The Reds bullpen has been good recently. In fact, it’s been very good. After struggling in April through the mercifully short lived Gallardo/Quackenbush Era, and a return to health for Michael Lorenzen and David Hernandez, the Reds relief corp has quickly become one of the best in the game. In the month of May, the bullpen pitched to a 2.93 ERA (6th best in baseball, 3rd best in the NL) with a 3.53 FIP (9th best in baseball, 4th best in the NL). Out of the 9 relievers currently in the ‘pen, 5 currently have a sub-3.00 ERA (Iglesias, Hughes, Garrett, Hernandez, Lorenzen). Only Wandy Peralta has an ERA above 5.00.
The most important thing about the Reds bullpen, however, is that it’s built for stability and longevity. Raisel Iglesias, by far the most expensive of the bunch, will only earn $5.7 million each year of his contract, which is good through 2020. David Hernandez and Jared Hughes are both controlled through 2019 at only $5 million apiece. Michael Lorenzen is under team control through 2021, albeit with 3 more years of arbitration to go through. Amir Garrett just debuted last year and is under team control for a long long time. The Reds bullpen, at least it seems right now, is built to last for at least a few more years.
And yet, trade rumors involving multiple Reds relievers, most notably Raisel Iglesias, are swirling right now. It’s easy to see why: elite relievers, especially closers, are seen as luxury items, and there’s no point in holding on to a dominant closer if you’re not winning any games for them to close. The effect they have on the game disproportionally advantages winning teams, who carry far more leads into later innings, thus creating more high leverage situations and necessitating higher talent out of the pen. At least, that’s the common sentiment, anyway. So the Reds, who are basement dwellers again despite a surprising bullpen, seem like obvious sellers at the trade deadline.
Though it may seem obvious on its face, I think that there’s a lot that can be determined about the state of the Reds rebuild from how they move forward with the bullpen. In a rebuild that’s lasted nearly four years already, the idea of still being in “sell” mode is a hard pill to swallow. The Reds haven’t moved anyone significant since Brandon Phillips two offseasons ago, and the signings of Tucker Barnhart and Eugenio Suarez last offseason indicated that perhaps the Reds were finally ready to start building up rather than tearing down. Going into 2018, the Reds had a winning infield of Barnhart, Joey Votto, Scooter Gennett, and Suarez, with prospects Jesse Winker and Jose Peraza manning the outfield and shortstop, and young hopefuls Luis Castillo, Tyler Mahle, and Sal Romano heading up the rotation. Even if the Reds didn’t compete, it sure felt like we were going to start moving in the right direction. When the bullpen came together in May, it felt like a relief, one less thing to worry about moving forward as we head into our window of contention. Selling our bullpen now might feel like going backwards, venturing back into the 2015-2016 territory of selling off whoever we can for prospects, rather than the 2018 model of letting those prospects play and hopefully blossom into winners.
Despite that mentality, it’s hard to ignore the reality of the situation. While the infield has exceeded expectations, the outfield and rotation have been complete catastrophes. The Reds rotation is the worst in the major leagues by a hefty margin, and the four man outfield is half comprised of players who are struggling to reach the Mendoza line. Even though I do still think there’s promise there – Scott Schebler has actually performed well, I’m not ready to give up on Peraza yet, and Winker, Castillo, and Mahle have all had flashes of greatness – it’s tough to look at this team and imagine them being seriously ready to compete in the near future. While selling off the bullpen may feel like taking a step backwards, it may just be the case that we are not nearly as close to winning as we thought we were.
It’s also hard to ignore just how valuable relievers are on the free market, especially mid-season. In 2016, the Yankees received a king’s ransom of prospects from the Cubs in exchange for three months of Aroldis Chapman. That package included four prospects, including Chicago’s #5 system prospect Billy McKinney and their #1 system and #24 overall prospect Gleyber Torres, who is currently hitting to a 148 wRC+ in his rookie campaign this year. That same year, the Yankees also moved Andrew Miller to the Indians in exchange for a four prospect package that included a top 50 overall prospect in Clint Frazier and top 100 overall in Justus Sheffield. In July 2017, the Athletics sent Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson to Washington in exchange for MLB pitcher Blake Treinen and Top 100 prospect pitcher Jesus Luzardo.
When looking at the history of midseason reliever trades, it’s clear that the market highly values (if not potentially overvalues) reliable and above average relief arms, and the Reds have plenty of those, with the added bonus that many of them have a decent amount of team control remaining. Raisel Iglesias, the owner of a career 2.42 ERA as a reliever and under team control through 2020, represents probably the most valuable reliever on the trade market this summer. Jared Hughes and David Hernandez, both signed to team friendly, two year contracts and both performing incredibly well this year, represent obvious trade chips should the Reds decide to sell. Even Dylan Floro, picked up this offseason as an afterthought addition, stands to have value on the market with a 3.12 ERA (2.92 FIP) and only $500,000 owed this year.
There are plenty of potential buyers, as well. While any competing team is always looking to shore up their bullpen (especially now that the importance of relievers in the postseason has been demonstrated), several contending teams are actively struggling with their relief corp and would likely pay dividends for what the Reds have to offer. The Rockies, currently battling in a crowded NL West, have gotten a 5.22 ERA out of their bullpen thus far, while the Cardinals, 2.5 games back in a Central division with no clear leader, have a bullpen ERA of 4.49. The Braves, Dodgers, and Angels are all teams that have eyes on October but problems in the pen.
The most obvious trade partner, however, is the Indians, who currently lead the AL Central but only by process of elimination. The only team above .500 in that division, the Tribe have perhaps the best rotation in baseball outside of Houston and an offensive core bolstered by All-Star candidates Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, and Michael Brantley. Their relievers, however, have gathered a collective 5.72 ERA with 1.75 HR/9 and -0.9 fWAR. After failed postseason runs in 2016 and 2017, and a sense of urgency to win before their window closes, Cleveland is primed to overpay for talented relievers in an all-in bid to save their season.
In the end, there are several factors that go into the decision of whether or not to sell the Reds bullpen this July. Positional need is always an important consideration: the Reds simply cannot hope to compete in the future with the outfield and rotation they currently have, and if a team offers a top centerfield prospect or an MLB-ready starter, the Reds may be foolish to hold on to a reliever instead.
The most important consideration, for me at least, is whether or not the Reds are going to compete – seriously, 95 wins type of compete – within the next two years. After 2019, the Reds lose Hernandez and Hughes, and after 2020, they lose Iglesias. Players like those three are valuable to the Reds only if they are going to make a legitimate run at the postseason; otherwise, they would best be used on the market to fill more important holes elsewhere.
Judging by the state of this season so far, it seems clear to me that the Reds are in no position to challenge the Cubs or Cardinals in the division, or the Dodgers, Nationals, Braves, and Diamondbacks in the postseason, any time in the next two years. The Reds are at least a centerfielder, two starters, and two more years of growth for their rookies away from that. In that sense, Raisel Iglesias may represent our most valuable player – if the Reds are nearly as crafty as the Yankees or Athletics, they may be able to turn him into the pieces we need to finish this rebuild.