What Should The Reds Do With Scott Feldman?

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Four years ago, almost to the day, the Chicago Cubs and Baltimore Orioles traded right-handed pitchers, with the Cubbies sending Scott Feldman to the O’s in exchange for Jake Arrieta. (There were some other players included, but Feldman and Arrieta were the primary pieces in the trade.)

At the time, Arrieta was 27 years old, a former highly touted prospect who had yet to live up to his promise. Feldman had just turned 30 and had really only had one good season in his career, but he had a 3.46 ERA (with good peripheral numbers) at the time and had started 20-plus games in four of the previous five seasons. With the Orioles in second place and chasing Boston in the American League East race, Feldman seemed like a decent bet to shore up an inconsistent rotation.

Over the next three years, Arrieta became an All-Star, finished in the top ten in Cy Young Award voting three times, and won the award in 2015 when he went 22-6 with a 2.35 ERA, leading the league in complete games and shutouts.

Meanwhile, Feldman went 5-6 with a 4.27 ERA for an Orioles club that finished in third place. A free agent at the end of the year, he signed with the Houston Astros. During his two-and-a-half year stint with the ‘Stros, Feldman started 52 games, pitched in relief in 21 more, and was the very definition of a (very) slightly above league-average pitcher during that time: 18-20, 3.64 ERA, 107 ERA+.

His final season in Houston, 2016, Feldman pitched almost exclusively out of the bullpen, and was effective. At last season’s trade deadline, he was dealt to Toronto, where he was a disaster in 16 games (all as a reliever), allowing 14 earned runs in 15 innings pitched.

Before this season, as you know, Feldman signed a free agent contract with the Reds, a one-year deal worth $2.3 million. At the time of the signing, Feldman’s role with the Reds was up in the air. With a group of exciting young pitching prospects on the horizon, that was actually Feldman’s primary value to the Reds: his flexibility in being able to pitch out of the rotation or the bullpen.

Reds manager Bryan Price declared Feldman his #4 starter in spring training—behind Anthony DeSclafani, Homer Bailey, and Brandon Finnegan—but put him on notice that he could expect to return to the bullpen at any time. “Some guys say we’d rather have a young prospect in there over a veteran guy and this guy can easily move into the bullpen because he has done it before,” Price told the Enquirer’s Zach Buchanan. “That might be a detriment to him in a certain degree if his sole goal was to be a starting big leaguer, his flexibility to pitch out of the bullpen.”

What do they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men? DeSclafani, Bailey, and Finnegan have started a grand total of 7 games between them through the first three months of the season. Feldman, by contrast, found himself on the mound on Opening Day for the Reds, the de facto “ace” of a team whose rotation was in shambles before the season even started. (It remains in shambles, if you hadn’t noticed.) And, to the surprise of all, he’s actually been more than just rotation-filler. Feldman has been pretty good.

As we head into July, the conversation around Feldman has changed. The question is not, “Should Feldman be in the rotation or bullpen?” Now Reds fans wonder: “Should the Reds bring back Feldman next year?”

There’s a pretty clear answer to that last question, but let’s dig into the numbers a bit to see just how good Feldman has been. He leads the league in games started, and has a record of 7-5 with a 3.78 ERA. His ERA+ is 118 (basically, he’s 18% better than league-average). He’s been worth 1.6 fWAR at the halfway point, a mark that he’s matched in a full season only three times in his 13 year big league career.

(Interestingly, that WAR total is the 14th-best total among NL pitchers, tied with Dan Straily, who was last year’s surprisingly effective soft-tossing veteran starter in Cincinnati.)

He isn’t really doing anything different than we’ve seen in his long career. He’s mixing up his fastball, cutter, and sinker at his usual rates, and his velocity remains in the 89-91 range. Most of his peripheral numbers are nearly identical to his performance over the last few seasons. ESPN’s Mark Simon notes perhaps the only area where Feldman is among the league leaders: he’s one of the very best pitchers in all of baseball in terms of limiting hard-hit balls.

Feldman hasn’t been amazing, but he’s been steady, the one rock in the starting rotation for 2017 thus far. He’s been exactly what the Reds needed: a somewhat above-average innings-eater. Dependable. He’s been, at least for the last three months, the kind of guy every good team needs in their rotation.

With all the injuries to Reds starters, not to mention the less-than-impressive performance of the young pitchers so far this season, Feldman is no longer looking over his shoulder wondering when he’s going to be banished to the bullpen. He’s merely adequate, yet Feldman is the only indispensable starter the Reds have right now.

So where do we go from here? Should the Reds look to sign Feldman to another contract?

Heavens no. There isn’t even a question here: the Reds should be looking to trade Feldman at the first opportunity. GM Dick Williams should be exploring every avenue to dump Feldman on some team that needs a reliable starter for the stretch run.

This is very similar to the circumstances surrounding the Dan Straily trade last offseason. Feldman’s value is likely never going to be higher than it is right now. He’s a 34-year-old starter who can put up league-average numbers. There is real value in that. But he’s also a 34-year-old starter who could crash back to earth at any moment. Strike while the iron is hot, as they say. Go see if you can get another Luis Castillo (the excellent prospect Cincinnati received in the Straily trade). 

If the Reds are unable to get value in return for Feldman, it wouldn’t hurt to explore another one-year deal. But that has to be with the same stipulation that accompanied his signing this spring: Feldman should be ready to head down to the bullpen at a moment’s notice, because there are more talented pitchers in the pipeline. As a free agent, Feldman may have better offers than that, and he’ll be free to explore those opportunities.

Which is why the Reds need to trade him now. He’s been a pretty good pitcher, and we’ll have fond memories of the Scott Feldman Era. (Stop laughing.) But he’s not going to be a starting pitcher on the next good Reds team. Some team in this year’s playoff hunt will need a guy like Feldman—and the Reds should take a prospect or two off that team’s hands as they wish Feldman the best of luck on his way out the door.

Maybe the Cubs are in the market for a reliable starter? After all, Feldman just pitched seven innings of two-hit shutout baseball against Chicago over the weekend, and his stats are better than Arrieta’s across the board.

 

Chad Dotson is a contributor to Nuxhall Way, ESPN’s SweetSpot blog, and the founder of Redleg Nation. You can follow him on Twitter at @dotsonc.

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