Despite the Cincinnati Reds having enjoyed a starting pitching renaissance during the 2019 season, they’ve still been quite publicly connected to some of the more intriguing options on that market so far this winter. They reportedly were hot and heavy with Zack Wheeler before he became a nine-figuraire courtesty of the Philadelphia Phillies. In a similar vein, they were rumored to have interest in free agent Madison Bumgarner, but he signed over the weekend with the Arizona Diamondbacks, taking yet another high profile free agent out off their board.
To further compound things, Cleveland dealt ace Corey Kluber to the Texas Rangers yesterday, and while the Reds hadn’t been connected to Kluber so much of late, this time last year there were almost daily updates about the Reds checking in on his potential availability.
In other words, the Reds have sent a pretty clear signal so far this winter that they’re in the market for another hundred-pitch hurler to bolster their already potent staff, but the options for whom that may be keep falling by the wayside in one form or another. The question at this point is whether they were pursuing those particular options as precision targets they thought were bargains at their going rates, or if adding another starting pitcher is an absolute priority they’ll seek to remedy before Opening Day one way or another.
If it’s the former, well, Tyler Mahle is still a damn promising 25 year old, a former Top 100 overall prospect who most every team in baseball was feel comfortable with as their fifth starter. If it’s the latter, though - or if prioritizing depth while still having high hope for Mahle is the plan - the options out there are beginning to thin. Beyond those top-tier free agent signings, the Kluber trade, and the otherworldly contracts doled out to Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, the middle-of-the-road starters have been coming off the board with regularity already, too. Tanner Roark will not reunite with the Reds, as he signed with the Toronto Blue Jays. Each of Michael Pineda and Jake Odorizzi found homes early in the free agent window, while Cole Hamels, Michael Wacha, Rick Porcello, and Kyle Gibson have also found new clubs and contracts, too.
If the Reds do turn their attentions to the remaining free agent starters out there, there are still a handful of pretty intriguing names, however.
Hyun-Jin Ryu sits atop that list, though the Reds have not yet been connected with the former Los Angeles Dodgers lefty. The runner-up in last year’s NL Cy Young Award voting led all MLB starters with a 2.32 ERA and minuscule 1.2 BB/9, which is precisely why MLB Trade Rumors listed him as their #9 overall free agent this winter and predicted a 3 year, $54 million contract for him. He’s had durability concerns (he made just 1 total start between 2015-2016, just 15 starts in 2018, and hasn’t made 30 starts in a season since his rookie year), and that may well be why there’s been no public connection. He’d be a nice piece to have, to be sure, but it seems that if the Reds were going to be in on him this winter, there’d have been some smoke somewhere along the way.
Beyond Ryu, there’s a pretty distinct dropoff in the free agent ranks. That’s not to say that there aren’t some starters out there who could rival Ryu’s production in 2020 (and beyond), merely that none of them entered free agency this winter on a platform of his level, and therefore aren’t going to command the same kind of financial outlay to get signed. Dallas Keuchel headlines that group, as he’s back on the open market after his nightmare trip through free agency last year, this time with no draft pick compensation tied to signing him. He entered the 2019 season mid-year with Atlanta, and while his ERA (3.75) remained in-line with his career mark (3.67), his FIP spiked to 4.72 and he lost almost a full mph off his average fastball. Still, his elite groundball rate (60.1% in 2019) makes him a great on-paper fit for a tiny home park like GABP, though he’ll likely command a multi-year contract while entering his 32 year old season.
Keuchel’s 2019 teammate Julio Teheran is also an interesting option. He’ll somehow be just 29 on Opening Day 2020 despite starting the last handful of Opening Days for Atlanta, and has pitched to a tidy 3.88 ERA (111 ERA+) in 350.1 IP over the last two seasons combined. He’s on the opposite end of the groundball spectrum as Keuchel, however, as just 39% of his batted balls allowed in 2019 were worm-burners. He, too, has seen his velocity dip over the last few seasons, and his average fastball sat at just 89.7 mph in 2019; still, that fastball ranked as the 4th best among all qualified starters by wFB last year, meaning he’s still got something deceptive enough in his delivery to make it a damn valuable pitch. As fifth starter options go, he’d still be a decent one.
Perhaps the most intriguing name out there, though, is former Red Alex Wood, who obviously had a dismal 2019 season derailed by persistent back issues. The Reds are obviously both familiar with him and notably fond of him, having made him a key part of last winter’s blockbuster deal with the Dodgers, and his best buddy Kyle Farmer is still a part of the current Reds cast. The more I think about it, the more the idea of a one-year re-up with Wood makes sense, for many of the exact same reasons that acquiring him a year ago did, too. When healthy, he’s been a quality left-handed option, and nothing about his back issues last year appear structural or the the kind of thing that needed surgery to repair. Hell, this time last winter there were a good number of folks who thought he’d end up the best pitcher on the 2019 Reds staff, and the reasoning behind that train of thought certainly held ample merit. To get a pitcher of that potential on either a pillow contract, or even a two-year pact, makes a ton of sense - provided, of course, that he actually stays healthy going forward.
The star-caliber options out there this winter are largely all off the table for the Reds, but that also means that they no longer have to keep the money currently in their 2020 budget allocated for finding that, either. Adding a lower-cost arm would, in theory, free up cash to chase more offense, and that’s hardly a bad tradeoff. Perhaps there will even end up being another potent option that emerges on the trade market - a Robbie Ray or Jon Gray, for instance. It will certainly be interesting to see whether the Reds do indeed pivot to other options to ensure some starting depth is around, or whether it was merely those high-profile names that they missed on that were targets they had on their spending list.