Without digging too deeply into their statistics, it’s pretty safe to say that both Anthony DeSclafani and Dan Straily had solid years as pitchers for the Cincinnati Reds in 2016, right? Certainly there are factors that limited their overall success - Disco’s oblique injury that cost him the early part of the season, Straily’s rather pedestrian K/BB ratio - but on the whole, they were two of the better pitchers the Reds rolled out last season, without a doubt.
According to FanGraphs, they combined for 3.2 WAR in 2016, with Disco at an even 2.0 and Straily at 1.2. Now, fWAR is far from a perfect metric, but it’s one that does a pretty decent job encapsulating many of the more important points of pitching value, and at least allows you to compare players against their peers. To finally get to my point, the 3.2 fWAR those to solid pitchers accrued in 2016 was completely discounted by the -3.6 fWAR posted by the entirety of the Cincinnati bullpen.
That's 168 words of longwindedly telling you that the Reds bullpen was disastrously awful in 2016. Since you've made it this far, I'll continue. Their 4.58 BB/9 was the worst of all 30 bullpens. You watched them, so you know. The 1.59 HR/9 they allowed helped the overall pitching staff set a record for most dingers allowed in a single season and, you guessed it, was the worst mark among all bullpens league wide. Their 5.34 FIP? The worst. 1.49 WHIP? Also the worst. 4.41 SIERA? The worst by a rather large margin.
There's a rather large caveat in this, however. The Reds pretty obviously had zero intent to own a good bullpen last year, as after they traded away Aroldis Chapman they opened the season with only one reliever who was making more than $800K - J.J. Hoover, who was gone entirely shortly thereafter. Between the time that Hoover was optioned and Raisel Iglesias moved permanently to the bullpen, Ross Ohlendorf - himself a last second signee at the end of Spring Training - was the pen's highest earner at that $800K level, showing that investing in the team's relief corps was never in the cards for last year's payroll.
In other words, they got what they paid for. Fortunately, it seems that GM Dick Williams and the rest of the front office is more intent on investing in their bullpen for 2017 and beyond, something that could go a long way to help take the stress off what projects to be a young, and rather unproven starting rotation yet again. And while they're not diving into the rich end of the relief market surrounding Chapman and Kenley Jansen, it seems that former AL Rookie of the Year Neftali Feliz is on their radar, according to The Enquirer's Zach Buchanan.
The Reds have spent some time and attention on free agent reliever Neftali Feliz, per source. Nothing close. https://t.co/TO277Kex6l— Zach Buchanan (@ZachENQ) December 6, 2016
The "nothing close" is likely a byproduct of the upper-echelon of the closer's market still being in limbo, but it's still worth noting that the Reds are obviously interested in a player of his caliber, one who may well command the $8 million per season over multiple years that Buchanan notes in his article.
Feliz certainly carries his flaws, specifically an injury history that derailed what had otherwise been a superstar beginning to his career. At ages 21 and 22, he threw 100.1 total innings across 90 appearances, posting a 2.42 ERA, microscopic 0.82 WHIP, and 188 ERA+, in the process striking out 9.9 batters per 9 IP and collective 42 saves. He did so with an electric fastball that peaked at an average of 96.3 mph during the 2010 and 2011 seasons, and took home both the 2010 AL RoY award and made an All Star appearance.
Then, as has become habitual for so many pitchers in today's game, he saw a 2 mph drop in velocity during the 2012 season before ultimately needing Tommy John surgery to repair a completely torn UCL. He returned late in the 2013 season and saw part-time duty during 2014, in the process posting decent surface stats (1.73 ERA in 36.1 IP), but that underscored an ugly 4.69 FIP, diminished fastball velocity (93.1 mph in 2014), and a collapse of his K/9 rate (just 6.2 across 2013-2014). The Texas Rangers ultimately released him midway through an awful 2015 season, and subsequently poor performances at the end of that year with the Detroit Tigers left him at a crossroads prior to last season.
Enter the Pittsburgh Pirates and pitching coach Ray Searage, who scooped up Feliz for 2016 and watched many of the peripherals that had made him so successful in his early years return. It was far from a flawless season, as Feliz was bitten by an abnormally high HR/FB rate far worse (19.2%) than his career average (8.8%), which therefore saw the FIP he posted (4.53) come in significantly higher than his overall ERA of 3.52. Those numbers, as you'll recall from the lambasting of the Reds' 2016 bullpen above, don't appear to cast a shining light on Feliz as a possible positive addition as a free agent, but that's where the other underlying numbers help his case. He regained the dominant fastball he'd possessed in his early Texas success, throwing it again at an average velocity over 96 mph for the first time since his Tommy John surgery, helping lead to a rediscovered strikeout ability (10.2 per 9 IP) not seen since his 2009 debut.
Obviously, the interest the Reds have in him must be due to those latter factors, and they'd be hoping to get him on the front end of a career resurgence - not just after a one year blip. At just 28 years old (and with half an elbow much younger than that), there's seemingly enough evidence to suggest that he's rediscovered the arm strength he once had. He's ditched the fastball/curveball combo he leaned upon pre-surgery in favor of a fasball/slider/change-up mix, but his fastball usage still sits at some 70% like it was in his peak years.
Aside from determining whether he's fully back and capable of proving that HR/FB spike was merely small sample noise, the Reds will have to determine whether he's good enough to be a part of the bullpen beyond just 2017, since it seems Feliz is looking for a multi-year deal. He could theoretically slot in as the team's de facto "closer" for that time, which would allow Tony Cingrani to operate largely against lefties and free both Iglesias and Michael Lorenzen for high-leverage, multi-inning roles, and that could potentially form a rebuild bullpen light years more adept at retiring opposing hitters the one we watched through the first four disastrous months of 2016.
If any of this sounds familiar, it's probably because we Fake GMs from November's SB Nation league-wide simulation actually signed Feliz, bringing him in for many of the reasons laid out above on a 2 year, $12 million deal (with a mutual option for a year 3). Thanks for reading, Dick!