If you can take three deep breaths and think back to life before 2020, you’ll recall that the Cincinnati Reds made something of a controversial decision in the midst of the 2019 Major League Baseball season.
It seems like a lifetime ago, admittedly. The 2019 Reds, trying to play relevant baseball for the first time in years, were doing pretty much everything they could to help dig themselves out of an early-season slump, one that dumped them to the bottom of the NL Central standings before the weather warmed at all. Their ascent was far from astronomical, unfortunately, but they did manage to eek their way out of the division cellar, and did so with enough aplomb to prompt the team’s front office to actually add, nee subtract, when given the opportunity mid-season.
It was at that point that the Reds gave up valuable assets to land a fireballing right-hander, one with both playoff experience and team control beyond just 2019. It didn’t make the most sense at the time given where they were in the standings, and it certainly didn’t come cheap, but his upside paired with his pedigree as a former 1st round pick gave hope that he could maybe help spearhead a 2019 resuscitation and, if not, be around to make 2020 a promising year from the start.
Well, his 2020 season really could not have gone much better, all told. He set single-season career-best marks in K/9, FIP, and xFIP, posted his lowest HR/FB% in six years, and despite the shortened season nearly matched the fWAR he posted during the full 162 game 2019 season. As a result, he picked up a Qualifying Offer as he reached the cusp of free agency, with early rumblings that his 2020 team had interest in keeping him around long-term despite having just the very recent time spent with him in the organization.
With the announcement of the 2020 Cy Young Awards set for this evening, you’re acutely aware of whom I speak here.
I’m talking about Kevin Gausman.
Gausman, of course, was claimed off waivers by the Reds on August 5th of last year, with the Reds taking on the entirety of what remained of his 2019 salary as a result. Despite their deadline-day addition of Trevor Bauer, this was a Reds club that had just shed the likes of Tanner Roark, had never really gotten anything from Alex Wood, and was in the midst of cutting ties with David Hernandez and Jared Hughes. There was a void that needed to be filled regarding innings, and the preference was for a veteran to be on the mound to do it, even if it cost another few million bucks to make happen. So, the Reds scooped up Gausman from Atlanta, where he’d underperformed after being brilliant down the stretch for the Braves just a season before.
Gausman, of course, had come up with the Baltimore Orioles, and despite perennially pitching in the bandbox at Camden Yards and against the powerhouses of the AL East, he’d settled in as a routinely 2.5-3.0 WAR pitcher each year. He never quite became the ace Baltimore had hoped for after using the 4th overall pick on him in the 2012 MLB Draft, but he’d become a very solid regular with many projection systems - ZiPS, for one - perennially expecting him to be a little bit better than he ever was. The rebuilding Orioles flipped him in 2018, and after a poor start to 2019 - and with their arsenal of young arms in the wings - Atlanta let the Reds scoop him up a year later.
During the tail-end of 2019, however, the Reds mostly used Gausman as a reliever, something he’d not done since some limited bullpen work back in 2015. But given his track record (and the stats used during the arbitration process), he was ticketed to get something akin to $10.6 million in 2020, his final arbitration year, and that was simply more than the Reds were willing to spend on someone they intended to use out of the bullpen. So, despite the Reds willingness to splash up to $164 million in the free agent market - including some $15 million guaranteed to Wade Miley to round out their rotation - Gausman was non-tendered, entering the free agent market for the San Francisco Giants to scoop up.
It’s hard to fault any party involved here, really. The Reds intended to use a pile of cash elsewhere, and they did, so this was no true evidence of penny-pinching. Gausman, who was admittedly quite good in his limited relief work with the Reds (3.17 FIP, 2.49 xFIP, 11.69 K/9) would have been quite expensive for a reliever, and the Reds had a pile of other worthy rotation options even before putting more guaranteed money towards Miley than Gausman would’ve netted in 2020 alone.
It’s also therefore impossible to simply suggest that the success Gausman had as a starter for the Giants this year would have been replicated if he’d stayed as a Red. A different role, a different home ballpark, and completely different opponents all factored in, though the Reds never once had to battle with the eventual World Champion Dodgers, it should be noted. Still, that Gausman threw nearly 60 innings of 3.62 ERA, 3.09 FIP, 118 ERA+ ball this year for the not-Reds will end up something of a what-if in my brain for at least a minute or two, especially if he ends up declining his QO and the Giants get a draftee of note in that wake.