It’s hard to have reached this point in the Cincinnati Reds offseason without getting a bit skeptical of their 2021 intentions. They lost their ace, Trevor Bauer, to free agency after his Cy Young Award win, while also seeing rotation stalwart Anthony DeSclafani walk, too. Further cost-cutting measures ensued, with the likes of Archie Bradley getting non-tendered while closer Raisel Iglesias was moved in an effective salary dump of a trade.
Despite swinging big in free agency just one year ago, all signs now point to the Reds cutting payroll this winter. They’re far from alone in that endeavor after the low-revenue shortened season in 2020, but it’s nevertheless a large pivot from the win-now emphasis pushed by the franchise such a short time ago.
Someone is going to have to pick up those lost innings, though, and despite the seeming austerity being implemented, the Reds aren’t to the point where we’ll see Alex Blandino firing 200 innings of knuckleballs just to balance the books. There will be additions. They’ll probably, almost certainly be on the cheaper end of things, but there will be additions. And given the impressive guru combination of pitching coach Derek Johnson and coordinator Kyle Boddy, perhaps the single most intriguing place to look for potentially savvy, under the radar additions is on the pitching side.
When it comes to projectable arms, Vince Velasquez has long been high on that league-wide list. A former 2nd round draftee and Top 100 overall prospect, he was the centerpiece of the 2015 trade that sent reliever Ken Giles from Philadelphia to the Houston Astros, bringing to the Phillies an arm they hoped would help anchor their rotation for years. And he has, in a way, making 99 starts for the Phillies since the 2016 season, though his 4.76 ERA and 90 ERA+ in that time hasn’t exactly lived up to the billing. Now in his final season of team control, rumors suggest he could well be on the trading block with Dave Dombrowski the new head of baseball operations, as The Athletic’s Matt Gelb relayed last week.
Why would the Reds have interest in such a player, you’ll surely ask. For one, at between $4 million and $5 million (estimated) for his final trip through arbitration, he’s certainly a relatively affordable option with a long track record. At just 28 years old, he’s still young enough to suggest there’s room for improvement still, too, while paired with the lack of a long-term commitment giving the Reds little risk if the move didn’t pan out.
More important that the financial aspect of it, though, is the significant upside he and his powerful right arm would bring. Run prevention aside, many of his number simply pop off the page. His 10.01 K/9 since the 2016 season ranks tied for 17th among all MLB pitchers with at least 500 IP in that time, tied with some guys named Luis Castillo and Mike Clevinger. But while his ability to make hitters miss has largely been a given, he has struggled with walks in that span, largely due to an inability to land on a specific, non-fastball out pitch, mixing in each of a slider, changeup, and curveball in his efforts to find one.
One thing in particular stands out despite those troubles, however: some pretty damn elite fastball spin.
That 81st percentile rank put him in the upper-echelon among his peers during the 2020 season, and follows a pretty consistent trend of him ranking well above-average in that regard. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the Reds in their pitching revolution, it’s just that - increased revolution on pitches seems to be something they’ve pinpointed as a priority to success, as evidenced by the likes of Bauer, Castillo, and Tyler Mahle, among others.
Velasquez, while hardly anything akin to a one for one replacement of Bauer, could well be the kind of arm that helps round out the middle of the rotation, and would provide a relatively cheap, low-cost option. And if the tight-budget Reds hold on to Sonny Gray and expect continued improvement from Castillo, that could well be a reasonable enough backfill.
A pair of interesting caveats stand out in any Velasquez-to-Reds talk.
On a more coincidental level, he was originally committed to attend Cal-State Fullerton out of high school before the Astros plucked him out of Garey High School in Pomona, CA in the 2nd round of the 2010 draft. Had he chosen to take the college route, however, he’d have joined Michael Lorenzen as part of that star-studded Fullerton recruiting class, and would’ve been a teammate of other future Reds like Chad Wallach and Dylan Floro. Also on that club was righty Noe Ramirez, who the Reds just acquired from the Los Angeles Angels in the Raisel Iglesias trade.
While that familiarity seems more circumstantial here, another angle certainly clouds any potential acquisition. For the same reasons that Velasquez could seem like a diamond in the rough to the Reds, he obviously could be for the new Phillies regime, too. And while Dombrowski as the new head of baseball operations gets the marquee when mentioning that, he’s not who I’m speaking of in particular here. You’ll recall that Caleb Cotham was recently hired as the Phillies new pitching coach, and was plucked directly from his work with Johnson and Boddy as part of the Reds braintrust. Intuitively, you would assume that the Phillies would want him if the Reds did, too, making any deal a bit hard to conjure.
Weird things happen, though. Budget constraints might override any desires of a pitching coach/coordinator this winter anyway, as I’m sure Boddy and Johnson would mention when talking about Iglesias, Bradley, or others. The Phillies might, like the Reds, be moving peripheral players to focus on bigger fish, and that could present an opportunity for a player who, by Gelb’s account, the Phils were considering non-tendering a few weeks back in the first place. And for the Reds, that just might be a move worth making.