After doling out a whopping $144 million to sign Eric Hosmer the previous winter, the San Diego Padres lobbed a cool $300 million at Manny Machado last winter, and promptly missed the playoffs, again. That Machado deal served as a record free agent contract for about a minute, only to be busted by the $330 million guarantee given to Bryce Harper by the Philadelphia Phillies who, like the Padres, promptly missed the playoffs, again.
The bonanza at the top-end of last year’s free agent market was hardly an isolated silo of spending, as the Los Angeles Angels re-upped Mike Trout to the tune of $430 million and the Colorado Rockies went to $260 million to extend Nolan Arenado, as well. Both the Angels and Rockies promptly missed the playoffs, too.
The point here, I think, is that while signing big name players to big time contracts is all well and good and fun, it’s far from an instant guarantee of successful baseball. For the first time in our adult lives, we entered this particular winter with a promise from the Cincinnati Reds that, for once, they’d actually be wading into the commas and zeroes of the potent free agency pool, and seeing rumor after rumor connecting the Reds to some of the top names available was intoxicating. Yasmani Grandal, before his $73 million offer from the Chicago White Sox was accepted. Zack Wheeler, before he landed a $118 million deal from the Phillies. Madison Bumgarner, before he inked with Arizona for some $85 million. Didi Gregorius, before his $14 million pillow deal was agreed to by Philadelphia.
Big names, big money, big rumors. Little signage, however.
The Reds did bust down our doors with a surprise (at the time) team-record signing of Mike Moustakas to a 4 year, $64 million contract, and that was welcome. It’s also already just the seventh largest deal signed by any free agent this winter, a sign that while the Reds have finally loosened their purse strings, so, too, has the rest of the baseball world.
Some settling was looking more and more inevitable on the Reds end, and sometimes settling ends up just fine. On Monday, it was announced that the Reds had come to an agreement with free agent starter Wade Miley on a 2 year, $15 million guarantee, and that’s just fine.
Miley has neither the track record of Bumgarner nor the upside of Wheeler. Of the 70 MLB pitchers who topped 150 IP last year, Miley ranked 52nd in K/9, 56th in BB/9, 63rd in K/BB, 49th in FIP, 37th in soft contact %, 57th in average fastball velocity, 52nd in fWAR, 70th (last) in fastball usage, and 1st (first) in cutter usage. Nothing flashy, nothing overwhelming, no dominant stuff, just enough durability to make it into that group to begin with and a fondness for a cut fastball that’s probably the single most important thing in that list. A fine 5th starter, he appears.
Miley, of course, spent a year in Milwaukee as part of his now seven team MLB odyssey. He was picked up on a minor league contract by the Brewers after a pair of disastrous years with the Baltimore Orioles, and while with the beers, his pitching coach was one Derek Johnson, now the pitching coach with these Cincinnati Reds. After throwing his fastball some 53.3% of the time during the 2017 season in Baltimore, Miley slashed that usage in Milwaukee, throwing it instead just 20.1% of the time in 2018, and he backfilled that by leaning heavily on his cutter for the first time in his career. He’d barely thrown it at all prior to 2017, used it just 11.5% of the time that year, but 2018 saw him throw it a full 41.8% of the time.
Granted, not every starter in baseball throws a cutter, but despite logging just 80.2 IP in that 2018 season in Milwaukee, his cutter ranked as the 4th best among all starters who threw that many innings. Johnson, as has become the norm with him, had encouraged him to stick to his best pitch and lean on it, and it paid dividends in the end product for Miley, something that largely carried over to his performance in 2019 with the Houston Astros.
In the time since Johnson first worked with Miley, Miley has pitched to a 126 ERA+ in 248 IP across two seasons. Despite his middling stuff, he’s managed to be quite the above average starter (when on the mound), and the hope is that at age 33 that’s still a possibility for the Reds.
It’s a perfectly fine signing. It’s no blockbuster, no franchise-alterer, no real needle-mover, but it’s a perfectly fine signing. It’s akin to overbidding everyone else on eBay for one vintage right sneaker, but doing so knowing you’re the only one out there who owns the one vintage left sneaker that matches it. And in doing so, you’ve got your tootsies covered for this year and next at a net reasonable cost.
There’s the positivity. There’s what sleeping on this deal before writing about it led me to, and it’s certainly relevant. I’m not quite done yet, though.
While signing Miley is just fine for all the reasons I waded through above, his signing also serves as a bit of a wakeup call for this entire offseason. Moustakas, while a good player, is no Anthony Rendon, no Josh Donaldson. Miley, while a fine player, is no Wheeler, Bumgarner, Stephen Strasburg, or Gerrit Cole.
Signing Moustakas and Miley have made the Reds better, to be sure. But this is a Reds club fresh off another sub .500 season, and are the only team in all MLB to have not won more than 76 games in a season since 2014. This team has existing pieces, and added two more cromulent ones, but simply banking on the improvement of what’s already there paired with zero top-tier signings is, quite frankly, much the similar strategy this franchise has employed for years already. Signing Miley as a 5th starter is a good signing for a 5th starter, but signing Miley as the second biggest acquisition on a 4th place club is, shall we say, underwhelming.
It is merely December 17th, and I get that. The Reds could still trade for Mookie Betts, after all, at which point this winter would smell like fresh pop tarts. But so far, it still feels like the Reds are making only incremental improvements while the rest of the baseball world does too - with some other clubs making monumental improvements at that. Fortunately, the NL Central has so far dodged those large-scale improvements, with instead the Pittsburgh Pirates crumbling, the Chicago Cubs stumbling, and the Milwaukee Brewers engaging in a near complete overhaul.
Maybe it will be good enough. Maybe it will be good enough has been the mantra around the Reds for years, though, and it simply hasn’t been. Perhaps this time will be different, but like so many of you I walked into this offseason with hopes that the moves we’d see around the Reds would remove doubt that the 2020 season would be different, not just do enough to make me wonder.