On Saturday, news emerged that Ryan Madson would be out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery for an elbow injury. Madson had settled to a one-year deal with the Reds, earning only $8.5M as compared to the 4 year, $44M contract he was reportedly signed to by the Phillies over the offseason before the deal fell apart and the Phillies went after former Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon instead. It’s also been reported that the team doesn’t have insurance on the contract, so they’ll eat the total value, an unfortunate situation for a team looking to go all in and compete for a championship in 2012.
Joey Votto’s around for the next two years, but the team will struggle to extend Votto or resign him should he reach free agency, so this is basically their window to be competitive. In a way, it’s a bit like the Cardinals’ situation last year, who in their last chance to win with Pujols lost Adam Wainwright for the season to TJ. Of course, Wainwright’s much more important to the Cardinals than Madson is to the Reds, but they’re each a key piece of the pitching staff. However, the Cardinals obviously made it work to the tune of a world championship, so it’d be foolish to count the Reds out.
All eyes are now on the team’s coaching staff to decide on a replacement to fill the void at the back of the bullpen. The team’s closer in 2011, Francisco Cordero, signed in Toronto to be the Jays’ setup man, and only two other players on the team had one save each last season. Flamethrowing Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman logged one, while Nick Masset picked up the other. Chapman, a southpaw, is likely to be considered for the closing role, while Masset seems like a longshot, as he doesn’t have the electric stuff generally preferred in a stopper. The team added Sean Marshall by trading 25-year-old starter Travis Wood to the Cubs this offeason, then signed Marshall to a 3-year deal that keeps him in the Queen City through 2015. Over the last two seasons, the lefty has established himself as one of the best relievers in baseball, although his five saves last season mark the first time he’s saved more than one game in a season. He clearly lacks in closing experience, but the importance of that experience is up for debate, since it tends to show up only minimally if at all in data. Although having a lefthanded closer is something of a rarity (Brian Fuentes led lefties with 12 saves in 2011), the job is likely to end up in the hands of Marshall, who has his consistency, control, and track record in his favor, or Chapman, whose best qualification is an arsenal that can only be described as filthy.
Over the last two years, Marshall’s gone from relative unknown to noted shutdown reliever, as he’s seen a spike in his strikeout rate, improved his control, and induced a much higher percentage of ground balls. Together, these factors combined to allow Marshall to finish eighth in a stat called “true ERA” among all pitchers in baseball with more than 20 innings in 2011. tERA has the best correlation of any publicly available statistic with next-year ERA, so that high mark suggests Marshall should continue his dominance in 2012 if he can keep his peripherals steady. Marshall’s turned his career around by becoming very reliant on his excellent breaking balls, throwing his solid slider and excellent curveball a career-high on 68.8% of offerings last season. Combined, the two pitches induced an impressive groundball rate of 65% on balls in play, according to Joe Lefkowitz’s awesome Pitch F/X tool, which I’d highly recommend to anyone looking to get into basic Pitch F/X analysis. Marshall’s groundball rate will allow him to flourish even in the homer-happy environment of the Great American Ballpark. I’d expect him to get the first shot at the closing job, and despite his lack of experience, he’s got the tools to succeed.
Should Marshall falter, however, Chapman is the likely candidate to step in. In 2010, Chapman threw the fastest recorded pitch in MLB history (105 mph), and his fastball averaged 99.6 mph in his first 13.1 inning taste of the big leagues. In 2011, however, while Chapman bumped up his fastball usage to 84.3% of pitches in his first full season, his average velocity dropped to 98 mph. That’s obviously still elite, and if he’s averaging 98, he’s still clearly got the ability to reach back and pump it into the triple-digits if the situation calls for it. However, if he wants to continue to rely on his velocity, he’ll have to avoid slipping any more as he moves forward. He pairs his blazing fastball with a biting slider to keep hitters off-balance, and although the slider might be more effective because hitters are cheating to catch up to his fastball, it’s still got some biting action at 88 mph. Chapman’s superlative strikeout rates have been tempered by control problems. His 34.3% strikeout rate ties him for eighth in baseball, but he also walked 41 batters in 50 innings last season, roughly one in every five batters he faced.
The Reds toyed with the idea of converting Chapman to a starting role this offseason, although they have decided to leave him in the pen for now. I don’t see any way that transition to the rotation, or even to the responsibility of the closing role, goes well before the flamethrower proves he’s able to consistently display control, much less command his pitches effectively within the strike zone. He’s an option for the Reds, but for now, Marshall seems to be the clear choice to handle the ninth. Though the Reds’ brass traded for Marshall with the intention of keeping him in the setup role that he’d inhabited so effectively in Chicago, now that Marshall will be pushed into ninth-inning action for the team he has the tools to succeed and the track record of high-leverage relief to stomach the position. While Madson may be the bigger name, I’m pretty sure Marshall was the best reliever in the team’s bullpen before the injury, and he’s well-equipped to take the ball in the critical late-game situations I expect to face the playoff-bound Reds before the year is out.
Questions or comments are welcome in 140 characters or less @saberbythebay.