The optimism that swelled as the Cincinnati Reds went into the All Star break was the first real burst of excitement around the team in some time. Through years of tearing down, rebuilding, and watching losses mount, there’d rarely been a single week of pure elation surrounding the team, let alone a full five-six weeks worth.
The sweep at the hands of the Pittsburgh Pirates has burned a bit, in part because of the newfound optimism. That paired with the awful, miserable 3-18 start to the season still means the Reds are 13 games under .500, in the basement, and realistically looking to 2019 and beyond to finally put more Ws than Ls on the ledger.
With that in mind, it’s borderline comical to note that the woeful Baltimore Orioles are somehow 16 games worse than these Reds in the loss column despite sporting an Opening Day payroll of some $140 million. These Orioles, though, are not about to be the same old Orioles going forward, as their GM Dan Duquette made formal by repeatedly using the word ‘rebuild’ last week in the wake of their trade of star SS Manny Machado to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
As the first true, committed seller of the 2018 season, the Orioles have the spotlight on their current roster, and while it’s been abysmal in collective production, there are several pieces that could be of significant interest to teams around MLB should the tear down become both imminent and more thorough, including to a team like the Reds - a team with eyes on roster pieces that will help down the road as much as through the next 60+ games of 2018.
One such player - righty starter Kevin Gausman, who has already had several teams ask about him this trade season, according to MASN’s Roch Kubatko. As a starting pitcher with a few years of decent work under his belt - something the Cincinnati Reds obviously could use - let’s take a closer look at Gausman.
Kevin Gausman (RHP, 27) - 4.33 ERA, 4.48 FIP, 7.8/2.2 K/BB, 112.1 IP
The 4th overall pick from the 2012 MLB Draft has long been thought of as a potential breakout arm. Armed with a fastball that once averaged 95.9 mph in 2015 and still sits at 93.7 mph on average this year, there was reason to realistically expect as much, too, especially given his draft pedigree and prospect rankings, which topped out with Baseball Prospectus naming him the #10 overall prospect in baseball prior to the 2014 season.
Of course, that we’re talking about stuff from 2012-2014 means something important here, in Cincinnati’s case: he’s experienced at this point, which means he’s only got two years of team control beyond the 2018 season. So, if he’s a ‘plan for the future’ kind of acquisition, the future better well be now.
Gausman hasn’t yet experienced a true breakout season, though his 4.1 bWAR 2014 campaign in 179.2 IP certainly would be a welcome addition for a Cincinnati rotation that’s already about to lose Matt Harvey. Fangraphs was slightly more sour on that particular season - valuing it at 3.0 fWAR - but still endorsed that campaign as one that would make the Reds options that much rosier, should he be acquired. In total, though, he’s only managed 10.5 bWAR and 10.7 fWAR in his 752.0 career IP, and with his 2nd and 3rd arbitration years in 2019 and 2020 set to raise his salary from its current $5.8 million mark, he’d need to take a solid step forward to really warrant the Reds giving up any of their elite prospects to bring him on-board.
An immediate assumption might be this, regarding Gausman: getting him away from the AL East beasts in New York and Boston might be all it really takes to make his numbers improve. Unfortunately, that might not be the case. In 12 career games in Yankees Stadium, he’s allowed just a .733 OPS against him, his 4.02 ERA in that time better than his career mark. The same can be said for pitching against the Boston Red Sox, as he’s pitching to a .661 OPS against in 11 games in Fenway Park, with his 4.25 ERA against Boston in all stadiums in-line with his 4.33 career ERA. If anything, a closer look at some very small samples shows that the majority of teams that have actually hit Gausman quite well have been NL clubs - primarily the NL Central in Interleague Play, with Cincinnati themselves having knocked him around in one career game.
One particular worry with Gausman right now is that there are a few underlying reasons to suggest he might not be the same pitcher he’s been for years going forward. That’s a seemingly obvious thing to mention, as players get wear and tear and evolve as they get older, but at still just 27 years of age there might already be some worrying signs with him in particular. One, I already noted - that his fastball velocity is down a bit. That’s something that’s far from odd for pitchers five years into their career, but he’s dropped 1.3 mph on his average fastball just from 2017 to 2018, and that might help explain why his K/9 is down to 7.8 - the lowest it’s been since the 2014 season, back when he was fighting through muscle strains and shoulder tendinitis. Of course, he’s also changed his pitch repertoire this season congruently, mixing in more of a splitter and less of his four-seam fastball than ever before, which prompted our friends over at Camden Chat to take a closer look at Gausman earlier this season to see if his new method of pitching was as much a calculation as it was a struggle with velocity.
Would he be a predictable upgrade from the uncertainty the Reds have in their rotation options right now? Yeah, that’s pretty safe to say. Trading for him wouldn’t require moving Nick Senzel - because if it did, the Reds would say ‘hell no’ - and while he’s far from cheap, his arbitration raises to ~$8.5 million and ~$11 million aren’t bank-breaking for the Reds projected payroll, either. The question become, however, whether aiming for Gausman’s tier of starter would a) prevent an acquisition of a more proven, higher-tier starter, which is truly what the Reds need, or b) truly be an upgrade over what mid-rotation options they currently have in-house could provide if they develop over the next two years.
Gausman figures to be a nice #3/4 starter for a club like where the Reds could be the next two years. The issue becomes, though, whether the Orioles public roster overhaul will have sharks from every team in the water that might drive up his overall trade price. He’s precisely the kind of pitcher who could help the Reds, but I worry that the current state of the Cincinnati farm might not make the perfect two-team trade concept work out - namely because the Reds have a very top-heavy farm with four Top 50 overall prospects, and I’m not sure Gausman’s worthy of trading from that group. A deal headlined by a prospect in the Top 75-100 range as the centerpiece would make a ton more sense, but the gap from the upper echelon of Cincinnati prospects to the tier of Tyler Stephenson, Shed Long, and Tony Santillan might not give them the right kind of shiny piece to make that deal. Of course, the Reds have never shied away from three-team deals, and picking up a prospect of that ilk in a move of another current player to facilitate trading for Gausman can’t ever be ruled out.
My personal verdict: Gausman would be an upgrade, and a nice combo of upside, control, and dependability. However, I think the Reds would probably be better served hoping their existing arms can fill the middle of the rotation for the next 2.5 years and using their prospect depth to trade for a pitcher a tier above Gausman.