In late May, the Washington Nationals were on fire as they headed to Cincinnati. They'd won nine out of eleven games, and their hosts in the Queen City had lost ten of eleven. It was a perfect recipe for the Nats to close out their outstanding month of May on a high note. Then, baseball happened. Those struggling Reds swept the Nats in a three game set, outscoring them 21-9 in the series. You can never take any team for granted.
Nonetheless, this upcoming series presents a matchup where the Nats are supposed to perform well. The Nats are coming off of a sweep of the World Series champions and find themselves ten games above the .500 mark. The Reds just got swept by the last place Brewers (who have won eight games in a row) and find themselves eight games below the .500 mark. They're 16.5 games behind the Cardinals for the division lead, and their hopes of remaining in the wildcard race (8 games behind the Cubs) are dwindling quickly.
The Cincinnati Reds are in a position where it makes sense to start selling off some of their biggest trade chips in the next few weeks. Their fans and players seemed to acknowledge this a bit this past week. Tuesday's starter, Johnny Cueto, had a terrific start against Minnesota last Wednesday at home, throwing eight innings of one run ball. As he was coming off the field after the top of the eighth, Cueto received a standing ovation (OK... that's kind of normal), but also did the whole hug and handshake thing before he got to the dugout. Catcher Brayan Pena embraced Cueto as they neared the first base line, further fueling the belief that the homegrown Cueto may have just thrown his last pitch at home in a Reds uniform.
The team that the Nats will see this week probably isn't going to be together for too much longer. The Reds have a handful of players that are going to be highly sought after by contending teams before the July 31 deadline. Let's have a look at a few of them...
Johnny Cueto: 5-5, 2.84 ERA (3.26 FIP), 0.92 WHIP, 100:20 strikeout to walk ratio in 104.2 IP, FA at the end of the year
Cueto is probably the best available starting pitcher on the market. Cincinnati had him locked up on an affordable deal ($10M this season), but he's certainly going to command a big contract in the offseason. With the core of the Reds' lineup looking like they're a bit past their prime and the Reds lacking a whole lot of established rotation depth around him locked up beyond this season (Homer Bailey and....), it's difficult to see the Reds being the team that signs him over the offseason.
How big an impact could Cueto have on a contending team? His 2.84 ERA this season ranks 18th in the majors. It's also his highest ERA since 2010, so we're not talking about a flash in the pan. While Cueto will be a rental player if another team acquires him, he's a legitimate ace in the prime of his career. He's one of the top twenty pitchers on the planet, and should be able to pull in a few nice pieces for Cincinnati to build around moving forward.
Brandon Phillips: .279/.316/.375, 5 HR, 11 SB, +2.6 Defensive Runs Above Average
The 34-year-old Phillips certainly doesn't look like the player he was from 2006-2012, when he was among the top second basemen in baseball. He is rebounding fairly nicely from a disappointing 2014 campaign, though. Phillips still has a plus glove at second base, though it seems to be showing some signs of decline so far this season. He still has double digit home run pop as well, and he's been incredibly effective on the basepaths so far in 2015 (11 for 12 SB attempts).
Phillips is signed for two more expensive (but not absolutely ridiculous) years with Cincinnati. He's due $13 million next year and $14 million in 2017, when he'll be 36 and figures to be showing even more signs of decline. I'd imagine that the Reds may have to eat some of that money to boost their return in prospects, but there are a handful of contenders (most of them in the American League) who could really use an upgrade at second base. Kansas City (Omar Infante) could be a likely destination. A couple of the AL East contenders (Yankees, Orioles) would look better with a more dependable second baseman... The Angels could probably use him as well.
Jay Bruce: .238/.332/.440, 12 HR, 6 SB
While Cueto and Phillips definitely look like guys the Reds will try and move, Bruce seems less certain. He's under contract for one more year at a reasonable $12.5 million and has an option for $13 million in 2017. Bruce is still just 28, so he's not hitting what should be his decline years like Phillips is. Bruce has rebounded a bit from a pretty miserable 2014 season that saw him hit just .217/.281/.373, but he's just a couple of years removed from three consecutive 30 homer campaigns.
Bruce is the kind of player that could appeal even to teams that aren't necessarily in contention. 28-year-old sluggers on fairly good deals don't really hit the market all that often. The fact that he's underachieved the past two seasons when he should be at his physical peak could make his price on the trade market more reasonable than expected. Reds GM Walt Jocketty shouldn't sell short here, but it's possible that he does.
Aroldis Chapman: 3-3, 16 SV, 1.78 ERA (1.78 FIP), 1.19 WHIP, 61:19 K:BB ratio in 35.1 IP
I feel like we don't need to talk much about Chapman, since everyone knows about him. He throws harder than anyone else in the league. His fastball has averaged 99.5 MPH this season according to Fangraphs. He's topped off at 103.9 MPH this season. Chapman also has a pretty nasty slider and is one of the most dominant relievers in the game today.
Chapman has one more year of arbitration before he'll hit free agency, which will boost his price on the trade market. Three months of Chapman could probably have bought the Reds a Top 100 prospect. That extra year probably makes that price quite a bit higher.
I remember him being a hot topic among Nats fans over the past month, but I simply can't see Mike Rizzo giving up the top prospects it will probably take to acquire him... at least if he's the only player that the Nats were to acquire in a deal. Rizzo has shown both his ability and preference over his tenure to not overpay for relievers. Over the past year, he's found value out of players who had been DFA'd like Matt Thornton and David Carpenter. Earlier in his tenure with the Nats, he got strong production out of players like Mike Gonzalez, Joel Peralta, Tom Gorzelanny, and Matt Capps... guys who nobody seemed to want.
As much as I'd love to see Chapman and Storen be the nastiest late inning combination in the majors, it's a good thing that Rizzo has never been one to overpay for relievers. Organizations generally don't sustain long-term success by trading away good young players for relief pitchers. In all honesty, they probably don't really make themselves all that much better in the short-term either by paying a heavy cost to acquire players who are generally only going to pitch in late game situations where the team has the lead... you know, the ones that they're supposed to finish off anyway.
Marlon Byrd: .244/.301/.467, 14 HR, 1 SB
Byrd has a vesting option (550 PA) which turns into a team option for $8 million for next season if he doesn't reach the 550 PA. At 37, you would think that Byrd's best days are behind him, but he's had a nice late career surge. He's an extremely reasonably priced corner outfielder who figures to be gone by the time that Cincinnati is ready to contend, so logic says that the Reds will try and shop him at the deadline. Plenty of teams could use some right-handed power out of a corner outfield spot... or in the DH spot... or off the bench. His $8 million salary would make him an expensive bench bat, but I could see a team or two that might be willing to utilize him that way.
The Reds probably have a few more players that may be names we hear mentioned in the next few weeks as well. Mike Leake could be a cheap middle to back end starting pitcher who could be on the move as he's scheduled to hit free agency after this season. I've heard people bring up Joey Votto's name (in year two of a 10 year, $225 million deal... good luck), but that's not going to happen. All Star third baseman Todd Frazier is under club control through 2017, so I don't really see him being moved either.
Anthony DeSclafani (5-6, 3.68 ERA) vs. Doug Fister (3-4, 4.34 ERA) - DeSclafani, acquired in the Mat Latos trade this offseason, has been a pretty nice find for Cincinnati. He held the Nats to two runs in six innings when the teams met in Cincinnati in May. Fister hasn't inspired a lot of confidence since coming off the DL. He threw seven shutout innings in his last home start, but he's given up nine runs in the two starts surrounding that game.
Johnny Cueto (5-5, 2.84 ERA) vs. Max Scherzer (9-6, 1.82 ERA) - Easily the best matchup of the series. I'd say that we should buckle up and get ready for a 1-0 pitcher's duel, but... baseball. The Nats faced Cueto twice last season. He shut them out for seven innings in Cincinnati. When they faced him in D.C., Cueto hadn't allowed more than two runs in any of his first nine starts... the Nats hung eight runs on him in 5.1 innings. I still think this is going to be a fun, low-scoring game.
Michael Lorenzen (3-3, 3.58 ERA) vs. Gio Gonzalez (6-4, 4.16 ERA) - Lorenzen is one of the Reds' better pitching prospects, and limited the Nats to two runs on one hit in 6.1 innings in May. He walked six batters in that game, but pitched well enough to keep his team in the game. Gio will come into this start having thrown his two best games of the year. He's allowed just one run in fourteen innings over his past two starts, and didn't walk a single batter last time out against San Francisco.
I went with the Nats for two out of three against the Giants this weekend and they rewarded me with a sweep. I think they'll take two out of three in this series against Cincinnati as well. I'll say Cincy gets them in Monday's opener.