There has been a rather persistent rumor that this offseason Walt Jocketty will look to move one of the Reds' starting pitchers to either acquire some offense for 2015, or perhaps less likely to restock a farm system nearly devoid of impact bats, or perhaps a bit of both. It's not surprising the rumors and speculation continue; this would make sense for a good number of reasons. First, the Reds rotation boasts the 4th best ERA in MLB this season (3rd best when park adjusted!), despite missing Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, and Tony Cingrani all for lengthy stretches. It also now appears that the Reds' plan is to keep Alfredo Simon in the rotation in 2015, and who can argue? The only players in the minors who are knocking on the big-league door are pitchers, as well, meaning the Reds have depth for the rotation while sorely lacking it literally everywhere else. And since Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Mike Leake, and Alfredo Simon will all be free agents after 2015, next year is the go-all-in window for Jocketty and the Reds, barring a truly amazing series of events. That's the kind of situation that lends to trades. So, who, if anyone, will the Reds trade? Who should they trade?
Cueto is the clear ace of the Reds starting rotation, and one of the best pitchers in MLB. He is under contract in 2015 for an extremely team-friendly $10 million. He is a great fit for the cozy dimensions of Great American Ballpark as a high-strikeout, groundball-heavy pitcher. And when a team has its sights set on competing for a championship, one thing I don't ever recall happening is for that team to trade away what is by far its best pitcher. So why is Cueto a candidate for trade? Well, all that awesome stuff I just mentioned about Cueto means he will bring back by far the most value in trade of any SP the Reds could dangle. Secondly, Cueto does have something of an injury history, and in seven seasons has only eclipsed the arbitrary 200 IP boundary twice, mainly because injuries robbed him of significant playing time in 2011 and 2013. So if the Reds do shop Cueto, it could be because they know just a little bit more about his health status than everyone else, in addition to his having the most value. Buster Olney is one voice advocating the sensibility of trading Cueto. As a true ace and a fan-favorite, it would be tough to swallow trading Cueto away before 2015, but the bottom line is that he would command a serious return that the other Reds starters simply couldn't.
When the Reds traded for a 24-year-old Latos in 2012, they gave up quite a haul of players to the Padres, even if to date they haven't panned out as well as San Diego must have been hoping. And since joining the Reds, Latos has continued doing what he's always done, which is pitch like a top-of-rotation anchor, with an ERA- 15% better than league average since the trade. At 27 years old next season, Latos is still in his prime, so why would the Reds trade him? Primarily because Latos, at $11 million or so next season in arbitration, is a valuable enough commodity to bring back a major-league ready offensive contributor for the lineup, and perhaps even then some. Having sustained injuries each of the last two seasons, Latos may not have quite the durability track record he used to, but that might soften the blow of losing him slightly. And while the results haven't suffered, the peripherals have taken a drop this year. If potential trading partners buy that it's mainly the result of returning from injury, it may not hurt his value too much.
Mike Leake has been a steady (and steadily-improving) stalwart of the rotation ever since he was drafted and skipped the minors altogether to join the Reds in 2010. His strikeout and groundball rates are at an all-time high, his walk rate at an all-time low, and his innings pitches total has increased every season, surpassing 200 this year. Leake is also an excellent athlete who greatly helps his own cause on defense and at the plate, making him "sneaky" valuable for NL teams. You'd be hard-pressed to find a healthier pitcher than Mike Leake, whose athleticism and low-stress delivery make him as safe a bet as there is in MLB to be on the mound every fifth day. Leake is also in his prime at 27 years old next year, only a month older than Latos. Most likely, he will cost about the same as Mat Latos in arbitration next year, something in the neighborhood of $10-11 million. He will certainly have surplus value at that price, and could bring back offensive help for next year. Trading Leake would make sense for the Reds because he is the least dominant of the three trade candidates, and dominance is the order of the day for teams that want to win in the postseason. On the downside, he will bring the smallest return in trade, and he also would be the cheapest of the three to extend long-term if the team plans on trying to compete in seasons immediately after 2015, whereas Cueto and Latos would almost certainly be priced out of the Reds' range.
Trading one of these three starters means the Reds will go into 2015 with question marks in the rotation. However, given the performance demonstrated by the offense, and the lack of internal options for improving it, it may be a worthwhile tradeoff to get some more production in the everyday lineup. All three have their pluses and minuses, so if you were calling the shots, who would you trade?