Despite Dealing Two Veteran Pitchers, the Cincinnati Reds Are Not Rebuilding

Cincinnati's starting pitching fire sale resulted in veterans Alfredo Simon in Detroit and Mat Latos in Miami. What does it mean for the future?

The Cincinnati Reds traded two veteran pitchers who will become free agents at the end of the season at the Winter Meetings, shipping Alfredo Simon to Detroit and Mat Latos to Miami. Even though they received youngsters in return for both pitchers, Cincinnati may not be throwing in the towel on 2015 with these moves.

Why the Tigers needed Alfredo Simon

After acquiring Shane Greene from the Yankees in the three-team Didi Gregorius trade, Detroit had a full starting rotation, even without free agent Max Scherzer. Long-time Tigers Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, and Rick Porcello are three, Greene makes four, and mid-season acquisition David Price makes five.

When the Tigers flipped Porcello to Boston for Yoenis Cespedes, however, a spot opened up in the rotation, necessitating the trade for Simon. Detroit is betting that Cespedes and Simon are a combined improvement over Porcello and Rajai Davis.

The Cespedes/Davis half of the equation is easy. The two-time homerun derby champ’s 109 wRC+, .326 weighted on-base average (wOBA), and .190 isolated power (ISO) from last season are better than Davis’ 102 wRC+, .319 wOBA, and .119 ISO. Does Simon make sense as an upgrade over Porcello? It’s not so clear-cut; in fact, Porcello posted a better FIP than Simon last season (3.67 versus 4.33).

However, Simon and Porcello posted nearly identical WHIPs (Simon’s 1.21 barely bested Porcello’s 1.23), and Simon pitched his home games in Great American Ballpark, a hitter’s haven. The truth is, Simon might be a little worse than Porcello. But 2015 will be only his second season as a full-time starter, and he’s a free agent at the end of the year in case things don’t work out. Detroit believes the slight decline from Porcello to Simon will be overshadowed by the larger upgrade from Davis to Cespedes.

Why the Marlins needed Mat Latos

Miami needs a veteran starter, and Latos fits the bill. The 27-year-old slots in as the Marlins’ old man next to 24-year-olds Henderson Alvarez, Nate Eovaldi, and Jared Cosart, as well as 22-year-old ace Jose Fernandez. Like Simon, Latos is a free agent at the end of the season, so there’s no long-term commitment from Miami here.

Latos’ 3.65 FIP and 1.15 WHIP from last season are better than Dan Haren’s 4.09 FIP and 1.18 WHIP, and Haren might not even be on the Marlins in 2015. (He threatened to retire if traded outside Southern California.) Latos made more than 30 starts for four straight seasons (two in San Diego and then two in Cincinnati) before injuries limited him to 16 starts and 102 innings last year. Latos is consistent (his FIP has never exceeded 3.48 in five seasons as a big league starter), and his 39.9% fly ball rate from last season will benefit from the move out of Great American Ballpark and into spacious Marlins Park.

Why the Reds could trade Simon and Latos

Cincinnati unloaded two expiring contracts, but don’t call this a rebuild.

The Reds endured a rash of injuries last season, as regulars Devin Mesoraco, Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, and Ryan Ludwick all missed significant time. Johnny Cueto delivered a brilliant season and Mike Leake stayed healthy, but the injury bug also bit the rest of Cincinnati’s pitching staff, sending Latos, Homer Bailey, Tony Cingrani, and closer Aroldis Chapman to the disabled list.

Assuming everyone is healthy in 2015 (which is always dangerous), Cincinnati had six starting pitchers for five slots. Bailey and Cingrani are locked up long-term; the other four become free agents at the end of the season. Cingrani is a lefty; the other five are righties. Simon and Latos were acquired via trade; the other four are homegrown.

Given this background information, it makes sense that the Reds would deal Simon and Latos while hoping Cueto or Leake (or both) might take some sort of hometown discount. Cincinnati hopes Cingrani can rebound from his poor 2014 (5.37 FIP, 1.53 WHIP, and an injury) and return to his rookie season form (a 3.78 FIP, 1.10 WHIP, and 120 strikeouts in 104 innings), and the Reds have plenty of internal candidates for the fifth starter spot.

In-house lefty David Holmberg struggled mightily in five big-league starts last year (27 hits and 16 runs in 30 big-league innings), but he posted a 2.75 ERA in 157 double-A innings in 2013, striking out 116. Anthony DeSclafani came over from the Marlins in the Latos trade, and posted a 3.77 FIP despite allowing 23 earned runs in his first 33 innings in the majors with Miami last season.

Like Holmberg, DeSclafani tore up the minors in 2013, posting a 2.65 ERA across double-A and high-A ball, striking out 115 in 129 innings. Cincinnati acquired righty Jonathon Crawford, DeSclafani’s college teammate at Florida, from the Tigers in the Simon deal. Crawford posted excellent numbers in A ball last season (2.85 ERA, 1.16 WHIP in 123 innings) and could be a candidate to join the rotation mid-season if he flies through the minors.

If the Reds are comfortable starting both DeSclafani and Holmberg in the rotation, Leake could be traded for additional young pitching, but Cincinnati still wouldn’t be fully rebuilding. Great American is a hitter’s ballpark, and when the middle of the Reds’ lineup stays healthy, Cincinnati can contend.