There are endless metrics that evaluate pitchers in today’s baseball world, and xFIP is certainly one of them. It’s the expected version of FIP - Fielding Independent Pitching - which, in itself, is something of an expected statistic. How good a pitcher probably should have been if they’d had a normalized HR/FB rate and defense like most other pitchers had, in other words.
It’s imperfect. It’s very imperfect. Most pitching metrics, if taken in lone form, are. The reality is, however, that 127 pitchers in Major League Baseball logged at least 100 IP during the 2023 season, and 60 of them had lower xFIPs than Dylan Cease, whose 4.08 mark came in a season in which he clearly surpassed that IP threshold (177.0 IP). His 3.72 actual FIP checked in 26th, his 4.58 ERA 92nd, and the amalgamation of these numbers suggest he wasn’t a whole lot more than a midde of the road innings-eater last year.
That makes what the asking price for Cease in trade talks with the Cincinnati Reds right now consisting of Rhett Lowder, Chase Petty, Edwin Arroyo, Connor Phillips, and ‘at least one more prospect’ completely preposterous. That’s news that came from The Enquirer’s Jason Williams over the weekend, as the Chicago White Sox appear determined to ask for a return commisserate with how Cease pitched in the two years prior to 2023 with earplugs in while discussing anything that happened last year.
Through 2021 and 2022 Cease was, quite simply, brilliant. The 8.9 fWAR he compiled during that time ranked as the 8th most among all pitchers who logged at least 250 combined IP, his 11.66 K/9 ranking tied for 4th best. He averaged a robust 96.9 mph on his fastball - also tied for 4th best among that 83 pitcher sample - and his 3.24 FIP ranked 15th. His 2022 season carried a lot of the weight there (2.20 ERA in 184.0 IP, leading to a runner-up finish in the AL Cy Young Award voting), and the pair of years established that he was undeniably an incredibly valuable young arm.
I led with some expected stats of his because it would be one thing if his decline from 2022 to 2023 came only in the form of surface stats, and the underlying metrics still suggested he was the same guy. That’s not the case, though, as his average fastball velocity dropped over a full mph, his K/BB declined for the third consecutive season, his BABIP spiked some .070 from a level too low to maintain to an admittedly high .330, and the hard-hit rate he allowed jumped almost 10%.
The Reds have one of the deepest farm systems in all of baseball, and it’s to be expected that the initial ask when dealing with them would be for the moon. It’s hard to even envision what the White Sox would be asking for in exchange for Cease had he performed in 2023 the way he had across 2021-2022, since that’s the entire top of the Reds farm at the moment.
Chicago, while rebuilding, has no dire need to deal Cease right now. They’re a dumpster fire of a roster right now, but Cease’s two full seasons of team control mean they can ask for the moon now, hold on to him until the deadline (or next winter) to let him perhaps recoup some of his previous value, and create bidding wars across the game. For the Reds, though, it comes down to just how much they think they can ‘fix’ what ailed Cease during his merely just fine season in 2023, and whether or not they can talk the Sox into a deal that costs them significantly less in acquisition cost.
Clearly Cincinnati is interested, as well they should be. Cease’s durability alone is desirable with a Reds pitching staff that’s been routinely beat-up, beat around, and remains inexperienced. His upside obviously makes him even more of a perfect fit, especially given a pair of years at reasonable, arbitration-eligible salaries that pale in comparison to what he’d cost to sign as a free agent right now. Considering that’s what the White Sox are asking for him, I can’t imagine a team out there is willing to meet that cost right now, meaning we’ll likely see these dialogues persist throughout the course of the winter.
The question, of course, is whether the Reds will finally balk and seek additions elsewhere.