The idea that the Cincinnati Reds will be on the lookout for improved starting pitching this winter is one that’s become an annual tradition, at least among our hopes. While the club has repeatedly rolled out one of the absolute most worst pitching staffs in the game since the rebuild began in earnest in 2015, however, there simply hasn’t been a concerted effort to truly bring in any top flight names - unless, of course, you’re the world’s biggest Scott Feldman fan.
That might finally, finally change in the winter of 2018-2019, though, as Dick Williams revealed to MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon just last night.
“I would say we are more outwardly focused this year due to where we sit from a budget standpoint,” Williams told MLB.com. “Whether that’s free agency or trades has yet to be determined. We will be prepared to pursue both. We do think that will be an area that’s important to supplement.”
Free agency, obviously, is something the Reds have avoided like the plague in recent memory. Despite doling out huge contracts to in-house players like Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Devin Mesoraco, and Eugenio Suarez, they’ve been reluctant to spend on free agents since their club-record signing of Francisco Cordero some decade ago. And while the free agent class of starting pitchers will be a solid one this winter - with Dallas Keuchel and potentially even Clayton Kershaw available - it’s the trade route that the Reds have largely taken to make big splash additions, from Mat Latos to Shin-Soo Choo back when the idea of adding (and not subtracting) was their big M.O.
A viable trade partner generally has a few key characteristics. For one, they’ve been losing, and are only willing to swing a deal to move an established starting pitcher - one of the rarest, most prized commodities in the game - for a plethora of young prospects to help cut costs and begin a revitalization. Those pieces are pretty well easy to target, too, which is why the likes of Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom of the New York Mets saw their names in rumors at the July trade deadline, and why Chris Sale was an obvious trade target when the White Sox began tanking two years ago. Teams on a losing path trying to cash-in on their best trade chips prior to those players’ contracts running out is a managment strategy that’s basically timeless, and even one the Cincinnati Reds began to employ in that 2015 season when the last vestiges of the 2010-2013 winning stretch were shipped out.
It was the shopping of Johnny Cueto at that point that’s become a focal point of this rebuild, as three years later the return the Reds received for shipping him to the Kansas City Royals looks less and less likely to truly help turn this club around. John Lamb is long gone, Brandon Finnegan and his shoulder issues have completely fallen off the radar, with Cody Reed now the one real hope that the Reds will get anything of value out of dealing the best pitcher they’ve had in a generation. To put a bow on this particular post, the Reds shopped Cueto hard at that July 2015 deadline before ultimately moving him to Kansas City, and one other club in particular - the Toronto Blue Jays - had serious eyes on adding him to their playoff push.
The Reds asking price, though, was ultimately too high, as Shi Davidi of Sportsnet reported at the time. That’s because the Reds wanted young Marcus Stroman as the centerpiece of the deal.
The 2012 1st round pick of the Blue Jays had torn his ACL in March of 2015 and was sidelined at the time, but that didn’t stop the Reds from asking about him. To that point, the then 24 year old had been dazzling in his big league time, the owner of a 15-6 record with a 3.31 ERA, 2.96 FIP, and impressive 3.79 K/BB in 157.2 IP across a season and change, backing up the prospect status that had Baseball Prospectus rank him at #27 overall in all baseball prior to 2014.
The Blue Jays balked, Stroman went on to pitch in the playoffs for Toronto in both 2015 and 2016, and even posted a 5.7 bWAR 2017 season that led to an 8th place finish in the AL Cy Young Award voting. The tables, though, have certainly begun to flip for Toronto since that failed 2015 Cueto trade, as while they’re no longer doing any winning, they’re also now sporting a roster devoid of the likes of Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, or J.A. Happ, with Troy Tulowitzki’s injuries also keeping him out for the better part of two years. At 69-83, they’re a team on the cusp of turning things over to a youth movement, especially with the likes of top prospect Vlad Guerrero, Jr. ready to emerge in 2019.
So, I’ve got to wonder if Stroman is the kind of addition the Reds might be looking long and hard at acquiring this winter. His upside is certainly a fit, for one. With team control for both the 2019 and 2020 seasons, he comes with enough team control to perhaps see the Reds turn the tables. And to top it off, we know for certain that a front office that had sincere interest in acquiring him just 3 years ago is still more or less populated with the same minds in charge now that were in charge of decision making then.
The big question, I suppose, is whether Stroman is capable of being a front-line starter of enough quality for the Reds, one who would warrant surrendering some of the top prospects in the Cincinnati system. A quick stare at his abbreviated 2018 season and 5.54 ERA this year would certainly suggest that’s not the case.
Diving a bit deeper, though, and there’s still plenty to like from the player who had such a breakout 2017 season. The 3.09 ERA he posted in 201 IP in 2017 lined up with a 3.90 FIP, and his FIP in his rough and tumble 2018 sits at an identical 3.90. The velocity on his four-seam fastball did take a bit of a dip year over year from 93.3 mph to 92.4 mph, but that came with an actual increase in velocity on his cutter (up from 90.5 mph to 90.7 mph) and an increase in average velocity on his curveball (from 82.6 mph up to 83.1 mph). He did begin to reduce his usage of his fourseamer by some ~13% and slider by some ~7%, only using it on roughly 2/3rds of his pitches - with a distinct uptick in use for both his curveball and cutter - marking a fairly obvious difference in the way he approached hitters in 2018, for some reason.
The change in repertoire could be a chicken, or it could be an egg, however. As MLB.com’s Gregor Chisholm reported a month ago when Stroman was removed due to another flare-up of a blister that haunted him for much of the 2018 season, Stroman wasn’t pitching the way he usually did in that particular start against the New York Yankees in part because of the massive blister on the index finger of his throwing hand. That start, by the way, resulted in Stroman getting pounded for 5 ER in just 4.0 IP, and he was sidelined for two full weeks before making what became his final start of the 2018 season - a 1.2 IP, 4 ER debacle against the Tampa Bay Rays before being shut down for the rest of the year to let his blister issues fully heal.
In the 12 starts prior to that Yankees outing, he’d pitched to a 3.66 ERA in 71.1 IP, for what it’s worth.
Who knows whether Stroman will actually be shopped by the Blue Jays. With two years of team control remaining and a solid raise on his arb-1 salary of $6.5 million due his way, he wouldn’t exactly be the cheapest acquisition for the Reds, either - though they’ve repeatedly emphasized that they’re willing to pump up payroll this offseason.
Still, Stroman sits as one of the very few obvious names that fits the criteria of being potentially on the trade block, just like Syndergaard, deGrom, and Michael Fulmer in Detroit. And if you look solely on 2018 production alone, he might be one on whom the Reds could be conceivably buying low, despite the certainty that they’d have to surrender a solid package of prospects to facilitate the deal. If that deal didn’t include Nick Senzel - and I don’t think it would need to at all - perhaps Stroman is precisely the kind of player the Reds will be targeting this winter.
At least, I sure as heck hope they finally do.