Reds Choose Upside, Ink Frankie Montas

Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, the Cincinnati Reds surprisingly vaulted into contention thanks to an ascendant crop of young position players. Led by Matt McLain, Reds rookie hitters accrued 7.6 WAR, tops in the majors. Yet, their postseason bid ultimately fell short; while the Reds ran a middle-of-the-pack offense with a 98 wRC+ (17th in the bigs), their pitching flopped. Even park-adjusted ERA-, which removes claustrophobic Great American Ball Park from the equation, pegged them as the eighth-worst staff in the majors with a 105 mark.

Cincinnati’s cache of young hurlers was supposed to serve as a complement to the team’s potential-filled lineup. But pitching is a fickle beast, and the Reds’ staff was dogged by injuries and inconsistency in 2023. Now, they’ve added Frankie Montas, the poster child of injuries and inconsistency, to that group.

Maybe that’s a little harsh, but I did root for the Yankees last year. However, my colleague Chris Gilligan authored a preview of Montas’ free agency back in November from a less biased perspective. I’d encourage you to read it in full, but here’s the low-down: After adding a splitter in 2019, Montas was good more often than not for the A’s before his shoulder issues began. Though the right-hander first hit the IL with inflammation in the joint in July of 2022, the Yankees brought him aboard at the trade deadline anyway.

Ultimately, shoulder surgery wiped out most of his 2023, but he did manage to appear in one September contest for New York. According to Statcast, his velocity was down over a tick pretty much across the board, but his ability to get into game action at all helped him land the largest one-year guarantee of the winter so far at $16 million. With a healthy offseason and a full spring training, it’s reasonable to expect that Montas will look more like his old self come the first regular season games of 2024, at which point he could make the one-year pact look like a bargain.

Assuming his stamina returns, Montas will push fellow free-agent signee Nick Martinez further down the depth chart, where he’ll likely resume the swingman role he filled for the Padres last year. The Reds also have a trio of two-pitch starters in Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo, and Graham Ashcraft; among them, the less-touted Ashcraft seems a likelier candidate for relief work. That would leave Andrew Abbott and Brandon Williamson as the remaining rotation options alongside Greene, Lodolo and Montas. At the same time, Ashcraft’s strong finish could conceivably grant him a spot over Williamson, whose full-season line was similar:

Reds Rotation Options (2023 Stats)
Graham Ashcraft 26/26 145.2 9.5 1.42 4.76 5.06
Brandon Williamson 23/23 117.0 12.0 1.38 4.46 4.63
Hunter Greene 22/22 112.0 20.9 1.53 4.82 4.25
Andrew Abbott 21/21 109.1 16.6 1.32 3.87 4.20
Nick Martinez* 63/9 110.1 14.3 0.98 3.43 3.92
Nick Lodolo 7/7 34.1 22.3 2.62 6.29 5.79
Frankie Montas** 1/0 1.1 0.0 0.00 0.00 4.01
*Pitched for the Padres, **Pitched for the Yankees

At this point, this is a highly speculative exercise; plenty could happen to shuffle the order of the depth chart between now and the start of the regular season. Yet as things stand, the Reds’ top seven starting candidates are all capable, with a pair of at least 45 FV prospects with major league experience also on the 40-man in Lyon Richardson and Connor Phillips. But most of these seemingly solid options are holdovers from last season; what, then, went wrong?

Oh yeah, that whole injuries and inconsistency thing. A pair of left tibia stress fractures limited Lodolo to just seven starts and a 6.29 ERA. Greene failed to reach 25 major league starts for the second straight season and allowed more than 1.5 homers per nine again. Though they were mostly healthy, Abbott pitched to an ERA over six across his last 10 starts and Williamson fared similarly over his last five. Ashcraft allowed at least seven runs in four out of six starts from early May to June, and even his strong finish was cut short by toe surgery.

But holding onto all five of these pitchers has made it easy for the Reds to wager that at least three of them will make good on their upside this year, and Montas and Martinez can take the place of the two who don’t. It’s a reasonable bet; each of the five youngsters has in fact flashed considerable upside. Greene struck out 30% of hitters for the second season in a row and Lodolo wasn’t far behind. After punching out 36 of the 56 Double-A hitters he faced last year, Abbott didn’t allow a single run over his first three big league outings, all starts. Williamson’s cold stretch, meanwhile, was precipitated by a bout of COVID, and Ashcraft finished strong thanks to discernible tweaks — a cutter with more cut and a tighter slider.

And while president of baseball operations Nick Krall has indicated he doesn’t see the team making any major moves heading into spring training, the Reds could still add to their staff. They already had a glut of good hitters before they plucked Jeimer Candelario off the board, but that move served to further winnow the already-thin class of free agent position players, leaving potential trade partners with little recourse but to come knocking. Adding one more solid starter would take even more pressure off of the youngsters, and off of Montas.

When you have a surplus of rotation options, it makes sense to go with upside over reliability. I don’t think the Reds are quite at that point, even though they chose upside in Montas. But even if this move caps off their offseason, they’ve at least fortified their roster enough to prove that last season’s surprise contender was no fluke.

Alex is a FanGraphs contributor. His work has also appeared at Pinstripe Alley, Pitcher List, and Sports Info Solutions. He is especially interested in how and why players make decisions, something he struggles with in daily life. You can find him on Twitter @Mind_OverBatter.

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Mike NMN
3 months ago

I don’t understand this deal at all. Yes, I’m a biased Yankee’s fan who watched Cashman once again get snookered, but….if the Yankees had spent this kind of money on him, after what he hasn’t been able to do, they would have been roundly criticized.

3 months ago
Reply to  Mike NMN

Criticized by who? Fangraphs or NY sports talk hosts?

CC AFCmember
3 months ago
Reply to  Mike NMN

How did he get snookered? No one that was traded for montas has come back to bite them yet.

Anyway, I like this fine for the reds. Montas is my preferred guy from the roughly 1yr/$13m bounceback guys group.

3 months ago
Reply to  CC AFC

Not so much what they gave up, it is what they got, which was about 40 innings of 6+ ERA pitching for 8 million dollars.