It’s been said ad naseam: To compete in 2019 and beyond, the Reds need better pitching. Now that the World Series has ended and the offseason is officially underway, it’s time to start discussing the options.
The team will almost certainly opt for multiple external candidates this offseason. President of baseball operations Dick Williams has publicly said the club will increase payroll and the team will explore pitching options outside the organization. How much more they spend and how they plan to do it is unknown at this point, but the two routes they can go are free agency and trades. In the first of a two-part series, we’ll look at the potential free agent targets.
The 2018 class has been hyped since last year, with some teams reportedly holding out to spend big this year on a hitter like Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, or Josh Donaldson. Outside of Clayton Kershaw, there aren’t as many big names in the starting pitching market, and that means the Reds can expect a lot of competition if they choose this path. It’s possible they manage to land one of the big names, but we’ll go beyond that and focus on all the next-best options as well.
The players are broken down into three tiers — No. 1 being the top available pitchers and No. 3 being the back-of-the-rotation arms — along with their 2019 age and statistics from the 2018 season. Contract projections from MLB Trade Rumors are also included. To kick this series off, we start with the big names.
Tier 1 (Top-of-the-rotation starters)
Pros: Four years removed from Tommy John surgery and two from his worst season as a major-leaguer, Corbin was one of baseball’s breakout stars in 2018. The number one reason for the success: he suddenly became a strikeout artist. He exploded for a 30.8% strikeout rate, placing him seventh among all qualified starting pitchers in elite territory.
The lefty’s slider is at the center of his success. The breaking ball has always been his best pitch, registering a swing and miss a quarter of the time he’s thrown it in his career. Starting in the second half of 2017, he began throwing it nearly 40% of the time. That’s when the turnaround began. He continued using the breaking ball as his primary pitch in 2018, but he made a tweak that reduced its horizontal movement while increasing its drop. The adjustment took his slider to the next level, with its whiff rate climbing to a career-best 29.3% and its chase rate improving to an astounding 51.6%.
Unsurprisingly, the pitch was the most valuable slider in baseball, holding hitters to a paltry .148/.193/.246 slash line. It proved especially effective against right-handers, who he has traditionally had more trouble with. Until last year, they hit .275/.333/.456 against him; he turned that around into a much better .211/.259/.324 line in 2018.
Corbin evolved in other ways as well, inventing a new curveball to give him multiple breaking pitches to fool hitters with and dropping his four-seam fastball usage in favor of a sinker. Moreover, Corbin’s control has always been a strong point, with a career walk rate of 6.8%. He would conceivably be a good fit for Great American Ball Park with a career ground-ball rate of 48.9%.
Cons: First, he’ll turn 30 around the trade deadline of 2019. There is plenty evidence against signing pitchers well into their 30s, and Corbin will almost certainly be looking for a long-term deal as one of the few top-tier arms available this offseason. There’s also the conundrum of whether the Reds can even afford him. After the season he just had, Corbin is likely headed toward a nine-figure salary. Rumor has it that the Yankees are planning to go hard after Corbin as well, giving the Reds tough competition. The Dodgers, Giants, and Braves are also reportedly interested. That makes three playoff teams and another big-market club the Reds have to outbid.
The biggest question is whether Corbin can repeat this kind of season again. One of the chief concerns is the fastball velocity dropped from 92.3 mph in 2017 to 90.9 in 2018. The pitch was already a below average one It’s not often that players suddenly raise their strikeout rate to 30% when their previous season-high was a run-of-the-mill 21.9%. If he doesn’t continue to rack up those strikeout numbers, there’s some concern here. Corbin’s hard contact rate was a whopping 41.7% — only one qualified pitcher (Cole Hamels) was higher. Being a ground-ball pitcher and striking out so many hitters helps, but that’s playing with fire if it continues, especially given that Cincinnati’s defense is not as talented as Arizona’s.
Despite giving up that type of hard contact, he maintained a relatively normal .302 batting average on balls in play. Logic (and Statcast data) suggests luck played a huge role in that. Both his slugging percentage (.337) allowed and weighted on-base average allowed (.265) were well under expectations given the level of hard contact he allowed. Only 11 pitchers had a larger negative differential between slugging percentage and expected slugging percentage and wOBA and xwOBA than Corbin.
Pros: If you’ve paid attention to Reds Twitter during the postseason, you’ve seen plenty of clamoring for this lefty. The number one reason: he gets a ton of ground balls, which would make him an ideal fit for Great American Ball Park on a staff that has given up the most home runs in the game by a wide margin over the last five seasons. Since 2012, only three starting pitchers have a higher ground-ball rate than Keuchel (58.9%). The 2015 Cy Young winner is a prolific sinker-ball pitcher and has forced a ground ball with it an astounding 70% of the time it’s been put into play in his career.
Pair that with his control (7.0 career BB%) and ability to generate weak contact — only five pitchers have a higher soft-contact rate than Keuchel (21.6%) in the last seven years — and you have a pitcher who can consistently get outs with an average fastball below 90 mph. In 2018, only 15 pitchers with a minimum of 300 batted balls against them missed the barrel of opposing bats better than Keuchel. His 87 mph average exit velocity tied him with Trevor Bauer for 33rd out of 139 pitchers in that same group. Only Marcus Stroman and Clayton Richard had a lower average launch angle.
Although he doesn’t strike out many hitters, he does get them to offer at pitches out of the strike zone often, which helps him get more grounders particularly with his changeup. His 33.0% chase rate put him in the top 20 among qualified pitchers in 2018. He’s gone away from using his sinker so heavily after a rough start to the year and started relying on his cutter to jam right-handers, his Achilles’ heel throughout his career, on the inside part of the plate. The pitch was second only to his changeup in chase rate this season. He also started throwing his slider more against left-handers. The result: a 3.25 ERA from July onward. In short, he can make adjustments as one would expect a potential front-end starter to do.
From a financial standpoint, he should be affordable for the Reds if they’re truly committed to expanding payroll. He’ll command a lot of money, but he isn’t going to get the ace-level contract of a Kershaw, Scherzer, or even Darvish. That puts the small-market Reds in contention for his services.
Cons: What Keuchel brings in terms of generating grounders he lacks in flashy stuff or strikeouts. In 2018, he had his lowest strikeout rate (17.4%) and swinging-strike rate (8.3%) since his rookie year in 2012. He’s never been a strikeout artist, but he generally sat around the 20% mark, usually right around or just below the league average. His slider took a big dip in effectiveness, dropping from an 18.7% whiff rate in 2017 to 11.7% in 2018. The changeup fell from 22.2% to 16.2%. That means he has to rely heavily on his defense — a big question mark for the Reds, especially up the middle with Scooter Gennett and Jose Peraza — and good fortune on batted balls.
The southpaw also doesn’t have age on his side, which makes his unflattering peripherals a bit more concerning. He doesn’t have the stuff to blow by hitters when he makes location mistakes or becomes predictable in his pitch sequencing. That showed two years ago (4.55 ERA) and in the first three months of 2018 (4.22 ERA). Keuchel, a Scott Boras client, won’t be cheap either. He’s going going to command a top-of-the-rotation salary; if he doesn’t cross the nine-figure threshold, he’ll likely come close to it. He earned $13.2 million in arbitration this year and could sit between $15 million and $20 million per year in free agency. Do the Reds roll the dice on a mega deal that takes him into mid- to late-30s?
Pros: He’s Clayton Kershaw. The most dominant pitcher of his generation and a future Hall of Famer, the southpaw has the lowest career ERA (2.39) among all active starters by a wide margin. Although his velocity has diminished, his unreal ability to control the ball should help him age well even if he doesn’t miss as many bats. He rarely issues any free passes, boasting a walk rate under 5% in each of the last five seasons. Since 2013, only Josh Tomlin and Bartolo Colon have skirted around walks as well as Kershaw. His strikeout rate fell considerably in 2018 but was still above the league average, and he continues getting a healthy amount of grounders (46.3% for his career, 48.4% since 2012). Teams would take Kershaw in any park, but he’d fit right in at GABP.
Cons: On the field, Kershaw has battled back injuries for large stretches of the last three seasons. There are serious questions about his health moving forward. His velocity has also steadily dropped over the last three years, decreasing to a career-low 90.9 mph in 2018. And while the ground-ball rate is still strong, he’s given up home runs at a very un-Kershaw like rate in the last two years. Prior to 2017, he’d never given up dingers at a pace of more than 0.63 per nine innings. Since the start of last season, that number has jumped to 1.07 HR/9.
He’s still an elite pitcher despite these issues, but all that is to say he’s not flawless. In all likelihood, he’s out of the Reds’ price range even if he does opt out. He’s also coming off of back-to-back World Series defeats with the Dodgers. Would he really want to take a step back and sign with a team that may not even contend in its own division? If he hits the open market, he’ll be the top free agent pitcher available and he’ll get paid like it.
Although Kershaw’s contract isn’t expiring, he has an opt-out clause in his contract should he choose to exercise it after the World Series. He would be declining the last two years and $65 million of his remaining deal with the Dodgers, leaving a lot of money on the table but also getting what will likely be his last chance at long-term security and a hefty payday. As of now, Kershaw remains undecided.
This is the longest of long shots, though it never hurts to dream.
UPDATE: Kershaw did not opt out and chose to re-sign with the Dodgers.
Stay tuned for Part 2 with the second tier of free agent pitchers.
Photo Credit: Keith Allison
Growing up just north of Cincinnati, Matt has been a Reds fan for as long as he can remember. As a kid, he was often found leading the Reds to 162-0 seasons in MVP Baseball 2005 and imitating his favorite players (Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn, Sean Casey, and Austin Kearns) in the backyard. One of his earliest baseball memories is attending the final night game at Cinergy Field. Matt is also a graduate of The Ohio State University and currently lives in the Dayton area. Follow him on Twitter at @_MattWilkes.