The one thing that every single team in Major League Baseball has now, had then, and will have forever is a thirst for elite starting pitching. One thing they always also have, though, is the constant pain of swings and misses when it comes to identifying such a rare, beautiful thing, as well as the anxiety from having to figure out if - or when - what they even thought they had was ever going to be healthy and dependable.
Just look at the Cincinnati Reds, for instance. Matt Harvey’s a Red because he was an elite starting pitcher - until he wasn’t. Anthony DeSclafani has been an elite starter, but mostly hasn’t been - he’s been on the shelf injured for most of three years. Raisel Iglesias was an elite starter for a minute before being deemed incapable of the rigor. Brandon Finnegan, Cody Reed, Amir Garrett, and Robert Stephenson all rocketed up top prospect lists as future rotation leaders, yet none currently occupy a place in the team’s big-league starting rotation, much less lead it.
The story is the same around the league. The Washington Nationals have been unable to lean on Stephen Strasburg for over a month due to shoulder issues, and it’s been since 2014 since he made more than 28 starts in a single season. One of the single greatest pitchers of all time, Clayton Kershaw has thrown just 8 innings since May, and for the fourth time in five seasons won’t make more than 27 starts in a season. Madison Bumgarner missed half a year for the second straight year, Jimmy Nelson and Ervin Santana haven’t pitched at all in 2018, and 2017 All Star Danny Salazar just saw his season end thanks to a shoulder injury.
The pitching world is rife with both flameouts and predictably unpredictable injuries. But it’s for those two reasons specifically that teams will never stop searching for the next great pitcher out there, and will pay dearly to get them despite the obvious, underlying risks. So, when I see the name Noah Syndergaard floated out in trade rumors and that there is concrete interest in him from teams other than the potentially rebuilding New York Mets, I look right past his recent injury history and dream directly on what he’d look like atop the Cincinnati Reds rotation.
Frankly, if the Milwaukee Brewers think they’ve got enough of a farm system and a bright enough near-term future to want to chase Thor, there’s absolutely zero reason why the Cincinnati Reds should think anything different. They’re the team directly connected to trading for him, by the way, as our friends over at Brew Crew Ball dissected thoroughly on Sunday. Syndergaard’s making a hair under $3 million in 2018 as a first-year arbitration-eligible player, though he’s doing so with Super Two status thanks to so much early success and service time accrued. That means he comes with three full years of team control after 2018, which ideally dovetails perfectly with when the Reds will be playing baseball that’s actually palatable after the last three years of rebuilding mayhem.
And even with the recent surge of winning in Cincinnati, it’s abundantly clear that the next major upgrade the club needs is in its starting rotation, the bugaboo they’ve fought against for years since the 2012-2013 seasons - and that’s a statement that’s easily made before the inevitable departure of Matt Harvey at this July’s trade deadline.
Syndergaard has a 5 bWAR season under his belt, one that was graded at 6.4 fWAR by FanGraphs. He owns a career 134 ERA+, and has playoff numbers and peripherals that are somehow even more impressive that the impressive ones he’s posted in regular season play. He carries the reputation as a former 1st round draft pick - a pedigree teams everywhere look upon as a badge of respect as-is. And believe it or not, he’s actually four months younger than Amir Garrett, and pitching as a 25 year old in 2018.
If pitchers of his ilk were readily available in trade multiple times a year, I’d have highlighted first that he’s made just 18 starts at the big league level over the last two seasons. I’d have highlighted his torn lat that sidelined him for months last year, the strained ligament in his index finger on his pitching hand that’s had him on the shelf since May 25th this year. I’d have mentioned that he’s already been traded once in his career, something that some folks take as a bit of a red flag since it signals, in some ways, that the club that drafted him and knew him best must’ve seen something that worried them enough to let him go. But the simple fact is that in today’s world of innings limits, deeper bullpens, and the propensity of teams to horde young talent from within, pitchers with the combination of early success, youth, years of control, and high-end upside simply don’t get shopped hardly at all these days, and when they do, the risks and red flags largely have to be overlooked in the acquisition process.
For the Cincinnati Reds, I think they’re at the point where a move like this is absolutely imperative to fully dig out of this rebuild, and Syndergaard might well be their best chance. His teammate, Jacob deGrom, is also in this category of pitcher and may well be shopped should the Mets go full-rebuild, but he carries fewer flaws, a cleaner bill of health, and one less year of team control, meaning he may well be more expensive to acquire and won’t be around for as long as the next run of Reds success will hopefully be.
Barring a reversal of course by the Tampa Bay Rays on Chris Archer - or perhaps the Detroit Tigers on Michael Fulmer - that’s it. That’s the list of proven, yet still young ace-level starters that are on teams that don’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon and might, might be available as early as this July. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s exactly that kind of player that the Reds need now, tomorrow, and for the next three years down the road.
They’ve been in this position before, of course. The trade with San Diego that netted Mat Latos checked many of these same boxes, and required a haul of prospects that had many scratching their heads after the trade was made. Any acquisition of Syndergaard would necessitate the same type of package, mixed with former 1st round picks, multiple Top 100 overall prospects, and perhaps a semi-proven pitcher with great upside in return, too. Getting a deal done that didn’t include Nick Senzel would be incredibly difficult to do, and would almost certainly force the inclusion of Hunter Greene, in case you needed to read those names to get a visceral reaction to the trade idea. Fact is, though, that’s exactly why rebuilds demand a deep, thorough re-stocking of the farm system, as there will inevitably be a need to tap it for big trades, and the Reds have come far enough along in their rebuilding process to know exactly what piece it is they need to consider themselves effectively built, and Syndergaard fits the bill as that piece, flaws and all.
The likelihood of Thor getting moved is still not 100%, much less by this particular July 31st trade deadline. The likelihood that the Reds outbid the other 28 teams that will undoubtedly have levels of interest is surely no lock, either. But what is for certain, though, is that the Reds are now clearly in a position where moves like this now make sense with them on the buying-side of things, and not the selling-side, which is a pretty clear stamp on where they are in the long, rebuilding life-cycle. I just hope they make the call.