Free agency officially kicked off on Friday at 5 p.m. The Reds need starting pitching. You can connect the dots there. Before the dominoes start falling over, it’s time to evaluate all the options and determine who Dick William and Co. will pursue. Part one of this series looked at the best potentially available starters this offseason: Clayton Kershaw, Patrick Corbin, and Dallas Keuchel. One of those names is already off the board, and the competition will be fierce for the other two. Given the relatively small number of top names available and the large amount of teams who will pursue pitching, a middle-of-the-rotation arm might be more feasible. Now it’s time to take a look at those options in part two of the Fixing the Starting Rotation series.
As a reminder, each player’s 2019 age is given and their 2018 stats are listed. Contract projections from MLB Trade Rumors are also included.
Tier 2 (Mid-rotation starters)
Pros: Happ is coming off a career year in his mid-30s. He earned his first career All-Star nod and was a key piece of the Yankees’ rotation during their run to the postseason. Like Corbin, Happ is also a left-hander who had a sudden spike in his strikeout rate fuel his breakout. Before 2018, he’d never posted a strikeout rate better than 22.7%, which he did in 2017. It’s clear Happ has figured something out that’s allowed him to fool more hitters. His swinging-strike rate was 10.4%, his first time ever above 10%, in part because he changed the way he uses his fastball. The pitch didn’t gain any velocity, but Happ has started to throw it up in the zone against right-handed hitters with great success.
Cons: Age is the primary concern. Happ likely won’t get more than a two- or three-year deal, as few teams are going to want to sign him into his late 30s. There are also questions about whether his 2018 is repeatable. It’s not often that pitchers suddenly become all-star caliber at his age. Even though he struck out batters at a rate he’d never achieved before, he still had a below-average whiff rate, meaning regression is probably coming.
If the Reds are targeting ground ball pitchers, Happ is also not a fit. He gave up 27 home runs in 2018 and allowed more fly balls than ground balls, which is likely connected to his shift toward throwing the ball up in the zone more often. Moreover, at his age, he’s likely going to be interested in signing with a contender. On paper, this doesn’t seem like a match for the Reds.
Pros: Along with Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, Morton is another starting pitcher who benefited immensely from the tutelage of Astros pitching coach Brent Strom. How much did that late-career move help him? From 2008 to 2016, Morton accumulated a total of 7.8 fWAR with the Braves, Pirates, and Phillies. In the last two seasons with Houston, he’s been worth a combined 6.3 fWAR. The Astros put a huge emphasis on spin rate, and Morton saw an enormous uptick in revolutions per minute to go along with a jump in velocity after joining the club.
That change has transformed Morton from a meager back-end-of-the-rotation arm who’s lucky to get three or or four strikeouts in an outing to a pitcher who’s been among the league leaders in strikeout (27.7%) and whiff (11.5%) rates over the last two years. The right-hander is also a prolific ground-ball pitcher, though less so since joining the Astros, with a career rate of 54.1%.
Cons: Morton can get erratic. He had a walk rate above the league average in 2018 and issued four or more free passes six times in 30 starts. In some ways, this is a similar case to Happ. Morton is going to be 35 next season and likely wants to pitch for a contender as he enters the latter portion of his career. He’s also publicly stated that he’s not sure how much longer he wants to play. Still, it’d be an upset if Morton retired right before a chance to get the most lucrative contract of his career. The chances he gets that kind of offer from the Reds are likely low, though. He has an extensive injury history, including a stint on the DL in 2018 with shoulder issues, only starting 25 or more games four times in his 11-year career. That combined with his age and the recent retirement talk may make the Reds balk at signing him.
Pros: Eovaldi is on more radars after a postseason performance with the Red Sox that saw him star in both starting and relief roles. Now, he gets his chance to cash in after watching his value increase with each passing appearance. Eovaldi has always had the fastball velocity, touching triple digits routinely. Strangely, missing bats was still problematic for him until this year. Staying healthy was also problematic. He returned to a big-league mound with the Rays on May 30 following recovery from his second Tommy John surgery and looked like the pitcher Marlins and Yankees fans once hoped he’d become.
By wide margins, he posted career-highs in strikeout rate, walk rate, swinging-strike rate (10.7%), chase rate (33.9%), and WHIP (1.13) as he began to throw his fastballs more and his breaking pitches less. The big difference, along with better command, is he began to more heavily feature his cutter as his top secondary offering and embraced throwing up in the zone more often. Along with his electric fastball(s), his age relative to other free agent pitchers could make him a popular target in the open market. His injury history (two Tommy John surgeries) may scare some teams away from inking him to a long-term contract, but he has shown he’s fully healthy.
Cons: Can Eovaldi hold up? He’s undergone major elbow procedures twice, which may give some teams pause — though some of those fears have been expelled after his solid regular season and head-turning playoff performance. Still, he hasn’t pitched more than 150 innings since 2015, and that’s not a fact to ignore. The biggest question involves how the market will develop for Eovaldi’s services. He’ll certainly get a huge raise from the $2 million he made in 2018. Are teams willing to pay him a little extra after seeing his gritty, seven-inning outing in extra innings during Game 3 of the World Series? There’s no doubting teams already knew who he was, but his ability to perform on a big stage may have piqued the interest of more teams. Even if Eovaldi doesn’t get a mega-deal, he could be the most heavily pursued pitcher in Tier 2 this offseason. That competition may push him out of the Reds’ price range.
Pros: Ryu has all the makings of a dependable No. 3 starter. He’ll have starts where he looks like an ace, and at the least, he’ll usually do enough to keep his team in games. Although he made only 15 regular-season starts, Ryu is coming off his most impressive season as a major-leaguer, setting career-bests in ERA, strikeout rate, walk rate, whiff rate (11.6%), and soft-contact rate (20.1%). Among all 162 starting pitchers who faced at least 200 batters, only 12 held hitters to a lower average exit velocity (85.6 mph). The South Korean-born left-hander was even chosen over Clayton Kershaw to start his team’s first game in this year’s NLDS against the Braves.
Ryu is more of a finesse pitcher, averaging only 90 mph on his fastball, so he may age well compared to other hurlers given that he relies more on deception than velocity. This year, his deception was at an all-time high. He managed a 12.9% whiff rate with his four-seam fastball, 13th-best among starters. The cutter became a bigger part of his repertoire as well, allowing him to get out right-handed hitters with more consistency. The changeup is his money pitch; only six starters who threw the pitch 200 or more times had a higher whiff rate than Ryu (23.9%).
Cons: He’s yet another pitcher who’s had a difficult time staying on the field and is on the wrong side of 30. In 2018, he was out from early May until early August with a left groin tear. In 2017, he missed time with foot and hip injuries. He missed all of 2015 and most of 2016 as he recovered from shoulder surgery. After throwing 192 and 152 innings in his first two MLB seasons, Ryu hasn’t again topped 126.2 innings — and that’s the only other time he’s made it past the century mark. All told, Ryu has pitched in 41 games in the last four seasons. He’s better suited for a team with a deeper rotation that can withstand him missing more time. The Reds simply aren’t that team.
Pros: If the Reds are looking for a durable innings-eater, Gonzalez could be a target. Since 2010, only 10 pitchers have thrown more innings (1681.1). In that time, the southpaw has made 31 or more starts in eight of nine seasons. To last that long and throw so many innings, you have to do something right. He’s not exactly Chris Sale in his ability to miss bats, but Gonzalez has typically hovered right around a league average strikeout rate. Perhaps his biggest selling point is keeping the ball in the yard. He has a career ground-ball rate of 47.2% and has allowed only 0.77 home runs per nine innings; the latter number is only topped by six other pitchers since 2008, the first season of Gonzalez’s career.
Cons: Gonzalez has always survived despite control that could be described as erratic at best. In 2017, he finished sixth in NL Cy Young voting and had the third-highest walk rate among all qualified pitchers. That number went up in 2018 and it caught up to him. Only three pitchers had a higher walk rate, and this time he didn’t have a .258 BABIP or 81.6% strand rate on his side. To make matters worse, his strikeout rate dropped to a career low as his velocity remained in the low-90s and his changeup whiff rate dropped for a third straight year. The southpaw has enough name recognition to get a solid deal in free agency. He’s someone else who will likely try to latch on with a contender. This doesn’t seem like a good fit for the Reds, and they’re probably better off staying away with his strikeouts and walks both headed in the wrong direction.
Pros: Cincinnati is still the only team in baseball that has never had a Japanese player, but the organization has expanded its scouting efforts in Asia in recent years. Dick Williams said as recently as September that the Reds will be looking for talent in Asia this offseason. As the youngest player on this list with the ceiling of a No. 2 starter, Kikuchi will be a popular target for many teams and the Reds should be one of them. In 2017, he dominated the Japan Pacific League to the tune of a 1.97 ERA and 29.5% strikeout rate. Although his 2018 season wasn’t as dominant, in part due to some shoulder stiffness, he’ll be the top player available out of Asia this offseason if he’s posted. Because of the small step backward this year, Kikuchi doesn’t have the hype of Shohei Ohtani did a year ago, and that may play into the Reds’ hands because it makes him a more affordable target.
Kikuchi can touch 96 mph with his fastball, though he sits in the low-90s on average. He likes to lean on his slider — some have compared him to Corbin — but he’ll also feature a curveball and changeup. The left-hander can throw strikes with all his pitches, owning a 6.7% walk rate over the last two seasons. Scouts have also fawned over his competitive nature.
Cons: Although the results have translated well for the likes of Ohtani, Masahiro Tanaka, Yu Darvish, and others, there’s no guarantee that Kikuchi’s success in Japan will carry over in MLB. There are certainly examples of pitchers (Kei Igawa being one of the most notorious) who couldn’t make the jump successfully. Kikuchi wasn’t able to replicate his 2017 outburst in strikeouts this season and had never posted better than a 22.5 K% before that breakout. There’s no reason to think he was a one-hit wonder — he posted solid numbers both before and after 2017 — but it does lower the expectations on his ceiling. It’s also been noted that he doesn’t really have one dominant pitch but rather a handful of solid ones. The shoulder troubles, especially when paired with the higher pitch counts often seen in Japanese baseball, may also cause some teams to hesitate on paying both a posting fee to negotiate with Kikuchi and then an actual contract.
Stay tuned for Part 3 with the third 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.