It’s hard to overstate the importance of the next 11 months for the Cincinnati Reds, leading up to Opening Day 2019. The rebuilding process has reached crescendo. It now requires big, calculated expenditures of assets — money and players — on impact upgrades. The Brewers acquisition of Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain come to mind. The Reds front office has said as much.
These crucial moves will be the ones by which we’ll ultimately judge Dick Williams’ acumen, Bob Castellini’s commitment and the success of the organization’s multi-year rebuilding project. As part of that, the club faces a make-or-break choice at the upcoming summer trade deadline.
For the most part, the Reds have approached change with an abundance of caution. The sum total has been a significant reshaping of the roster, but it has occurred through small, tentative steps. If the team’s dismal record in 2018 says anything, it’s that wobbly incrementalism won’t get the job done.
The stunning collapse of baseball’s free agent market has been documented and analyzed. Household name players still haven’t signed, went with minor league contracts or simply retired. Todd Frazier agreed to two years at $8.5 million. Lucas Duda, with a 30-home run season in his pocket, got $3.5 million. Logan Morrison, who hit 38 homers and produced a 3.2 WAR season, only received $6.5 million. Those contracts gave a new, near-literal meaning of the word “free” to free agency.
Market disintegration was a financial catastrophe for that class of players. It also created a frustrating backdrop for front offices trying to unload their spare parts. The latter implication really hit the Reds. No club would surrender valuable assets for Scooter Gennett, Billy Hamilton and Adam Duvall when better players were available in the free agent market for pennies on the dollar.
But as the free agent spectacle unfolded an important exception appeared: the bullpen.
Baseball’s checkbooks stayed wide open for relief pitchers. The Colorado Rockies paid $106 million for three seasons of three relievers. The Phillies paid Tommy Hunter $18 million and Pat Neshek $16 million for two years and neither of them closes games. The Marlins, Twins, Mets and Astros, among others, gave 8-figure, 2-year contracts to set-up relievers. The Cardinals threw $14 million at erratic and injury-prone Greg Holland for a single year of service.
Pouring money and assets into relief pitching is simple imitation, the latest iteration of copycat “How to Win in the Postseason.” Whether it’s wise or not, the submarket for relief pitchers remains as robust as a Woody Hayes goal line formation. And the Reds would be smart to take full advantage of the craze.
At the conclusion of the 7th inning Saturday night, Austin Brice hadn’t allowed a run in seven appearances. He’d retired 23 of the 28 batters he’d faced, with 11 strikeouts and two walks. That’s a strikeout rate of 39 percent.
Until this run of success, Austin Brice had been the guy we couldn’t keep straight with Barrett Astin. Brice is not the guy the Reds DFA’d last September to rearrange the Deck McGuire chairs on the sinking ship of their 2017 season. That’s Astin, the other guy. He’s back pitching for Louisville.
Austin Brice turns 26 in June. He pitched in 22 games for the Reds last year and has appeared fifteen times already in 2018. He’s struck out more than a batter per inning and sports a low walk-rate. Brice features a 93.6 mph sinker that has induced a ground ball rate of 51 percent.
But this post isn’t about Austin Brice. Mostly.
With his pitch repertoire and temperament, Raisel Iglesias would have been a marvel in the rotation. A sad “what if.” But Iglesias’ shoulder won’t withstand the 200-inning burden. Using the young pitcher as a starter was the Reds’ clear intention when we said hello to Iglesias in the summer of 2014 after his perilous defection from Cuba.
But warning signs appeared at the end of 2015 when the Reds shut him down with shoulder fatigue. By the summer of 2016, the lanky right-hander had twice hit the disabled list with shoulder issues. In this context, the third time is anything but a charm. The Reds rightly responded by assigning Iglesias to the bullpen as the team’s closer.
Raisel Iglesias has been great (and healthy) in that role.
The 28-year-old closer struck out 30 percent of the batters he faced last year and is on a similar pace in 2018. His ERA glitters like the point of a dagger aimed at the heart of opposing batters. An ERA of 2.53 in 2016, then 2.49 last season and a microscopic 1.98 in 2018.
What’s more, Raisel Iglesias’ service time runs through the 2021 season, so he’s under control for three-and-a-half more years and — sound the trumpets — four postseasons.
Better still, Iglesias’ contract is super easy on his team. He earns $4.5 million this year and $5 million in 2019 and 2020. His salary is constrained by arbitration through 2021.
Finally, Raisel Iglesias has a starter’s pitch portfolio and equipped for multiple innings, another fascination of the echo chamber crowd.
The Reds have to trade Raisel Iglesias because of these virtues. The return will be far greater than the cost.
Major league teams tend to overvalue relief pitchers and closers. Those arms throw 60-70 innings, many in low-leverage situations with 2-run or 3-run leads or mop-up duty. By contrast, starting pitchers have significant impact over 30+ games and position players even more. Every contest they start has a tied score.
Even the best relievers provide low and inconsistent value.
From 2013-2016, only three relief pitchers averaged 2 WAR per season: Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Dellin Betances. In 2017, those three pitchers produced 1.6, 3.6 and 1.2 WAR respectively.
Raisel Iglesias has produced only 1.4 WAR (2016) and 1.8 WAR (2017) as a Reds reliever.
Because of the kind of innings he is assigned to pitch, Austin Brice has produced more value for the Reds this year than has Raisel Iglesias.
In April, Iglesias appeared in 11 games and earned three saves. Only one was not protecting a 3-run lead. He also appeared with the Reds ahead by 7 and 6 runs, to get work. Iglesias also mopped up a game with the Reds trailing by 5.
You can count Iglesias’ high-leverage appearances with one hand, not using your thumb. By contrast, he’s been in more than twice that number of games in situations categorized as “low leverage.” He’s faced 11 batters in high-leverage spots and 38 in low leverage.
The Reds are off to an 8-26 start. The team’s superb closer hasn’t moved the needle a bit. A major upgrade in a position player or starting pitcher would be worth more.
The value of winning a World Series is practically infinite for major league organizations. Flags Fly Forever and all that. As a result, clubs in contention talk themselves into overpaying for a closer — even massively so — if they’re convinced it’s the final piece of a jigsaw puzzle they’ve been assembling over a few years.
Owners spend hundreds of millions of dollars in that pursuit. Front offices face tremendous pressure, if not to win it all, to do everything they can. That stress distorts priorities and causes hiccups in rational thinking.
A couple years ago, Theo Epstein’s Chicago Cubs gave up the #2 rated prospect in baseball — a shortstop — and three other players (!) to the New York Yankees for a few months of Aroldis Chapman and his PR baggage. Would the Cubs have won without Chapman? Hard to say. They’d have had to find someone else to blow a 3-run lead in Game 7. Meanwhile, Chapman is back with the Yankees. That 21-year-old prospect is already starting at second base and blasting dramatic, game-winning homers in the Bronx.
But after 108 years of futility, that deal somehow made sense on Waveland Avenue. And flags do fly forever, even at the Friendly Confines. The Reds must find and exploit a similar situation this summer. In Raisel Iglesias, they have a much better package to offer than the Yankees did for the Cubs.
In return, the Reds should insist on a young player ready for the major leagues now or the start of 2019 at the latest. The list of possible trade partners isn’t as short as you might think.
Start with big-payroll teams staring at closing windows. The Washington Nationals, for example, face the prospect of Bryce Harper leaving without a World Series appearance, let alone a ring. The back end of their bullpen is stitched together with creaky veterans. A lack of effective relievers has contributed to their postseason failure before. The Nationals have depth in the outfield from which to deal. The Reds and Nationals were reported to have discussed Iglesias last summer. They’re more desperate this year.
Victor Robles, anyone?
Other trade matches include teams emerging from rebuilds. The Atlanta Braves and the Chicago White Sox come to mind. Neither has established closers. Both have amassed a pile of talented players at or just below the major league level from which they can deal.
Then there’s the category of contenders with struggling closers. Hello, Houston Astros. Their roster is set and stacked, with little room for Forrest Whitley and Kyle Tucker to break through. Also in that category you’ll find the Texas Rangers.
Low-payroll teams stocked with good young major league players would be another fit. Clubs like the Tampa Bay Rays and Minnesota Twins would be attracted to Iglesias because of his low cost.
And finally, any other contending team with an established closer is a torn ligament or frayed labrum away from needing Raisel Iglesias.
Skepticism about trading away a closer is understandable, if misplaced. It’s hard to imagine another pitcher doing the job. But we need to learn the lesson from the last time the Reds had to replace a Cuban closer. No one thought the answer would be Raisel Iglesias. And, if you remember, Chapman himself wasn’t supposed to be a reliever.
Michael Lorenzen, Tanner Rainey, Zack Weiss, Kevin Shackelford and Austin Brice are young relievers in the Reds system. One of them could be the next guy.
So might one of the starting pitchers who can’t break into the rotation. With DeSclafani, Bailey, Mahle and Castillo destined to start, that leaves one more slot to fill. Here’s the remaining list of candidates: Sal Romano, Amir Garrett, Brandon Finnegan, Cody Reed, Robert Stephenson, Keury Mella and Rookie Davis.
The Reds only need one to work out.
We’ll be able to judge the shrewdness of the organization by how they handle Raisel Iglesias. Odds are the front office will have the opportunity to trade him for the long-term solution at shortstop, centerfield or the rotation. Not more rebuilding. The Iglesias trade has to make the Reds better this year, next year and beyond.
But the entire organization must be ready. It can’t allow outdated thinking about closers, the gauzy promise of pipeline prospects or sentimentality for hometown players to weaken its motivation. If recent demand for top-tier relievers can be our guide, Dick Williams will be able to ask for and receive the sun, moon and a few habitable planets for Iglesias. It is imperative he does that.