The last time anyone witnessed pitcher Tyler Chatwood on a big league mound, it was shortly before the photo above was taken. He was in the midst of a start in Great American Ball Park against the Cincinnati Reds, one in which he’d put up zeroes while recording seven outs, only for a forearm issue to send him to the sidelines where he’d remain for the rest of the 2020 season.
Chatwood, now 31 years old, was forced to file that as his final start of the 3-year, $38 million contract he signed with the Chicago Cubs prior to the 2018 season, one that failed to pan out after a pair of post-injury successful seasons with the Colorado Rockies in 2016-2017. Injuries and wildness plagued him with the Cubs, and while he was originally signed to be a cog in the club’s rotation, persistent command issues mostly relegated him to a relief, or short-outing role as his contract wound down.
He’s now a free agent fresh off a forearm strain that ended his previous season prematurely, a season in which he posted a 5.30 ERA and 4.3 BB/9. That should, in theory make him two things the Cincinnati Reds are prioritizing in their offseason additions this particular winter:
Cheap, and available.
Highlighting the aspects of Chatwood’s career that allow him to fall into those two categories at the moment does a bit of a disservice to the other significant aspect to his player profile that’s paramount - his upside. There’s a reason he got such a solid guaranteed contract from Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer in the first place, after all. Chatwood, when right, features a fastball that sits 94-96 mph, and mixes it in with a hard cutter and biting curveball, out-pitches that led him to a 9.3 K/9 in the 95.1 IP he tossed for Chicago since the start of the 2019 season. That’s a small sample, of course, but even despite his struggles he managed a 4.06 ERA, 4.10 FIP, and 108 ERA+ in that time, numbers not too distant from his overall 102 ERA+ through the course of his career.
While those peripherals make a strong enough case for his arm to at least be big-league caliber, there’s another aspect of his arsenal that continues to make him attractive to front offices around the league - his ridiculous ability to spin the ball.
Dating back to the 2017 season, both his fastball spin and curveball spin have both ranked no worse than the 92nd percentile among all big league arms, per MLB’s Statcast rankings, and that’s a timeframe that lines up with him being a full two years removed from the Tommy John surgery he had while a member of the Colorado Rockies. And while the spin rates since then certainly indicate an arm that recovered well enough from that surgery to be electric again, the 5.1 BB/9 he has posted since the surgery (2016-2020) sits much higher than the 4.0 BB/9 he posted in his 342 big league innings prior to the injury.
Obviously, it’s combination of both a) plenty to work with and b) plenty to try to fix, but that should put Chatwood in the free agent tier where the Reds will be shopping this winter, assuming they do any shopping at all. But aside from the combination of arm talent and spin rates that should make Kyle Boddy and the Driveline team drool, Chatwood brings another key component to the table (when healthy) that would be a vital asset for a pitcher calling GABP home.
Since the start of the 2017 season, 131 MLB pitchers have logged at least 300 IP, according to FanGraphs’ cache of data. Of that group, only four have posted a better groundball rate than Chatwood’s 54.4%, as keeping the ball out of the air has been a trademark of his dating back to his Coors Field days. The likes of Marcus Stroman and Dallas Keuchel rank just ahead of him, while a pair of current Reds rotation stalwarts rank just behind him (Luis Castillo in 8th at 52.9%, Sonny Gray in 10th at 51.3%).
Elite spin? Check. Familiarity with the division? Check. Groundball-inducing arsenal that fits GABP like a glove? Check.
Health? Maybe not-so-check.
There’s been little scuttlebutt about Chatwood since his forearm strain last fall, though to the best of my knowledge he’s avoided any surgery. The most we’ve heard about him so far has been his name being mentioned in connection with the Los Angeles Angels pine-tar revelations from early January, though he’s far from alone in being linked to that among his pitching peers. If healthy, though, he’s not just a pitcher who fits the profile of what the Reds are putting together with their overall pitching philosophy, he’s one who could well be had on a low-guarantee, incentive-laden deal that fits their frugal budget this winter.
The Reds are going to have to find inning somewhere, after all. The subtractions of Trevor Bauer, Anthony DeSclafani, Raisel Iglesias, and Archie Bradley have yet to truly be filled, and that’s before we even address the jump back to a 162 game slate from the limited 60 game schedule all arms worked under in 2020. That’s a lot of innings to be filled in various roles, and Chatwood would bring experience as both a starter and reliever to the Reds mix, as well.