Baseball fans need not look far for reminders of just how tough it is to acquire starting pitching.
Jeff Samardzija, a good but not great starter, has become a top target on the summer trade market. MLB teams recently used 20 of their 41 first round draft picks on pitchers in the hopes that they’ll materialize into impact players years from now. Faced with a barren free agent market, the New York Yankees spent $175 million on a pitcher who had yet to appear at the MLB level.
So it’s tough to find an organization like the Cincinnati Reds. Their starting rotations consistently rank among baseball’s best thanks to the work of general manager Walt Jocketty and pitching coach turned manager Bryan Price. Even better, the team’s rotation is largely homegrown and will combine to earn just $34.2 million in 2014.
Led by Johnny Cueto’s Cy Young level performance, Cincinnati ranks sixth in baseball with a 3.46 ERA. That’s right in line with how Reds starters produced in 2013 (3.43 ERA, third in MLB) and 2012 (3.64 ERA, fifth in MLB), which makes the production less surprising but no less impressive than before.
Like any team aiming to develop a homegrown rotation, the Reds rely extensively on the draft (this year was no exception, as they selected right-hander Nick Howard with the 19th overall pick).
Homer Bailey, the team's least productive starter so far this year (4.68 ERA in 90.1 innings), was the seventh overall choice in 2004 draft. Five years after selecting Bailey, the Reds took Mike Leake eighth overall. Viewed as a polished pitcher who could handle the big leagues soon after being drafted, Leake has delivered, offering steady innings – and surprising pop as a hitter -- for five seasons (3.80 ERA in 92.1 innings this year). Tony Cingrani, a third rounder in 2011, added valuable innings when called upon (4.55 ERA in 63.1 innings).
None of those three pitchers has received a Cy Young vote or pitched in an All-Star game, but they’ve provided valuable innings and have been considerably more affordable than starting pitchers available on the free agent market.
But the Reds really separated themselves from the competition by supplementing their work in the draft with other moves. They signed Cueto (1.92 ERA in 108 innings) as an international free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2004 and extended him with an affordable, $27 million contract. He has rewarded Jocketty by emerging as a ground ball-inducing, strikeout-generating ace.
The Reds have also entered the trade market when necessary. They dealt Edinson Volquez and a package of prospects featuring Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal to the San Diego Padres for Mat Latos (0.00 ERA in 6 innings) in 2011. Latos, who recently made his 2014 debut, has established himself as a frontline starter in Cincinnati.
To top it all off, they acquired Alfredo Simon with a waiver claim in 2012. The converted reliever (10-3, 3.05 ERA in 88.2 innings) appears to be due for some regression, but his previous bullpen work alone makes this claim remarkably successful.
Add it up, and the Reds have built one of baseball’s most effective rotations without having to resort to free agency. By combining successful top draft picks with international players, trades and waiver claims, they have taken advantage of the most affordable avenues for small-market teams to add talent. For the most part they’ve even had health on their side, too.
Of course the starting rotation can only get a team so far, and Cincinnati’s offence has been out-scored by all but two MLB teams this year. As a result, they're just 35-36 entering play against the Toronto Blue Jays Friday. But it’s thanks to their enviable rotation that they’re competitive at all.
General managers, especially those working in small markets, routinely talk about the importance of developing affordable starting pitching year after year. The Reds are the rare team that has converted that talk to results.