Well, the Abbott-ssance is finally over. It’s all my fault – again. I just couldn’t help myself. I got away with writing a column about Abbott a couple weeks ago and somehow, he avoided my curse. I thought perhaps my magic had weakened. I thought writing a second article would be no big deal. Sorry folks, it appears my wizardry was only delayed.
In his first outing versus the division-rival Milwaukee Brewers, Andrew Abbott, the Reds electric rookie starter, suffered the worst start of his MLB career. In his first six starts, Abbott went at least 5.2 innings while allowing no more than 3 runs. That streak ended last night. While Abbott’s struggled against a strong Brewers team, it does nothing to diminish the outstanding start he had to his career. It does, however, shine an ugly spotlight on the Reds biggest weakness right now: starting pitching.
This isn’t breaking news. Since the beginning of the season, every Reds fan knew this might be a problem. But, in all honesty, most Reds fans assumed everything would be a problem, so when it turned out starting pitching was really the only problem, that was actually reason to celebrate. And lately, Reds fans have been doing a lot of celebrating.
Last night, though, is a reminder that the fantastic recent stretch the Reds have been on was not sustainable. Not at that rate, anyway. The lack of pitching depth was going to catch up. The Reds have been making comeback wins a dime-a-dozen these days, but there’s a reason most of the best teams in baseball don’t rely on late-game heroics. The Reds fell behind early last night, and the bats didn’t wake up against Brewers’ ace Corbin Burnes to make up for Abbott’s struggles. Welcome to life in the MLB.
Now, the issue is clear as day: the Reds need starting pitching if they want to compete in the postseason. To acquire the guy they need, they’ll have to look to the trade market. With the August 1 MLB Trade Deadline steadily approaching, now is a good opportunity to look at some of the options that could potentially be available, and determine who might be a good fit, and what they could cost. Players have been divided into categories below:
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SP Lucas Giolito (White Sox) – 6 Ws, 3.50 ERA, 9.6 SO/9, 1.168 WHIP
SP James Paxton (Red Sox) – 4 Ws, 2.70 ERA, 11.0 SO/9, 0.960 WHIP
You’re going to hear a lot about Giolito and Paxton over the next couple weeks. They both fit the traditional mold of a tradeable pitcher at the deadline: a veteran playing well for a disappointing team on an expiring contract. Teams in positions like the White Sox and Red Sox looooove to unload these kinds of players because they can recoup tremendous value for someone who, likely, does not have a future with the team. On face value, it makes sense – both of these guys could step in and be the Reds best pitcher from day one.
But the Reds cannot limit themselves to short-term thinking. The Reds didn’t get into this spot (a roster loaded with young, promising, and inexpensive players) by rushing the process. Giolito and Paxton both sound like a good idea – until the bill comes due, that is. These guys aren’t going to come cheap. Everybody needs pitching, not just the Reds. There will be a bidding war for their services, and I’m not sure it’s a war worth winning.
The Reds have finally built a roster that looks capable of sustained success, and they did it through patience and excellent scouting and development. Making a deadline deal for an expiring contract is a complete 180. As good as Giolito and Paxton have been this year, they probably aren’t good enough by themselves to turn the Reds into World Series favorites. And the prospects the Reds would have to give up would be a tough pill to swallow – especially once Giolito or Paxton signs that fat deal with the Dodgers or Yankees in the offseason.
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SP/DH Shohei Ohtani (Angels) – 7 Ws, 3.32 ERA, 11.8 SO/9, 1.096 WHIP and .297 BA, 1.031 OPS, 31 HRs, 68 RBI
In theory, Ohtani makes sense. If the Reds traded for him, he would immediately become their best starting pitcher and their best power hitter. What do the Reds need? A frontline starting pitcher and a power bat in the middle of the lineup. Consider both boxes checked!
Of course, acquiring Ohtani is a fantasy of the highest order. The Reds could do it, of course, but it would cost just about every notable prospect in the entire organization. A deal might even have to include someone like Hunter Greene or Andrew Abbott to complete. Noelvi Marte, Christian Encarnacion-Strand, Connor Phillips, Edwin Arroyo, Chase Petty… they might all be gone. But still… I have this tingling sensation that it might still be worth it.
Look, Ohtani is a once-in-a-lifetime player. There’s never, ever, been anyone like him in baseball. Even Babe Ruth can’t claim to have done what Ohtani is doing. Lucas Giolio and James Paxton might not make the Reds World Series favorites overnight, but Ohtani actually might. His presence alone addresses the Reds two biggest weaknesses – and no other player in baseball history could do that. I’m not saying I’d do it – and after all, Ohtani is a free agent at the end of the year and will almost certainly sign a market-resetting deal that the Reds absolutely cannot afford – but after feeling the excitement of the Reds during their June/July run, I’d be down for adding a little Ohtani-fever to the mix for the stretch.
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Makes Too Much Sense
SP Dylan Cease (White Sox) – 3 Ws, 4.30 ERA, 10.8 SO/9, 1.344 WHIP
SP Shane Bieber (Guardians) – 5 Ws, 3.66 ERA, 7.2 SO/9, 1.238 WHIP
If I were in the Reds front office, these are the two players I’d be monitoring more closely than any other. They’re exactly what this team needs: a reliable, innings-eating, top-of-the-rotation starter whose contract doesn’t expire after the end of the season.
As I mentioned before when speaking about Lucas Giolio and James Paxton, the Reds shouldn’t be looking to acquire rentals at this stage. 2023 was never supposed to be the year the team went all in for a championship. In 2024, Joey Votto’s contract comes off the books, all the stud rookies will have a year of experience under their belt, and the team will be positioned to address any and all needs with laser-like focus. 2023, though, should be about prioritizing development. Winning is nice, but sustained winning is nicer.
That’s why Cease and Bieber should be at the top of the Reds wish-lists. They’re both talented and experienced, and they’re both under team control through next season (and Cease is actually under team control until 2025). This is how the Reds can have their cake and eat it too. Cease and Bieber don’t immediately turn the Reds starting pitching into a net positive, but they can be part of the solution. They can help the Reds improve down the stretch, and they can be part of the 2024 team that should be even better.
For my money, out of the two, I’d lean Cease over Bieber. He’s younger (27 vs. 28), cheaper (he makes a little more than half of Bieber’s 2023 salary) and coming off a better 2022 season (even if he's struggling a bit in 2023). He’s also under team control for an extra year longer than Bieber, although that could jack up the price to acquire him significantly. But frankly, either one of these two would make a huge difference. The cost to acquire either of them would be immense (somewhere between the cost to acquire Ohtani and the cost to acquire Giolito or Paxton), but the reward could be well worth it.
Photo Credit: Erik Drost, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
SP Paul Blackburn (Athletics) – 1 W, 4.50 ERA, 10.0 SO/9, 1.472 WHIP
RP Scott Barlow (Royals) – 10 saves, 4.22 ERA, 12.1 SO/9, 1.344 WHIP
A team like the Reds needs to find creative ways to stay competitive. They can’t outspend everyone like the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers. The Reds will need their organizational depth to remain in tip-top shape if they want to remain at the top of the NL Central for the foreseeable future. That’s why it’s so hard to justify gutting the minor league system just to bolster a fringe playoff-appearance. But, there might be a way to improve while avoiding the prospect-hemorrhaging deals it would cost to acquire some of the bigger names at the deadline.
If the Reds choose to go the more conservative route, there’s two players who could make a lot of sense for this team: Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Paul Blackburn and Kansas City Royals reliever Scott Barlow. Neither of these guys are household names, but then again, how many on the Reds current roster were household names at the beginning of the season? Not many. Being a household name is nice, but it doesn’t guarantee anything.
Both Blackburn and Barlow are comparative bargains, and both are under team control through at least the 2024 season (and Blackburn is under team control through 2025). The deal wouldn't be as oppressive as the other big names either. Plus, neither the Athletics or Royals have any illusions of competing in 2023 like the White Sox or Guardians. It might cost a little extra to convince Cleveland’s GM to punt on their playoff chances to deal Bieber, but Oakland might as well pay for Blackburn’s plane ticket.
SP Alek Manoah (Blue Jays) – 2 Ws, 5.91 ERA, 7.9 SO/9, 1.797 WHIP
Is he broken? Yeah, maybe. But we’re talking about a 25-year-old who pitched in the All-Star Game for the American League last year. That’s worth at least a flier.
Of course, Toronto is still in the playoff hunt, and after a brief stint in AAA, Manoah returned to the big-leagues yesterday and threw six innings of one run baseball. There’s a pretty good chance they’re not ready to give up on their promising starter. But if Manoah turns in another bad start or two, it wouldn’t be Earth-shattering to hear that the Blue Jays were fielding some calls. If the Reds were to make a buy-low offer for Manoah, it might be a deal that could yield significant dividends should he regain his form.
With at least four years remaining of team control, Manoah would be an investment not unlike what the Reds are currently experiencing with Graham Ashcraft: a wildly talented player with tremendous variance start-to-start. Even if the player that reached the All-Star Game at 24 is gone forever, the Reds have such a desperate need for starting pitching, Manoah still might be an upgrade over someone like Ben Lively or Luke Weaver.
It’s worth considering. With the bullpen under near-constant siege thanks to a rotation that struggles to go more than four innings at a time, anybody who can come in and eat innings is a blessing. And if Manoah were to ever revert to the player that struck out the side in the All-Star Game last year, then the Reds are in business.