When the Cincinnati Reds acquired right-handed pitcher Matt Harvey from the New York Mets in exchange for catcher Devin Mesoraco on May 8, the objective was clear: Take a former Cy Young challenger and World Series starter who has been broken down by injuries, rebuild him into something resembling what he once was, and flip him at the trade deadline for prospects that could be a part of the Reds’ next winning team.
On Tuesday, however, that proved not to be the case. The 4 p.m. deadline came and went, and Matt Harvey stayed a Cincinnati Red, despite Reds beat writers and others around baseball very reasonably predicting that his movement ahead of July 31 would be a near-certainty. This doesn’t mean the Reds have lost their chance to trade him entirely — he can still be traded during the month of August if he clears waivers — but it still seems reasonable to say that if there were going to be a good opportunity to trade Harvey, one would have presented itself by now.
The chief obstacle to the Reds dealing Matt Harvey this summer has been a lack of market for him. As reported by The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, contending teams aren’t buying into Harvey’s revival just yet, believing him to be a back-of-the-rotation starter rather than someone who can legitimately aid a playoff push. And that makes sense. With a 4.44 ERA and 4.67 FIP since joining the Reds, Harvey has looked very much like a No. 4/No. 5-type starter. If I were a fan of, say, the Milwaukee Brewers, I wouldn’t be incredibly jazzed about my team sending even a top-25 prospect the Reds’ way for a pitcher like that, especially if it is just a rental.
But the hesitancy of teams to spare with low-to-mid-level prospects to obtain 10 or Matt Harvey starts in the middle of a playoff push begs the question: What will they be willing to spend on his services when all 30 teams get the opportunity to bid on him in free agency?
When Harvey joined the Reds, there seemed to be two reasonable paths for how his Cincinnati tenure would unfold. He would either continue to flounder, struggling to make outs inside the small confines of Great American Ball Park and further demolishing any value he once had, or he would rediscover his form, proving himself worthy of not only a trade to a contending team at the deadline, but also a large free agent contract at the end of the season — one that would cost far more than the Reds could possibly afford.
The first part of that scenario certainly hasn’t happened. Harvey’s ERA in Cincinnati is well over two full runs lower than it was with New York at the beginning of the season. He recently had a stretch of five starts in which he held just a 1.86 ERA in 29 innings, during which he didn’t allow a single home run. His velocity is higher than it has been in years, he’s limiting walks, and he’s pitching efficiently. Harvey has proven that he is something the Mets didn’t believe he was just four months ago — a legitimate big league pitcher.
But he’s not quite the ace he once was, either. If he were, some team would have paid the Reds handsomely for his services. And if 14 starts in a Reds uniform weren’t enough to convince teams that this new version of Harvey — the No. 4/No. 5 starter type — is worth trading for, I doubt that three more starts in August will move that needle. I also doubt that the 29 other major league teams who don’t consider Harvey worth a couple lower-tier prospects, will suddenly think he is worth $50 million in the offseason.
And if Harvey isn’t going to command a premium price tag in free agency, why shouldn’t the Reds make a serious push for him?
President of Baseball Operations Dick Williams has said that the Reds are looking to be more competitive in the free agent market this offseason. The single biggest, gaping need the Reds have is their starting rotation. What would the Reds’ ideal starting pitcher target look like? To begin with, they would be affordable. They would also be young enough that a dramatic short-term deterioration doesn’t seem especially likely. And they would also have some kind of track record.
Charlie Morton might not cost a bunch of money and has established himself as a viable starting pitcher, but he’ll be 35 next season. Dallas Keuchel is just 30 and has a Cy Young under his belt, but will likely cost more than the Reds are comfortable paying.
Harvey, though, checks all of those boxes. He’s just 29 years old, meaning that he should still have a few years left of his prime. His track record before his injury is excellent, and he’s slowly but surely building another record of success post-injury as a member of the Reds. He is precisely the kind of pitcher the Reds need to target in the offseason.
One name always comes up when discussing Harvey’s free agency: Scott Boras. The Boras name is automatically connected with grandiose salaries and blockbuster deals, the kind of force that a small market team can’t possibly reckon with. But if Boras is able to wave a magic wand and earn his clients $100 million whenever he wants, he must have taken year off. Last offseason, Jake Arrieta waited almost until spring training to be given just a three-year, $75 million contract after posting 19.3 bWAR over this previous four seasons. Mike Moustakas, another Boras client, signed with his previous club for one third the value of the qualifying offer he turned down at the beginning of the winter.
Boras alone isn’t going to get Harvey a blockbuster contract, and neither will the next eight or so starts he gets before the season ends, no matter how good they are. Between his performance this season, his injury history, the state of the free agent market and the lack of interest in him from other teams this summer, my guess is that a contract offer of three years, $35 million probably gets Harvey’s signature. That’s a deal the Reds should make.
You can make arguments against signing Harvey. He might get hurt. His production might plummet. But any argument against signing Harvey is going to sound a lot, to me, like an argument against signing any free agent pitcher. And my prevailing thought, as the Reds have begun to play more winning baseball in recent months, is that this team won’t get over the hump until it makes some serious plays for proven starting pitching.
Harvey seems to like Cincinnati. He’s drawn heaps of praise from his teammates in Cincinnati, and somehow, some way, has experienced a bit of a personal renaissance while pitching inside one of the most hostile pitching environments in the majors. If the team continues to have success over the next two months, one would imagine that would make the Reds all the more appealing to Harvey as a potential long-term match.
Regardless of who Harvey throws his final pitch of 2018 for, all 30 teams will get the chance to sign him at the end of the year. It seems like interest in him won’t be as high as previously expected. Cincinnati should keep him through September, and take advantage of that fact.