Are the Cincinnati Reds really a playoff team? What if they were totally healthy?
These are the two biggest questions the front office will face heading into the July 31 trade deadline.
At this point, all indications are that the Reds will be buyers at the deadline. According to multiple sources, including MLB.com's Mark Sheldon, CSNPhilly.com's Jim Salisbury and ESPN.com's Jim Bowden, the Reds have at least checked in on a number of players, including Marlon Byrd, Antonio Bastardo and Ben Zobrist.
Are the Reds Pretenders?
What if the Reds aren't really buyers, though?
The club's offense has been impotent for most of the 2014 season, having been shut out 10 times—second most in the NL Central—while averaging 3.85 runs per game, good for 11th in the National League and fourth in the division.
The Reds' offense has been inconsistent, and at times, downright bad. One might point to injuries as a source of the team's struggles. However, even when the club's offense was healthy and they were all on the field together—as they were from June 10 through July 5—the Reds' offensive output was inconsistent.
The club averaged over five runs per game in that time, but that figure is aided largely by three games in which the Reds scored 13, 11 and 11 runs.
So, maybe the Reds can add a bat to help stabilize the offense, and stave off a major fall in the standings until they get healthy again. Zobrist, Byrd and Alex Rios all fit well in relation to the Reds' needs.
But, can any of them truly put them over the hump while Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips are hurt, and a key offensive producer, Jay Bruce, is batting just .222/.304/.394 on the season?
My answer is no.
Who to move?
If that's truly the case, then the Reds should look to move one of their extra pitchers in an attempt to retool and make a run at a 2015 World Series title.
Of the Reds' six starters—the current starting staff, as well as Tony Cingrani—the most likely trade candidates are Johnny Cueto, Alfredo Simon and Mat Latos.
Cingrani's health status makes him impossibile to move. The contract status of Homer Bailey and the potential cost of keeping Mike Leake beyond 2015 make for two other pitchers who are unlikely to be moved.
The biggest return package would undoubtedly come in exchange for Cueto. The 28-year-old is in the midst of the best season of his career, and he is fresh off his first All-Star Game appearance.
Cueto has also put his prior injury concerns in the rear-view mirror, having logged 21 starts without missing a single one. Any package for Cueto would surely involve two elite prospects.
Trading Latos would bring back a similar package. Though Latos spent extensive time on the disabled list and has made just seven starts so far this year, the 26-year-old has been highly efficient.
The big right-hander has a 3.15 ERA and a 0.85 WHIP to go along with season averages of 5.1 K/9, 1.4 BB/9, 3.71 K/BB and 6.3 H/9.
One issue in Latos' game that nobody seems to talk about, though, is the drop in velocity his arsenal has experienced since 2010. The chart below details the decreases across the board in his pitch velocity.
There were minor ups and downs between the 2010 and 2013 seasons, but since Latos returned from his early-season spell on the disabled list, the velocity just hasn't been there. The dip in velocity could be the result of his dealing with some prolonged injury effects, or it could be a sign of something worse.
Given the meteoric rise his stock has taken this season, Alfredo Simon is another trade candidate should the Reds look to sell off a pitcher. The 33-year-old has allowed just a 2.74 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP through 121.2 innings pitched.
Though his 4.36 FIP suggests he's in for a bit of regression, the Reds could choose to extend Simon at the end of the season, regardless of whether or not they plan to use him as a starter or reliever in 2015.
Cueto is a true ace, and a building block for the Reds. The club gave a lot of money to Bailey last offseason, and given the fact that the move hasn't panned out the way the front office would have liked it to, re-signing one of Latos or Cueto is a near-must.
Which starting pitcher should the Reds look to move?
Simon would be the least costly of the three, and presents the club with a versatile pitcher capable of working out of the rotation or the bullpen.
Mat Latos or Johnny Cueto?
So, should the Reds trade Latos or Cueto?
Latos is certainly worth a prospect haul only slightly less valuable than the one that would come in exchange for Cueto, and the extra year of club control in 2015 is a nice perk for an interested party. However, his injury-riddled 2014 season and his depleted velocity have certainly put a dent in the Florida native's trade stock. Moving Latos looks like a sell-low option, and a bad idea.
Assuming Simon moves back to the bullpen next year, the Reds will have three starters due for contract extensions following the 2015 season—Latos, Cueto and Leake. If they choose to keep Simon in the rotation instead, then you can add him to the mix as well.
Leake and Simon will be the easiest and least expensive of the four, so pencil them in for extensions.
Of the two remaining options, Cueto is the one with the most value.
When healthy—which he has been, aside from an unfortunate 2013 season—Cueto has proven to be the better pitcher, and is a piece the Reds can really build their pitching staff around.
However, keeping Cueto is likely going to cost the Reds north of $20 million per year, and with Votto and Phillips already commanding a large chunk of the club's available payroll, Cueto could be moved for a king's ransom.
There figure to be a number of contending teams in search of rotational help, including the Baltimore Orioles, Toronto Blue Jays, New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians. The St. Louis Cardinals could also use another starting pitcher, and have been rumored to be interested in David Price, but the idea of the Reds trading Latos to a division rival seems far-fetched at best.
Of the four possible trade partners listed above, the Orioles would be in the best position to give the Reds what they want for Latos. The club has three Baseball America top-100 prospects, all of whom are pitchers.
The Blue Jays and Yankees are two other possible candidates.
The Yankees aren't a great fit. Aside from top-prospect Gary Sanchez, their farm system lacks the resources to acquire a pitcher like Cueto.
The Blue Jays have a few interesting pieces they could move, but given their recent promotion of top-prospect Aaron Sanchez, a deal to Toronto seems highly unlikely.
Cleveland presents another intriguing option, and their system includes players the Reds would certainly be interested in—most likely Danny Salazar and Francisco Lindor—but with Asdrubal Cabrera coming up on free agency, the idea of Lindor, one of the game's best shortstop prospects, being involved in any trade negotiations this season is unfathomable.
With Baltimore as the best fit for Cueto, let's move on and look at some of the players that could be included in a possible deal.
Assembling a Return Package
Dylan Bundy will be the first name on the Reds' list of players to inquire about, and will surely have to be included in any deal with the Orioles involving Cueto.
Bundy is a big-time power arm capable of running his fastball up into the high-90s. The pitch works as a plus offering, and his breaking ball, a sharp-breaking curveball, has plus potential as well.
Bundy's changeup is an above-average offering that should also become a plus pitch in the near future. By the 2015 season when he'll be fully healthy, Bundy could have three plus pitches and would be capable of anchoring a starting rotation.
Any of you who happen to be familiar with Bundy are probably skeptical about acquiring a pitcher returning from Tommy John surgery, and rightfully so. However, Bundy has no prior injury concerns and possesses a durable 6'1", 195-pound frame. In addition to his sturdy build, Bundy's throwing motion requires little effort, leading one to believe that he should be fine after completing his rehab.
Is acquiring Dylan Bundy, a recent Tommy John surgery recipient, too risky a move?
Of course, the Orioles could balk at this proposal. Bundy could be a major piece of the O's immediate, and long-term future, should they choose to keep him.
After Bundy, the next best target would be Hunter Harvey. Unlike Bundy, Harvey would take a little more time to reach the big league level. Like Bundy, though, Harvey possesses front-end potential.
The 19-year-old righty works with a low-mid-90s fastball, which figures to add a few ticks of velocity as he fills out his 6'4, 178-pound frame. Harvey also displays a potentially plus curveball and a changeup which should at least be an average offering at maturity.
With Bundy or Harvey as a starting point, the next item on the Reds' shopping list would be Jonathan Schoop. The Curacao native is a solidly built middle-infielder, standing in at 6'2", 212 pounds.
Schoop isn't very powerful, nor is he very fast, but he plays great defense and displays above-average plate vision and discipline. The 22-year-old has a quick bat with enough leverage to develop average power.
An adept fielder, Schoop has the ability to stick at shortstop with good functional speed, range and an above-average arm. At maturity, Schoop profiles as a player with above-average hitting who is capable of posting seasons with .275 to .285 batting averages and 10 to 15 home runs.
Schoop would fill a major need for the Reds right away, as shortstop has been arguably the team's biggest weakness since Zack Cozart took over in 2012.
The Reds would likely stand strong on the idea of Bundy being involved in the deal. Still, a package of Bundy and Schoop gives the Reds young, controllable talent, while Baltimore gets an immediate upgrade in the starting rotation for both the remainder of the 2014 season, as well as 2015.
The impact of losing Bundy would be softened immensely by the presence of Cueto. Schoop has functioned as the O's second baseman for most of the 2014 season, but his inconsistent offensive output could easily be replaced by Ryan Flaherty for the remainder of the season.
Final Trade Package
Reds Get: Dylan Bundy and Jonathan Schoop
Orioles Get: Johnny Cueto