guys like Sal Romano, Tyler Mahle and Robert Stephenson certainly took steps forward this season, but are probably better served as depth for an inevitable injury to one of the top four guys in the rotation.
In fact, plugging in a true #1 starter takes this rotation from one of the all-time worst, to potentially playoff caliber. The offense this season was certainly good enough to perform in the postseason – a rotation to match should definitely spark this team to a much better finish to the 2018 season.
So, who should the Reds be targeting? As we all know, the two main ways to acquire players that can have an immediate impact are Free Agency and the trade market. Today, we’ll focus on targets in free agency. Stay tuned for a future installment on potential trade targets.
Thinking about the Reds’ past free agency exploits probably gives most Reds fans flashbacks of less-than-impactful recent signings like Jack Hannahan, Skip Shumaker, Dan Straily (technically a waiver wire pickup), and Scott Feldman. While these players – Straily and Feldman especially – played their role on their respective Reds teams, none of them were particularly impact players. So are the Reds really prepared to buck the trend and spend?
Let’s define exactly what kind of pitcher the Reds should be looking for here:
- I think if the Reds can get a guy equal to or better than a healthy Anthony DeSclafani, they will have accomplished their mission of getting the best player they possibly can. That means an ERA and xFIP somewhere in the neighborhood of 3.50-4.00 is acceptable, with something lower than that being preferable.
- Health needs to have been proven, as best as you can for a pitcher. That means something in the neighborhood of 175-200 IP for the majority of the player’s tenure as a starter. Superfluous production can potentially offset this.
- Age isn’t necessarily a factor in Free Agency, although it’s unlikely the Reds will sign someone much older than 32 or 33.
- Money, at least for the purposes of this exercise, isn’t an issue. We’ve been told for years that the team’s finances would eventually start being reinvested back into the major league payroll – here’s a good opportunity to prove that.
So, who are our candidates?
* Player is not technically a free agent, but has an opportunity to opt out of his current contract at the end of 2017.
All contract projections are courtesy of spotrac.com
Looking at these names and thinking about the Cincinnati Reds actually going out to sign any of them already feels wrong in so many ways. The team has never really agreed to sign a guy with the stature (or the monetary requests) of most of these guys, perhaps for good reason. Some of the guys on this list have history of medical problems, but that goes for the majority of pitchers in the world. Signing a pitcher to a contract has inherent risk, but adding pitching to this team seems to be not only a need, but inevitable.
Let’s dive into these guys a little more:
Jake Arrieta (Fangraphs Page)
2017 Statistics: 3.53 ERA, 4.16 FIP, 168.1 IP, 8.64 K/9, 2.66 BB/9
After struggling through four seasons in the Orioles organization, Arrieta broke out after being traded to the Cubs. After a fantastic 2.43 ERA showing in 2014, Arrieta showed true ace potential in 2015, pitching 229.0 innings and sporting a 1.77 ERA after the fact. He hasn’t been able to find quite that much success in the years since, but has had respectable seasons ever since.
Arrieta’s agent is the famed Scott Boras, so the projected $133 million contract over five years is likely just a starting point. He’ll likely be the highest paid Free Agent this offseason, and signing him would obviously be rare air for the Reds organization.
Yu Darvish (Fangraphs page)
2017 Statistics: 3.86 ERA, 3.83 FIP, 186.2 IP, 10.08 K/9, 2.80 BB/9
Signing Darvish would be a huge gamble for the Reds, but also probably has the most upside of any pitcher in this Free Agent class. His career has been riddled with injury since 2014, but he was able to bounce back in 2017, pitching 186.2 innings between his time with the Rangers and Dodgers.
Yu would likely put Larosa’s out of business if he were to pitch his home games at GABP. His 10.08 K/9 is actually a step down from his career numbers. The last few years have seen his BB/9 numbers decrease as well though, so he seems to be maturing in his 30’s. He’s the only guy on this list with a lower career FIP than ERA, which means he’d likely get even better with a defense like the Reds’ playing behind him.
Alex Cobb (Fangraphs Page)
2017 Statistics: 3.66 ERA, 4.16 FIP, 179.1 IP, 6.42 K/9, 2.21 BB/9
Personally, I think Alex Cobb starts the ‘realistic options’ list. Unless Dick Williams proves me wrong, I just don’t think the Reds have it in them to go get a guy like Jake Arrieta or Yu Darvish. Alex Cobb, though, seems like a sneaky fantastic signing for the Reds.
Definitely not the epitome of health, Cobb threw the most innings he ever has in a season with Tampa in 2017. After making 5 appearances in 2016 and none in 2015, it’s easy to write Cobb off as too big an injury risk to seriously be considered here. His peripherals, at least in 2017, also don’t scream out a top-line starter. But if 2013 Alex Cobb were to return, where he pitched 143.1 big league innings to the tune of a 2.76 ERA and 3.36 FIP, the Reds will have struck gold. He’s also sporting a 54% ground ball rate, which would play very well at Great American Ballpark.
Lance Lynn (Fangraphs Page)
2017 Statistics: 3.43 ERA, 4.82 FIP, 186.1 IP, 7.39 K/9, 3.77 BB/9
Lance Lynn has had a sneaky successful career thus far. Over six big league seasons with the Cardinals, Lynn has managed a 3.38 ERA and a 3.64 FIP, both on the lower end of the spectrum when comparing these pitchers.
The Reds have been burned when signing former Cardinals in the past, but Lynn is cut from a different cloth than the other retreads we’ve seen in the past. Perhaps his best trait is the reliability. Lynn has pitched 175 or more innings in every season outside of his rookie 2011 season and a lost 2016 season, including 186.1 IP this year. He also sports a 55% ground ball rate, which of course is highly coveted in Cincinnati.
For me, Lynn’s the guy you go after if you’re set on signing a free agent rather than trading for your guy. Dependability is something the current rotation lacks, and even if Lynn isn’t as flashy as some of the other names on this board, you can likely count on him to make a start every fifth day more than most of the other options.
Johnny Cueto* (Fangraphs page)
*Cueto is under contract with the Giants through 2022, but has an opt out after 2017
2017 Statistics: 4.52 ERA, 4.49 FIP, 147.1 IP, 8.31 K/9, 3.24 BB/9
Oh, how we can dream. A lot has been written about Johnny Cueto on this website over the years, and for good reason. He’s the best Reds pitcher I’ve seen in my lifetime, as well as one of the more entertaining pitchers I’ve seen as well. His time with the Giants this season isn’t a reflection of his career numbers, as he’s been dealing with blister issues throughout all of 2017.
For this reason, a lot of pundits are expecting Cueto not to exercise his opt out after 2017, as his performance over the course of the season has likely diminished his value. Indeed, Spotrac’s Calculated Market Value for Cueto is just over $19.3 million, a good deal less than the $21 million he stands to earn annually over the next 5 years in San Francisco.
But what if Cueto wants to increase his value? When he’s on, Cueto is likely worth a fair amount more than the $21 million he’ll be making as a Giant. What better way to build value, and potentially cash in another big contract, than playing a few years for a team you know you’re comfortable with? If Cueto opts out of his Giants contract, you have to think the Reds will be gunning for him. Cueto could sign a short 3 year deal worth somewhere between $19 and $22 million annually, and get an opportunity to return to Cincinnati and build his case for an even bigger contract in 2020. He’d be a fantastic role model for the young pitching, not to mention a clear top-line starter should he return to his pre-2017 form.
It’s probably far fetched, but a guy can dream, right?
Masahiro Tanaka* (Fangraphs page)
*Tanaka is under contract with the Yankees through 2020, but has an opt out after 2017
2017 Stats: 4.74 ERA, 4.34 FIP, 178.1 IP, 9.79 K/9, 2.07 BB/9
Tanaka is a case very similar to Johnny Cueto, in that he has an opt out in his contract after the 2017 season that he’s unlikely to exercise. Like Cueto, Tanaka did not play up to his expectations in 2017, finishing the year well over his career 3.56 ERA and 3.75 FIP. His K/9 and BB/9 rates are still fantastic, but hardly what agents and teams are fighting over when deciding contract value.
Looking into the numbers, 2017 marks the first time Tanaka finished the year with an above average BABIP, finishing just over league average with a .305 mark. His career pitcher BABIP is well under league average at .279. The belief in whether or not Tanaka can return to that low BABIP either through a return to his normal luck, or through some skill of his own, is likely a deciding factor in whether 2017 was an aberration or the new normal.
As far as Tanaka and the Reds – the $22.5 projected annual value puts him just below Yu Darvish’s projected annual salary. Earlier we decided that the past Reds would never sign a contract of that value with a free agent, so unless something drastic has changed in the front office (and it very well might have), Tanaka is likely out of the Reds’ league.
Again, free agency is just one avenue the Reds can go down to find their next top-line starter. The trade market is also a very valid way to acquire such a player, but comes with its own hangups as well. With free agency, there’s a straight up monetary price for these players.
Trades are an entirely different monster, and could result in giving up far too much value in the form of prospects than the team is comfortable with. The next piece in this series will focus on finding that balance in the trade market, using historical examples to help us, and target a few additional names you might see wearing the Reds uniform in 2018.