It seems patently ridiculous that after just 26 games played, we’re already talking about trade deadline tactics. Such is life in this condensed season, however, and we’ve now got exactly one week remaining until the ink must be dry on any trade season dealings.
The Cincinnati Reds are a bit of a hot mess at the moment. They’ve won just 11 times so far this year, and have already faced significant problems with two vital components of their club - offense, and relief pitching. Still, thanks to the expanded playoff system we’re going to get this fall, they’re just one game out of a playoff position, and sit so despite never having truly come close to playing their best ball yet.
Two things they do have right now, however, are the envy of the entire sport. They’ve got elite starting pitching, and perhaps the best combination of health and depth of any team in the game. And while the idea of cashing in on a starting pitcher at a trade deadline is usually the prime calling card of a team being categorized as a seller, there’s a chance the Reds could move one and still be every bit as all-in on the 2020 season as possible.
It’s a bit of a perfect storm of circumstance, really. The list of top-tier starting pitchers that have fallen due to injuries this season has been absurd, and that’s before you even factor in losing the likes of Chris Sale and Noah Syndergaard before the year even began.
Mike Soroka is out for the year, part of an Atlanta starting staff that has been decimated by injury and underperformance. The Minnesota Twins thought they’d addressed their staff fully in a winter overhaul, but both Jake Odorizzi and Homer Bailey have been sidelined for the bulk of the year. The New York Yankees placed James Paxton on the IL today with a flexor strain, and are already playing the entire season sans Luis Severino. And while Zack Greinke has helped steady a cobbled-together Houston Astros staff, it’s still more likely than not that Justin Verlander will miss the rest of the season, something that most teams don’t simply just mosey on away from successfully.
Those are really, really good teams. Playoff teams. World Series contenders, all of them. Yet those are all rotations that might be in the market for reinforcement for a stretch run. The Reds, meanwhile, just might be perfectly positioned to satiate that demand a bit.
Anthony DeSclafani hasn’t been a show-stopper so far this season, but he’s fresh off 166.2 innings of 120 ERA+ ball last year with a track record that shows he can retire opponents at slightly better than a league-average rate. Perhaps just as importantly in this particular season, he’s hardly expensive on the ledger, either, as just a fraction of the already prorated $5.9 million he is earning this year - his last before reaching free agency - will be left to pay. That’s precisely the kind of player that most every team in baseball could use right now, especially those clubs looking to fill obvious holes in their rotation.
The thing about the Reds right now, though, is that pulling Disco from the rotation might not leave them with as big of a hole as the ones other teams are trying to fill right now. The front three of Sonny Gray, Trevor Bauer, and Luis Castillo has shown their dominance so far this season, while Tyler Mahle has already stepped in for Disco once already. Mahle also picked up the pieces for Wade Miley while Miley was injured, and while Miley hasn’t yet justified the contract he earned this winter, he looked better - and healthier - in his last outing, and is a guy the Reds are committed to beyond this year, too. Then there’s Tejay Antone, who has been a bit of a revelation this season, allowing just 3 ER in 15.2 IP so far as a swing man and starter.
In other words, the Reds rotation without Disco would look pretty well capable in any season at any deadline, and might actually be better suited for this particular one due to the oddities of the season itself.
Bauer, in particular, is a guy who has long craved more innings and more chances to pitch frequently, and is tonight’s scheduled starter. Still, we’re talking about trade deadline strategy, and he’s thrown a grand total of 26.1 innings all season - the exact same amount as Castillo, and 10.1 fewer than Gray. No, the Reds aren’t simply going to move to a three-man rotation and lean on those arms because they’re guys capable of hitting 200 IP in a normal season, but their arms should be just about as fresh as they’ve ever been in late August, and if the Reds do turn it on and make the postseason, that’s when teams usually condense their rotation to just 3 or 4 starters anyway. Heck, Wade Miley was left off Houston’s postseason roster altogether last year because of that same strategy.
In other words, while DeSclafani is a plenty good enough pitcher that can help most any team reach the postseason, he’s not a guy who projects to get a lot of work once there - at least not as the Reds are currently constructed. But due to a number of circumstances for other clubs, he might be a guy who’ll get leaned on into the playoffs, perhaps making him more valuable to other clubs than he is to the Reds right now.
The Reds will have what, 28 games left to play after the deadline? That’s 5 starts for Disco, in all likelihood. The question then becomes whether the Reds would be better off standing pat and letting him start those handful of games, or letting Mahle, Antone, or both take the bump with whichever other piece comes to the Reds in return also available. Perhaps that’s a future piece - though it seems impossible to think about any future beyond this craptastic 2020 year - or perhaps it’s a bullpen piece that can help address one of their more obvious issues.
The point is, the Reds might be in that very unique position where they can deal from depth and still have every intention of contending this season, too. They might even be able to do so with a player who isn’t part of their long-term plans, either, who plays a position that’s as in demand right now as ever. That might not be the lone shake-up this club needs to get things rolling, finally, but it could be a big one.