Two offseasons ago, after a mediocre 2014 campaign, the Reds finally decided to start rebuilding. Several of their starting pitchers — Johnny Cueto, Alfredo Simon, Mike Leake, and Mat Latos — would hit the free-agent market following the 2015 season, and they knew they couldn’t re-sign them all. So GM Walt Jocketty made it known that some starters were available, and took a step back to see who’d come knocking.
At that same time, the Marlins — also coming off a mediocre 2014 season — were searching for a starting pitcher. Having relied upon the likes of Brad Hand and Jacob Turner to round out their rotation, the Fish liked the cut of Latos, who’d notched an ERA 12 percent better than the NL average in 2014. One thing led to another, and soon Latos was taking his talents to South Beach, with starting pitcher Anthony DeSclafani and catcher Chad Wallach heading to Cincinnati.
Two years later, that trade looks remarkably one-sided. Latos stunk up Marlins Park in half a season there, putting up an ERA- of 116 in 881⁄3 innings. The Marlins dumped him off on the Dodgers in July, netting three pitching prospects in return; none of them place in the organization’s top 10, according to Baseball Prospectus. Meanwhile, DeSclafani has tallied an ERA- and FIP- of 92 over his two seasons as a Red, although an oblique injury has limited him to just 308 innings. And Wallach had a productive year in the minors — even for a 24-year-old at Double A, a .240/.363./.410 triple-slash (and top-notch framing) are nothing to turn up your nose at.
Given how well this trade paid off for Cincinnati, you’d expect some buyer’s remorse on the Miami side of things, and perhaps a bit of hesitancy before going down this road again. The Marlins, it appears, don’t have a great memory. Earlier today, they swung a trade for Reds starter Dan Straily, giving up pitching prospects Luis Castillo and Austin Brice and outfielder Isaiah White. Based on Straily’s profile, and the potential those farmhands possess, I’d imagine this swap could end up resembling the Latos one.
This isn’t the first move the Marlins have made to upgrade rotation. Earlier in the offseason, they signed Edinson Volquez for two years and $22 million, then scooped up Jeff Locke on a $3 million deal after the Pirates non-tendered him. Each of those moves looks fine — neither pitcher costs very much, and the projections think they’ll both hold their own. Straily, on the other hand, doesn’t have quite as optimistic an outlook:
Reds new SP projections (Steamer)
Volquez had some superficial struggles in 2016 — his ERA- of 124 belied a more respectable FIP- of 109 — and his track record of solid performance suggests he’ll rebound in 2017. While Locke was legitimately awful last season, he’s performed better in the past as well; plus, the Marlins won’t lose much if he busts.
Straily seemed to fare pretty well in 2016, with an 89 ERA- in 1911⁄3 innings for the last-place Reds. Underneath that, however, lay a 114 FIP-, the 10th-worst among qualified starters. As an extreme fly ball pitcher — only two qualifiers had a lower ground ball rate — Straily will tend to post a low BABIP and underperform his peripherals; this degree of overperformance, though, is nothing but luck.
Batters made solid contact off Straily pretty often in 2016: His 32.2 percent hard-hit rate was above the major-league average. He didn’t get a whole ton of popups — his 3.7 percent infield fly ball rate lined up with the 3.4 percent MLB baseline — so it wasn’t as though he made things much easier for the defenders behind him. The NL-low .239 BABIP he notched was far below what he deserved, and what he’ll most likely get in 2017.
Nothing illustrates Straily’s luck better than his ground balls. Among the 145 pitchers with at least 90 ground-ball outs, he had the 21st-lowest GB batting average (.198), and the 104th-lowest GB hard-hit rate (22.7 percent). Prior to 2016, he had a .222 BABIP on grounders, a far more normal figure. Cincinnati’s infield was worth -11 runs in 2016, according to DRS, so Straily didn’t have elite gloves at his back. He was simply fortunate, a trait that doesn’t tend to correlate well year-to-year.
Straily does come with four years of team control for the Marlins, so he’ll have some time to work on his craft and possibly get better. But at age 28, he’s most likely hit his ceiling. A starter with middling strikeout and walk rates (20.5 and 9.2 percent, respectively), who gives up a ton of fly balls and thus a ton of home runs, will never be anything more than a back-of-the-rotation arm. For Miami, which apparently wants to contend in 2017, that won’t suffice.
Then there’s the matter of what the Marlins gave up. Recall that none of the three pitching prospects from the Latos deal ranks in Miami’s top 10, per BP. One pitcher who does — or did, at least — is…Castillo, who slotted #2. After coming to the Marlins in exchange for Casey McGehee, Castillo moved to the rotation and has done nothing but pitch, as BP’s Steve Givarz noted:
After pitching primarily as a reliever with the Giants, Castillo has flourished as a starter, showcasing his premium arm strength and ability to hold velocity late in games. In velocity the pitch plays as an 80 sitting 97-99 and touching 101 with above-average control. He has an easy, repeatable delivery with above-average arm speed and a smooth arm action. His slider flashes plus with hard tilt and bite. His changeup is an effective third offering against left-handers.
Castillo still needs some work — the lack of movement on his fastball can make it “hittable in the zone,” while his slider and changeup remain works in progress — and at age 24, he has limited upside. He’s nevertheless a talented pitcher, and given a few more years to season in the minors, he could develop into someone like, say, Straily.
White’s more of a project player; he turned 20 earlier this month, and although he floundered at the plate last season, his power and arm tools are still present. Based on the strength of those tools, BP put him 10th in the Miami system, writing he could develop into a “[g]ood fourth outfielder.” And Brice was a no-name starter until he became a reliever midway through 2016. Across Double A, Triple A, and MLB, he pitched 44 innings of 3.68-ERA relief, with a 25.6 percent strikeout rate and 6.4 percent walk rate, to close out the year. The Reds and their MLB-worst bullpen could use an arm like that.
You can’t fault the Marlins much for sacrificing these prospects — none of them will blow anyone away, and when the big-league club wants to win now, the minors have to pay up. But Miami could have gotten something more than a fifth starter (at best) for the second-best prospect in its system and a couple of wild cards. With one of the worst farm systems in the majors, this club has to trade prudently, and Straily is no one’s definition of a prudent acquisition.
The Reds were a pretty awful team in 2016, and 2017 doesn’t look much better: FanGraphs projects a 69-93 record, good for fourth place in the NL Central. In trading Straily, though, they’ve given themselves a few building blocks for an eventual return to contention. A few years down the road, these two teams could have opposite fates; then, as now, we’ll look back on the starting pitcher the Marlins traded for and wonder what could have been.