Anthony DeSclafani just got bonked around for 10 hits in 5+ IP on Sunday, in what was just his second start of the 2018 season for the Cincinnati Reds. An oblique injury in Spring Training put him on the 60-day DL shelf to start the season, just as a similar oblique injury did to him back in 2016. Those balky obliques bookend a completely lost 2017 season, one where he threw precisely zero pitches for the Reds as he rehabbed through a sprained ligament in his right throwing elbow.
A model of perfect health he has not been, to be sure. That, though, is one of the more intriguing reasons behind the idea of the Reds trying to sign him to a long-term contract, despite the most recent example of the team inking an injury-prone pitcher to a long-term deal having failed in epic fashion.
Just to establish a baseline, you’ve got to be of the mind that what Disco had going for him in yesterday’s start was largely a positive despite the 10 hits allowed. Two things in particular stood out to me, especially when viewed with one eye on how Disco has pitched in previous years when both healthy and dominant. First, his fastball touched 95 mph repeatedly, and had the kind of late movement that he has often featured while pounding the bottom of the strike zone. To me, that shows he’s back to full health, and is still plenty capable of pitching with that kind of polish at 28 years old. Second - and perhaps more importantly - he continued to pound the strike zone, fanning 6 against a lone walk. That’s in-line with his 5 K, BB debut, and is also on par with his early-career ability to throw strikes, not walk people, and make the opponents put the ball in play for his largely effective defense to help him out.
We made note during yesterday’s game that the Reds offense featured the NL’s leader in both batting average and walks while also boasting the NL’s second-best OBP guy - and that those were topped by three different players. Since then, of course, Joey Votto has reclaimed the NL’s OBP lead, which serves as a nice little way of highlighting that the team’s position player core is more or less in decent shape, particularly with the middle-infield depth and the looming presence of Nick Senzel. What the Reds still do not have after nearly five years of recalibration, though, is any sort of stability in their starting rotation, which is a polite way of saying it’s been the worst run of multi-year starting pitching in perhaps the history of modern baseball.
To date, Cincinnati starting pitching ranks dead last in: fWAR, HR/9, HR/FB%, ERA, and FIP, while ranking near the bottom in both BB/9 (5th worst) and K-BB% (3rd worst). Stretch that out over several years, though, and you’ll find the Reds ranked dead last in every single one of those stats. This isn’t meant to pile on a staff that has depended almost exclusively on inexperienced rookies and has-been starters, it’s merely meant to highlight that the clear reason why the Reds are stuck where they are in the standings yet again is due to the lack of performance from their starting rotation, and fixing that remains the absolute top priority.
To loop this back to Disco, let’s just make a few pertinent points. For one, finding starting pitching for any MLB team is the single most difficult thing to do - and finding affordable starting pitching is even harder. There’s a reason that the acquisition of Mat Latos was so, so costly six years ago, as was the acquisition of Chris Sale by the Boston Red Sox two years ago. Proven, cheap pitching is the most scarce commodity in the game, and even the worst teams out there are reluctant to cash-in their pieces for fear of never finding them again. Even the free agent market has increasingly shown how pricey dependable pitching can be, as Jake Arrieta signed for 3 years and $75 million despite posting just 3.8 fWAR over his previous two seasons combined and Alex Cobb landed $57 million guaranteed despite barely throwing 200 total innings between 2015-2017.
Good pitching is rare enough. Readily-available good pitching is borderline extinct. Healthy, readily-available good pitching pals around with leprechauns and unicorns while watching Netflix in Bigfoot’s basement. So, if a team has anything close to something that ticks those three boxes, doing their damnedest to hold on to it should be an absolute must.
In Anthony DeSclafani, the Cincinnati Reds have a pitcher that is the closest thing to a readily-available good pitcher, and is healthy once again. He’s managed to appease both prominent pitching evaluators in his career, as he’s logged ~3 WAR in a season by both Baseball Referene and FanGraphs, respectively. While he’s consistently been sidelined, none of his injuries has ever required surgery, which means he might not be quite the Frankenstein that he’s often portrayed as being. And while he still seems to many of us like the shiny, new, young pitcher the Reds landed by dumping Mat Latos, it’s his current contract situation that makes the idea of trying to extend him almost as intriguing as the fact that he’s back and looking healthy.
See, Disco’s only under team control for two more seasons after 2018, with a pair of arbitration years all that remains before he reaches free agency as things currently stand. And while ‘arbitration years’ usually go hand in hand with a player becoming increasingly expensive, his litany of injuries and lack of chances to perform on the field mean he’s only making slightly more than league minimum at the moment, checking in at just $860K for the 2018 season. Since arbitration salaries are benchmarked on previous year salaries, that paired with missing another two months of this year means that even a stellar finish to his 2018 campaign won’t likely land him a bank-breaking salary in 2019, either.
In other words, at 28 years old, already in arbitration, and with a pair of ~3 WAR seasons already under his belt, Disco’s still only earned $1.9 million in salary in his career, which is a pittance compared to most of his peers on his talent level. Consider that along with his status as only a 6th round draft pick out of college, just a $235K signing bonus, and an injury history that continues to suppress his earning potential, and we might well be looking at precisely the kind of player that would be itching for something, anything of a financial guarantee that would set him and his family up for life. Hell, even perennially-injured 1st rounders Nick Howard ($1.99 million signing bonus) and Nick Travieso ($2 million signing bonus) have roughly the same amount of coin in their coffers to date.
For the budget-conscious Reds, that should have them salivating. For the pitching-starved Reds, that should have them drooling on their shirt. Given that the rebuild is taking longer than we’d all hoped, the idea of Disco being healthy and atop the team’s pitching staff just in time for both the team to finally play decent baseball and for him to reach free agency seems silly if there’s a chance to keep him around for, say, an additional two years of would-be free agency. A deal that locked him up for his two remaining arbitration-eligible years and bought out two would-be years of free agency would take him through age 32, and would give the Reds a known quantity as an anchor in the middle of their rotation for when the rebuild finally, hopefully would be stamped as built.
Would 4 years, $22 million get it done, with a breakdown along the lines of $2M/4M/6M/10M? Is the 4 year, $16 million contract extension the team reached with catcher Tucker Barnhart just prior to his arb-1 year at all a baseline for negotiations? Is the idea that 4 years and $25M, $28M, or even $30M too much to imagine given how incredibly costly it is to go out and acquire a pitcher of Disco’s caliber?
I certainly don’t think it is, especially when the alternative is simply hoping that the rest of the options that have contributed to the league-worst pitching staff just simply improve enough to win a division.