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A closer look at RHP Ryne Stanek, Cincinnati Reds free agent target

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A big righty with a bigger fastball.

Division Series - Atlanta Braves v Miami Marlins - Game Three Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

A former 1st round draft pick with a big pedigree, a big fastball, and just enough recent poor performance to perhaps be picked up on the cheap? Where have we heard this story before?

Just a few weeks after the Cincinnati Reds picked up righty Jeff Hoffman from the Colorado Rockies in a low-risk acquisition - Hoffman’s a former 1st round pick with a mid to upper 90s fastball, you’ll recall - it appears the Reds might be sniffing down a similar path. According to The Athletic’s C. Trent Rosecrans, Ryne Stanek is on the Reds radar this offseason, too, fresh off a 2020 season that didn’t live up to his previous standards.

Said standards include a run across 2018-2019 where he pitched to a 3.52 ERA, 122 ERA+, and 3.94 FIP in 143.1 IP split between the Tampa Bay Rays and Miami Marlins, a stint that included him getting 56 ‘starts’ as Tampa employed him as an ‘opener.’

During the 2020 season, things did not go as well. His fastball velocity, while still averaging an impressive 96.0 mph, was down 2.2 mph from its peak in 2017. Perhaps as a result, he leaned on it less than ever before, increasing his slider usage up to 38.6% of his overall offerings after having used it only ~20% of the time previously in his career. Of course, that’s all in a terribly small sample of just 10.0 IP, in part due to Stanek having dealt with COVID-19 as part of the Marlins large outbreak during the season.

Despite the perhaps obvious reasons behind his slump in 2020 and a meager projected arbitration salary of some $800K for 2021, the Marlins opted to non-tender Stanek earlier this offseason. But with that fastball that I referenced, a good track record of success prior to the odd 2020, and team control through the end of the 2023 season, it should come as no surprise that the Reds, along with others, have interest in Stanek.

Stanek typically uses a three-pitch mix, working a splitter in with the fastball/slider he leaned on heavily last year. Despite all pitches being a bit off the mark during 2020, as recently as 2019 that splitter was a completely dominant pitch - of the 204 MLB pitchers who logged at least 70 IP in 2019, 22 threw splitters, and Stanek’s was tied with Kevin Gausman’s as the second most valuable in the game. Not bad for an out pitch, when everything is working.

While the splitter certainly seems like a worthwhile tidbit to mention here, it’s clearly the fastball that has consistently kept Stanek among the most well-regarded arms in the game. It’s what powered him through the SEC while at Arkansas, what led to him being a 1st round pick in 2013, and what put him on the mound in big league play. Prior to 2020, he’d consistently averaged roughly 98 mph with it, and that paired with a 6’4” frame that gets his release point a bit closer to the plate than your average-sized pitcher has fueled his career 10.9 K/9 at the big league level to date.

But while velocity is nice, obviously, it’s hard ignore the recent emphasis placed on identifying spin rates among pitchers the Reds have targeted. In that regard, Stanek ticks another box on the checklist, as he has consistently posted well above-average spin rates on his heater through the years. His fastball spin has ranked in the 72nd percentile, 81st percentile, and 87th percentile in 2019, 2018, and 2017 respectively, giving him just about as elite of an arm to work with as there is in the game today.

Of course, there’s one problem that comes with so many of the arms that can fling it with that kind of power: finding the plate. Stanek’s wildness was on display in his brief 2020 work, as he walked 9 batters in his 10 IP, and while that was more egregious than in his previous, larger sample of work, he did pitch to a 4.3 BB/9 in his 163.1 IP at the big league level prior to his most recent season. That’s not too horrendous - Michael Lorenzen (3.7), Lucas Sims (4.2), and Amir Garrett (4.6) are all in the same ballpark for their careers - but is certainly a flaw that needs to be turned back in the downward-trending direction to rediscover his success.

The question would be in which role the Reds would like to see him. Though an ‘opener’ with the Rays at the big league level, he pitched exclusively out of the Marlins bullpen after they acquired him in the middle of the 2019 season. That said, Stanek has a pile of actual ‘starter’ experience on his arm, as he started both at Arkansas and in the minors through AA. After losing Trevor Bauer and Anthony DeSclafani to free agency and jettisoning Raisel Iglesias and Archie Bradley from the bullpen mix, the Reds clearly need arms to help fill in both roles, and it’s conceivable that Kyle Boddy & Derek Johnson could have eyes on him helping in both areas.

I think a pursuit of Stanek not only fits the mold of what the Reds are looking to do with their pitching revolution, but also seems a damn wise risk to take. In fact, given his trio of years of team control remaining, he’s a very attractive buy-low candidate that will likely have a strong enough market to make it a bit difficult to land him too cheaply, even in this depressed market. That’s not to say he’ll break the bank, but it’s clear there’s enough arm talent there to make him attractive to all clubs for the same reasons the Reds like him.