The end of the 2018 season is rapidly approaching, and there are fewer answers in the Reds’ starting rotation than there were at the beginning of the year. It’s the most glaring weakness remaining for the team as it hopes to end its rebuild in the near future. The offense is one of the better units in the National League and will get even better with Jesse Winker and Nick Senzel for a full season. The bullpen is vastly improved. But the rotation is significantly further behind — enough so that the club is en route to its fourth straight 90-loss season.

The Reds are almost certainly going to be active in the free agent or trade market this offseason to find one, if not two, arms to round out their rotation and have a legitimate chance at competing in 2019. Acquiring two front-line starters, however, is going to take either a lot of money — perhaps more than the Reds are able (or willing) to spend — or trading away high-end prospects. That means if the team signs or trades for one top-tier pitcher, they may look to a dependable mid-rotation hurler to round out the rotation.

One potential solution is already on the roster: Matt Harvey.

Since coming over for Devin Mesoraco on May 8, Harvey has resurrected his career, putting up numbers consistent with a serviceable No. 4 or 5 pitcher. He’s made 22 starts with the Reds, putting up a 4.13 ERA, 4.23 FIP, and 4.17 xFIP in 117 2/3 innings to leave him tied with Luis Castillo for the team lead in fWAR (1.5).

Reds management has shown an affinity for Harvey, opting not to trade him despite the fact that he’s a free agent at the end of the year. President of baseball operations Dick Williams has also approached Harvey’s agent, Scott Boras, about a contract extension. Those talks never developed into anything serious, but they do open up the door to bringing Harvey back in 2019 and beyond.

Whether that’s a sound idea or not, though, will be hotly debated in the coming weeks and months. There are strong arguments on both sides, and we’ll take a look at them here.

Why the Reds should re-sign Harvey

Castillo has had more dominant outings, but Harvey has been Cincinnati’s most consistent starter this season — not many would’ve predicted that when he was brought over from the Mets. For a team with so many young pitchers, they’ll need a stabilizing presence with a proven track record to realistically compete in 2019. Harvey could potentially be that. He’s been a Cy Young contender and taken the mound in some of the grandest stages imaginable, starting an All-Star Game in 2013 and pitching in the World Series in 2015. The less-experienced pitchers can certainly learn from Harvey’s knowledge and experience.

Most importantly, though, Harvey is back to being a productive pitcher. While not as dominant or electric as he was in his early years, he has re-established himself as a major-league starting pitcher after two dismal seasons and a horrible start to 2018. His strikeout rate has risen from 15.6% in 2017 to 19.5% in 2018, with that number climbing to 20.5% in a Reds uniform.

More encouragingly, he’s rediscovered his ability to pound the strike zone. Harvey had a career-worst 10.9% walk rate in 2017, compounding his inability to strike hitters out. He’s done a 180-degree turnaround this year, dropping that number to 5.7% (5.3% with the Reds). During his stint in a Cincinnati uniform, he hasn’t walked more than three batters in any game, and that’s only happened twice in 22 appearances.

Harvey has even shown he can still put up eyebrow-raising numbers on the radar gun. Upon his trade to the Reds, his average fastball velocity jumped from around 93 mph to the mid-90s — not quite the triple digits he dazzled Queens fans with early in his career, but still plenty to get hitters out and make up for his diminished secondary offerings.

While not what they once were, his secondary offerings aren’t useless. As he gets further removed from his elbow and shoulder surgeries, Harvey’s slider has become sharper as well. The breaking ball, along with the changeup, was once his putaway pitch but had become ineffective after his shoulder surgery in 2016. Last season, his slider had a career-low whiff rate of 11.9%, according to Brooks Baseball. That, combined with a drop in his changeup’s ability to miss bats as well, led to a measly 7.5% swinging-strike rate overall — significantly below the league average of 10.4% and by far the worst percentage of his career.

When 2018 began, it was more of the same for Harvey’s slider. With the Mets, the pitch elicited a swing and miss a paltry 8.8% of the time it was used. The switch flipped once he was sent to the Reds, however. Since the trade, the slider’s whiff rate has jumped to 16.2%, which more closely resembles his glory days. He’s throwing the pitch harder (89 mph vs. 87 mph) than he did in April and is also getting more vertical movement on the pitch, keeping it lower in the zone with more consistency. (Note: The lower the number you see in the graph, the more drop the pitch is getting.)

Even if Harvey is mostly going with a two-pitch combo, he’s shown he still has something left in the tank. He’s not an ace or anything close to it, but he could be a solid No. 4 starter for the next few seasons if he can maintain mid-90s velocity and a solid breaking ball.

From a monetary standpoint, Harvey shouldn’t command a huge salary either. Per FanGraphs win values, his 1.4 fWAR this season equates to $11.5 million in value. If he gets to around 1.6 or 1.7 WAR by the end of the season, he could be looking at a value of $12 million to $14 million based on current estimates. Those aren’t definitive figures — the market will ultimately dictate Harvey’s worth — but they at least provide a potential starting point when projecting what he might fetch in free agency.

If the front office is truly committed to expanding payroll as they’ve said several times on the record, it likely won’t be too egregious if Harvey agrees to a deal in the range of two years for around $25 million. That would free up the Reds to spend more on a potential front-line starter through free agency, should that be the route the organization chooses to go.

Why the Reds should not re-sign Harvey

In recent years, the idea that teams shouldn’t ever sign non-ace pitchers to long-term deals has become more prevalent in baseball circles. The reason is simple: They’re unreliable from a health standpoint (see: Bailey, Homer). Even the studs aren’t immune from injury, as Yu Darvish, David Price, and Johnny Cueto have demonstrated after signing mega deals in recent offseasons. The common denominator with those three pitchers, in particular: all were signed at the age of 30 or 31. You probably see where this is going.

Harvey will not have youth on his side. He’ll turn 30 just before the 2019 season begins. Most players begin to decline at this age, as the graph below shows.

This data set is several years old now (created in 2012), but it’s still considered accurate in today’s game. The gist: Pitchers lose velocity, strike out fewer batters, miss fewer bats, walk more batters, and give up more home runs as they age. Obviously, there are exceptions to these trends, but most pitchers are not immune to Father Time.

Couple that with Harvey’s already extensive injury history — he had Tommy John surgery in 2014, underwent another surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome in 2016, and missed a chunk of time in 2017 with a stress fracture in his scapula — and it’s extremely risky to sign him to any more than a one- or two-year deal. Pitchers are already more injury-prone than any other players on the field. Should the Reds roll the dice on a pitcher who has already experienced so many medical problems? If he was the Harvey of old, sure, take that risk. Is he worth the investment given his current ability? The answer becomes less obvious.

Considering his agent is Boras, who is notorious for demanding top dollar for his clients, it seems unlikely Harvey will accept a deal for such a short length of time. Of course, the last offseason may have changed the game a bit, with many of his clients going unsigned for lengthy periods or failing to fetch their desired salaries. But there is little doubt that Boras will try to set the price tag high on Harvey.

The Reds are planning to increase payroll this winter, so the actual number may not matter a ton. Length is the main concern here. Would Harvey settle for a short deal or is he trying to cash in on what could be his last chance to ink a long-term contract? The answer to that question will loom large in this decision, as the Reds surely don’t want another sunk cost in their rotation in a few years.

Given Boras’ reputation, though, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him make this sort of argument for his client: “This is a former Cy Young candidate and game one starter in a World Series. He’s two years removed from his shoulder surgery. He only got stronger as 2018 moved on. He deserves more than a short-term, team-friendly deal.”

From a “stuff” perspective, Harvey essentially has only three pitches. He turns to his four-seamer on nearly 60% of his pitches, with his slider coming in at 23% and his changeup at 11%. His curveball is seldom used at just 5% this season. If his fastball velocity declines again, and it will as he ages, he’s going to become very hittable. Harvey also only has one reliable out pitch in his slider. The changeup — once an effective off-speed pitch that was running swinging-strike rates between 15% and 19% — is now the weakest aspect of his repertoire, sporting the third-worst value among all pitchers with 100 or more innings this season. Take a look at the pitch’s declining whiff percentage through the years:

Harvey’s stuff has been undeniably better since May, but trying to project that into his 30s is difficult, especially when he’s already down to two dependable pitches. Even if his control continues to be strong, he doesn’t strike out many hitters or miss many bats (9.5 SwStr% vs. league average of 10.4%). Paired with a hard contact rate that has climbed in each of the last two seasons — apexing at a career-worst 38.8% in 2018 — and a below-average ground ball rate (42.1%), that may not be a formula for success in the long run.

Final Thoughts

There are strong arguments for and against re-signing Harvey this offseason. The Reds need starting pitching; Harvey isn’t the perfect answer. One thing the Reds can’t afford to do, though, is only consider him because of their familiarity and apparent affinity for Harvey. Given who owns the team and the contracts he’s offered or trades he’s nixed based on sentiment, it’s hard to tell whether that will happen. The organization has a tendency to be risk-averse unless it comes to keeping players they’re already familiar with. That’s been both a blessing and a curse at times. There’s no clear answer here, but the front office needs to carefully weigh whether it’s worth taking on the risk of a 30-year-old with an extensive history of right arm injuries for multiple years.


Photo Credit: Sam Greene – Cincinnati Enquirer

15 Responses

  1. cfd3000

    I have no problem with a two or three year deal for Harvey. Can anyone say with full confidence that he won’t be better than DeSclafani next year? As long as the Reds understand that he’s just one middle of the rotation starter and not somehow the Reds new ace, I’m on board. But make no mistake, the Reds still need at least one and better yet two more very good starting pitchers (I hesitate to say Ace because I just don’t think those guys will want to pitch in GABP or for a perennial 90 loss team). But start with Harvey, Reed, Castillo and DeSclafani (if healthy) and that should yield three decent to good starters. But that’s still two reliable arms from a full rotation. Buy one, trade for one, and add maybe one more from the prospects list and the Reds will be competitive again, maybe even in 2019. Hope for Garrett or Lorenzen or Stephenson or Sims or Wisler and wait for Santillan and Greene and it could be another long long season.

    • doctor

      agree to your point regarding acquiring an “Ace”, more likely Reds will have to trade for one than get one to sign without having to overpay. Example is Dallas Kuechel is free agent who could be considered Ace, the cost to get him would seem to project as pretty steep $$$$.

  2. David

    I would sign Harvey if the terms and cost are acceptable. Otherwise, let him walk.

    How good any pitcher will be from year to year is always kind of a crapshoot. Injuries cannot be predicted. As long as the Reds don’t give him more than 3 years and too much money, why not? He actually appears to be happy here (Cincinnnati), and has been given the opportunity to get his career going again.

    And for the Reds, he is a 1 or 2 starter. Castillo may have more raw talent, but he is inconsistent.

    And remember that Senzel’s agent is also Scott Boras. Sooner or later, the Reds have to deal with him. We don’t have to make this an insult contest with a player agent. This is the way baseball is these days.

  3. Alex

    I hate to keep pointing this out but I feel like I must. They didn’t say they would add to payroll. What Dick Williams said was, “we’d expand payroll if fans show up in the second half.” Which rightfully so, they did not. Also, what evidence suggests a pitcher would sign here? I really think your setting yourself up for disappointment by assuming they will sign someone.

    If they did, I’d say it’s a boras overpay for Harvey and a hometown overpay for scooter. Then cause it is the reds, Harvey succombs to one of the plethora of injuries to his arms and shoulders he has accumluated and scooter won’t finish the year either because the shoulder that causes him to throw sidearm will give out.

    Perhaps an offseadon trade but your two biggest prospect assests have lost some value considering all of the injuries surrounding them (including near certain TJ for Greene), meaning you’ll have to give up even more. The reds are, once again, in a horrible position with no leverage. On top of that, the pitcher they got back would have to be both good and healthy.

  4. James H.

    A scapula stress fracture and thoracic outlet syndrome are symptoms of deterioration from over use. He’s basically a used car…

  5. bouwills

    As long as the Reds don’t sign Harvey to more than a 3 year deal, They should add him to the rotation. Go big on incentives & less on base salary. What the Reds shouldn’t do ; is take on another $100MM FA contract or trade away several of their top prospects for an sp-yet. There’s still time for a couple of their sp prospects to figure it out. Castillo, Mahle, Romano, Reed, Simms, Mella, & Lopez all have an option for 2019. It’s in the Reds best interest to do some more sp sorting in 2019.

  6. lost11found

    A Mike Moustakas one year, or a two year deal is as far as I would go. It gives you more options and depth as you continue the development of Mahle, Stephenson, Reed, and Castillo (in no particular order).

    Id start Bailey in the pen, with him Garret and Lorenzen (again in no particular order) as your first spot starters from there.

  7. Jeff Reed

    The Reds, in this forlorn 2018 season, have given Harvey a chance where things for him looked pretty bleak with the Mets early in the season. The results have not been bad and Harvey, who doesn’t say much, seems to be content with the Reds. If Harvey can sign elsewhere, so be it, if not let him and his agent talk to the Reds and go from there with a reasonable contract that suits both sides.

  8. BigRedMike

    Teams with 17 losing seasons in the last 20 and 4 straight 90 loss seasons sign pitchers like Harvey to long term deals. I would fully expect the Reds to resign him and then wonder why there is an additional losing season.

    This constant refrain to keep the same players that are producing 90 loss seasons is interesting.

    Maybe try something different.

    • roger garrett

      Well said and exactly correct.

    • Jeff Reed

      Try something different? Like not signing him.

      • jay johnson

        this team is bad, not close to contending still. The Reds quit on the field last night, while the other team was in a pennant race.

        I beg to differ.This teams record is bad.There offense is fine.1-7 are all above avg or atleast avg mlb players with Senzel added next season.Whats bad and its really bad is the starting pitching.The idea of giving the starts in 2019 to the same cast of characters we used this season and last is the mentality that will give the Reds a 5th 90 loss season.
        Harvey was clearly the best,most professional,and most consistent starter that we had this season.I have been an advocate of his all year.His mound approach speaks loudly.Other than Disco not one of our so called starters has the confidence of Harvey.Not even close.
        Sign him for 2 or 3 years for not more than 45 mil and go get at least one more quality starter and we will have a roster that can win at an over 500 pace.We need to spend some $ right now to finish off this painful rebuild.Harvey would be a great start to remolding the starting staff.

    • sezwhom

      Maybe trying something different is to sign some FA pitchers like Harvey instead of “hoping” the kids find success.

  9. Streamer88

    Keep in mind that Boras may have plan A be 4 yrs/60 million and plan B is 1 year / 10 million.

    He may then opt to get Harvey a play in year hoping for ERA+ of 120 or so with no injuries and then cash in.

  10. Michael E

    I made my thoughts clear on other recent posts. I don’t want the Reds to sign Matt Harvey. He is nothing more than a mediocre SP4 at this point. Putting 8 or 10 millino per year into a pitcher that rarely pitches more than 5 innings and has a below-league-average ERA is not what a team with already pathetic starting pitching needs to do.

    We need a much bigger move, FA or trade, and use some of that money you might set aside for Harvey to hire a REAL pitching coach or roving instructor (or two) from a GOOD organization that keeps turning out quality SP prospects, year after year. That or pay up to hire away a top pitching scout from another organization.

    If they must spend 10 million on an FA, for goodness sake, make sure that SP is BETTER than league average, even if just slightly. Why anyone wants to pay Harvey more than 4 or 5 million is beyond me and he won’t sign for so little.

    Harvey might be better than a few of our admittedly disappointing SP prospects (so far), but that doesn’t make him an SP1 or SP2 or SP3 and if you sign Harvey, no chance you have money left to sign a REAL SP to fill an SP1 or SP2 spot. I’d rather run out the prospects again next year than pay Harvey 10 million to be below average. At least the money could roll-over to a post-Bailey payroll and maybe a $20million FA could then be signed, or maybe we could afford to take on money to get a stud young pitching prospect or two in a trade.