The trade market is rife with starting pitching talent - much more so than in recent years. For a Cincinnati team desperate to improve its rotation, this is welcome news.

The free-agent market for starters is fairly top-heavy, giving the Reds a lot of competition to overcome to sign a big name such as Patrick Corbin or Dallas Keuchel. Cincinnati doesn’t have the payroll to compete with some of the other organizations. Where the Reds do have an advantage is in their deep farm system. That means Dick Williams, Nick Krall, and company may turn to wheeling and dealing to improve their roster.

In the latest edition of the Fixing the Rotation series, it’s time to take a look at the trade targets reportedly available for the Reds to pursue. Some notes to keep in mind as you read:

  • These are all pitchers reported to be available via trade. No wild speculating or fantasizing about pitchers that aren’t even a possibility.
  • The age listed is how old the pitcher will be at the start of the 2019 season.
  • The free agent year is listed just the way you’d find it on Baseball Reference or Fangraphs – 2020 means the pitcher’s contract expires after the 2019 season, 2021 means their contract expires after the 2020 season, etc.
  • Earliest possible free agent year is listed. Option years will be noted.

(Also: if you missed it, check out parts one, two, and three of the free agent pitching series.)

Noah Syndergaard

Why the Reds should make the move: Thor is the crown jewel of the starting pitching trade market. No starting pitcher averages more velocity on their fastball (97.6 mph). Among starting pitchers who threw each respective pitch 300 or more times last year, no one has a faster slider (92.0 mph) or changeup (90.3 mph), either. Unsurprisingly, he’s incredibly tough to hit — both his slider and changeup rank in the top five among starters in whiff rate. Those traits alone make him extremely valuable. But his age and team control take his value to the next level. If the Reds acquired Syndergaard, they’d have him for three full seasons before he becomes a free agent. Even better: he’s only projected to earn $5.9 million in arbitration this offseason. If the team doesn’t compete for an NL Central title in 2019, they’d still have him for two more years afterward as it heads into a more realistic window of contention.

Why the Reds should stay away: Crown jewels ain’t cheap. He’ll cost a boatload if the Reds are going to pry him away from Queens. The New York Post’s Joel Sherman reports the Mets want both MLB-ready prospects and players to boost the farm system in return. Translation: it’d be a steal if the Reds get Syndergaard for anything less than Nick Senzel and then some. The price may drop as the market develops, but the Mets are undoubtedly asking for a top-10 prospect in the game. Syndergaard also comes with an injury history, although it’s hard to find many pitchers who don’t have one at this point. He made only seven starts in 2017 due to a torn lat and missed a month-and-a-half of the 2018 season due to a strained ligament in his right index finger.

Zack Greinke

Why the Reds should make the move: Few pitchers have been as durable as Greinke in the last decade. Fewer pitchers have carried this level of success into their mid-30s. Since 2008, he’s only failed to throw 200 or more innings three times (’11, ’13, and ’16). Following a rough start to his career in the desert, the last two years have been some of his best at ages 33 and 34. The right-hander still strikes out hitters at an above-average rate and is consistently in the top 10 leaders in chase rate thanks to his highly effective changeup, slider, and curveball combo. Moreover, he has always been one of the best control pitchers in the game — only 10 active pitchers have a lower walk rate since 2008. Jon Morosi of reported the Reds have already shown some interest in Greinke.

Why the Reds should stay away: The contract is the biggest reason for pause with Greinke. He’s still owed $104 million over the final three years of the mammoth deal he signed with the Diamondbacks before the 2016 season. Arizona could include some money to ease the burden on the Reds’ payroll, but taking on such a large contract would hinder the team’s flexibility to sign more help. The length of the contract also means there’s no pressing urge for the D-Backs to deal him unless they get an offer they can’t refuse. Age is another concern for Greinke, even if it hasn’t slowed him down much to this point. He turned 35 in October and will be 38 when the deal expires. Some signs of age have already showed in the form of a velocity dip. Greinke also has a no-trade clause for 15 teams, and the Reds are on that list; he only comes to the Queen City if he wants to.

Trevor Bauer

Why the Reds should make the move: Bauer has many of the appealing qualities of Syndergaad, minus the extra year of control. Namely, he’s still young and at the peak of his career. While he is eligible for arbitration and projects to earn $11.6 million in 2019, that’s a bargain compared to his FanGraphs projected value of $49 million in 2018. He’s always had sky-high potential and finally busted through with the best season of his big-league career in 2018, finishing sixth in AL Cy Young voting. He very well could’ve won the award had he not missed time due to a stress fracture in his fibula. Bauer has finally learned to convert his electric stuff into his performance on the field, seeing his strikeout rate rise from mediocre (20.7%) in 2016 to elite in the last two years while reducing his once-alarming walk rate.

Why the Reds should stay away: When a player has a breakout season, the biggest question is always about whether they can replicate it. Bauer still owns a career 3.94 ERA, 3.82 FIP, and 3.92 xFIP. This was his first season with an ERA below 4.00. His whiff rate jumped from 9.2% in 2017 to 13.3%. Those are huge jumps to try to maintain, and it’s probably not reasonable to expect a 2.21 ERA moving forward. Bauer will also cost a lot in return, as the Indians are looking for both outfield and bullpen help; that could leave Taylor Trammell and Raisel Iglesias as their targets. Finally, Bauer has an outspoken social media presence. Most recently, he stated he was better than teammate Corey Kluber in 2018 and seemingly faulted manager Terry Francona for not using him in the postseason. It’s possible he was joking in both cases, but this stuff does raise some red flags. Even if the perceptions about his loyalty as a teammate are off base, this could give the Reds hesitation about introducing him to their clubhouse.

Corey Kluber

Why the Reds should make the move: It’s not often a two-time Cy Young winner becomes available in his prime. Kluber leads all pitchers in fWAR (31.0) since the 2014 season, in large part because he rarely misses a start. He’s thrown over 200 innings in each of those years and failed to reach 30 starts only once — and even then he still got to 29. Only three pitchers best him in ERA, xFIP, and SIERA over that time; only four are better in FIP. Kluber is also one of the foremost strikeout artists of this generation (28.5 K% since 2014) and rarely walks a batter (5.2 BB%). The Reds would get the ace for multiple years, too. Kluber can become a free agent as early as the 2019 offseason, but he has two team option years that could make him a Red through 2021, well into the years the club expects to start seriously competing for NL Central and World Series titles.

Why the Reds should stay away: Cleveland is trying to dump salary, but it still has the pieces to compete. That means they’ll look for prospects who are close to MLB-ready in return. That would put Senzel and perhaps Jesse Winker on the table as a return from the Reds. Trammell, who should see time in Double-A this season, and Tony Santillan, who should begin the year in Triple-A, could also be targets for the Indians. That’s a lofty price to pay for a pitcher in his mid-30s, even one as gifted as Kluber. While there’s no reason to think a decline is imminent, how long can the Reds reasonably expect him to continue pitching at an ace level? Cost is also a major factor. As one would assume by the fact that the Indians are shedding payroll, Kluber has a hefty contract. He’s owed $17 million in 2019 and his two option years are worth $17.5 million and $18 million, respectively.

Carlos Carrasco

Why the Reds should make the move: Carrasco has a team-friendly deal and two years left on his contract, the latter of which is a team option. As one of the most underrated pitchers in the game for the last several seasons, he’s earning far less than he would on the open market. He’s owed $9.75 million in 2019, and his 2020 option is $9.5 million. Carrasco’s performance over the last two seasons has been worth a combined $86.9 million, according to FanGraphs. The right-hander finished fourth in Cy Young voting in 2017 and had an even better year in 2018, though he was bizarrely left off of all ballots. Only Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin had a higher whiff rate than Carrasco (15.3%) among starters last season. Over the last two years, Carrasco ranks in the top 10 in the following categories: strikeout rate, walk rate, FIP, xFIP, and SIERA. Long story short: he’s a bargain at his current contract even if he does decline slightly.

Why the Reds should stay away: The Indians know Carrasco is a bargain, and they aren’t just going to give him away. The asking price is “high” for both him and Kluber, according to Morosi. If the Indians expect a smaller return for Carrasco than they do for Kluber, it won’t be by much. Hunter Greene, Trammell, Tony Santillan, and Jonathan India will likely all come up in any trade conversations. That’s even if talks get that far. The Indians may try to maximize Carrasco’s value even futher, as Ken Rosenthal reports the Indians are discussing an extension with Carrasco that would take him off the table. From a performance standpoint, Carrasco did experience a small dip in fastball velocity in 2018. His heater fell from 94.4 mph in average speed to 93.8 mph, and his hard contact rate spiked along with it. Only nine pitchers with at least 300 batted balls allowed gave up a higher average exit velocity (89.1 mph).

Madison Bumgarner

Why the Reds should make the move: Practically since the day of his debut, Bumgarner has had no trouble getting big-league hitters out. He’s never had an ERA less than 3.37 in a season. The man also has an undeniable competitive spirit, winning the 2014 World Series MVP as he practically willed the Giants to victory. He’s not the pitcher he was two years ago, but Bumgarner is still a dependable arm when healthy. That said, a decline in his dominance brings his price down to a potentially more affordable level. San Francisco reportedly wants young pitching in the trade — could the Reds possibly acquire Bumgarner without giving up Greene? That would’ve been unthinkable even a year ago; now, it seems more plausible. MadBum is owed $12 million, a reasonable value for the Reds as long as he maintains decent peripherals.

Why the Reds should stay away: Bumgarner comes with a history of success but a lot of risks. He’s a one-year rental coming off back-to-back injury-laden seasons. Granted, the injuries were freak accidents — one coming off the field in an ATV accident and the other coming when he was hit by a line drive — but the fact is he’s only made 38 starts the last two years and the strength of his left shoulder is a concern. On the mound, his performance has remained strong, but the peripherals have dipped considerably. His strikeout rate dropped for the second straight year — down from 27.5% in 2016 — and his walk rate, while still above average, was the worst of his career. It’s reasonable to assume he wasn’t 100% healthy, but can the Reds take that risk when they’d only get him for one season?

Mike Leake

Why the Reds should make the move: If the Reds want an innings eater, they could bring back an old friend. Leake hasn’t had the same success on the mound since leaving Cincinnati, bouncing between three teams and posting an ERA of 4.32 over the last three seasons. However, his peripherals are still strong (3.96 FIP, 3.94 xFIP) as he’s gone from a solid control pitcher to an elite one. Josh Tomlin and Clayton Kershaw are the only two pitchers with a lower walk rate than Leake (4.4%) since 2016. The team can also count on him to toe the rubber every five days. He’s made more than 30 starts in seven consecutive seasons and is 11th among 329 qualified pitchers in innings pitched since 2012. His lack of flashy stuff means the Reds could acquire him from the Mariners without giving up a top prospect, and they would control him for as many as three years if both sides agree to pick up his mutual option in 2021.

Why the Reds should stay away: Leake, while dependable and durable, has never become more than a No. 4 or 5 starter. He’s not quite the splash the Reds are probably looking to make in the pitching market unless he’s the second piece acquired after one of the bigger names on this list or in free agency. The M.O. hasn’t changed for Leake since leaving Cincinnati. He still doesn’t strike out many batters, and that means he has to rely heavily on his defense — a major weakness for the Reds that won’t get any better after the departure of Billy Hamilton. The Reds’ defense up the middle, in particular, has only gotten worse since Leake was traded in 2015, with Scooter Gennett and Jose Peraza being a huge step down from the days of Brandon Phillips and Zack Cozart. Making matters worse is his propensity for giving up hard contact. Among all pitchers with a minimum of 300 batted balls allowed in 2018, Leake had the third-highest average exit velocity (89.6 mph).

Sonny Gray

Why the Reds should make the move: Just two summers ago, Gray was one of the most discussed names on the trade market. Now, his stock has plummeted, and the Reds could acquire him for pennies on the dollar compared to what the Yankees gave up for him in July 2017. Even better, New York general manager Brian Cashman is seemingly desperate to get rid of Gray, which could devalue him further in the trade market. The 2018 stats are ugly, but he still has good numbers for his career (3.66 ERA, 3.74 FIP, 3.71 xFIP) and had solid, if unspectacular, peripherals in 2018. The ability to keep the ball on the ground is the most appealing part of Gray’s game for the Reds. Among active pitchers, he has the seventh-best ground-ball rate (53.2%) in baseball since 2013.

Why the Reds should stay away: Gray’s talent has never been disputed. Nevertheless, he hasn’t put it all together consistently on a year-in, year-out basis. His first and likely only full season in the Bronx was a disaster, as the hitter-friendly confines of Yankee Stadium did not treat him kindly (6.98 ERA, 5.98 FIP, 5.10 xFIP). Would he fare any better in another pitcher-friendly park in Cincinnati with a shaky defense behind him? Even at his best, Gray isn’t a dominant arm. He misses enough bats to get by (20.9% career K%, 9.7% SwStr%), but his stuff isn’t dominant. Gray also gets erratic at times, and his walk rate has increased in each of the last three seasons. Finally, he’s another one-year rental and likely doesn’t move the needle enough to make the Reds contenders in 2019 if he’s the best arm acquired.

Marcus Stroman

Why the Reds should make the move: Coming off one of his worst seasons, Stroman’s value is nowhere near as high as it was last offseason. While that could be a reason for the Blue Jays to hold onto him, the team is also entering a potential rebuild and needs to stockpile younger assets. His stock drops a little further in what could be a busy trade market full of other options. When looking at the peripherals, though, you see a pitcher who has a chance to rebound moving forward. The number one reason: Stroman is arguably the best ground-ball starting pitcher in baseball — yes, even better than Dallas Keuchel. Stroman has a ground-ball rate north of 60% in each of the last four seasons, tops among all starting pitchers. The Reds, who are already reportedly interested, would control him for the next two seasons, and his projected salary of $7.2 million in 2019 is more than reasonable, further adding to his appeal.

Why the Reds should stay away: In many ways, Stroman is similar to Gray. The talent is there, but he’s been saddled with inconsistent performance. Although he missed a ton of bats in the minor leagues (28.6 K%), he hasn’t translated that to the majors in his five seasons to date (career 19.3 K%, 9.3 SwStr%). The bases on balls are headed in the wrong direction, too; his walk rate has increased in each season since 2015. The down year in 2018 can be tied to injuries, which both gives hope for a bounce-back and causes some concern for the future. Shoulder fatigue and blisters held him to 19 starts last season. A blister is one thing — pitchers get them from time to time (or all the time if you’re Rich Hill) — but the shoulder trouble creates some unease. As mentioned with the other ground-ball pitchers without strikeout stuff, the Reds’ suspect infield defense could also lead to problems for Stroman.

Who do you think the Reds should target? What should they be willing to give up? Should they explore the trade market at all?


Photo Credit: Arturo Pardavila III. Here’s a link to the license for the photo.