In the first few weeks of the offseason, just a few teams have been making the headlines by means of improving their roster. The Chicago White Sox, of course, just spent money to acquire the best catcher on the market in Yasmani Grandal while also retaining first baseman Jose Abreu for the next three years. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Braves have held onto two important relievers while acquiring a third in Will Smith via free agency and bringing in catcher Travis d’Arnaud on a two-year deal. Most teams, however, haven’t budged much. There’s no reason to get squeamish about that — we’re still a couple of days away from Thanksgiving, and the Winter Meetings are a few weeks away. Many teams are still likely in the process of mapping out just what the free agent and trade markets could look like in the coming months, and thus are treading lightly during November.
The Cincinnati Reds are not one of those teams. They are rumored to have big plans for spending money and getting back to contention this winter, but that hasn’t stopped them from making a string of more minor transactions before much of the league has made any at all. Since the end of the winter, they’ve added four players from outside the organization to their 40-man roster, more than any team in the majors. It began with the organization claiming outfielder Travis Jankowski from San Diego on Oct. 31, and it continued with a trade for Rays right-hander José De León last week. On Monday, Cincinnati added two more players, trading for Toronto Blue Jays right-hander Justin Shafer and claiming another Padres outfielder in Nick Martini. Shafer was acquired for just cash, while the Rays trade will involve either cash or a player to be named later.
Each of these players comes to the organization with varying levels of intrigue. Perhaps the most interesting is Shafer, 27, who pitched 39.2 innings with Toronto in 2019 and held a 3.86 ERA and a 5.18 FIP. An eighth-round pick in 2014, this was just his second season seeing big league competition, and as is evident in the ERA and FIP split, results were mixed. He’s walked far too many batters as a major leaguer, with 6.0 BB/9 over 48 total innings, especially when combined with the seven homers he’s allowed (1.3/9) and his lack of gaudy strikeout numbers (8.8 K/9 in 2019).
Cincinnati was likely interested in him not because of anything he’s already proven on the field, but because of what some of his other data points propose might be possible. While his ERA vastly outperformed his FIP, Statcast data suggests he was actually very unlucky in 2019. Opponents slugged .484 against him, but their xSLG was just .403. His opposing wOBA (.355) looked similarly oversized compared to his xwOBA (.314). On underlying contact data alone, it appears that Shaffer should have gotten much better results in 2019.
Some of his other faults might not be permanent, either. While his walk rate in the majors paints a grim picture of his command, it’s worth noting that walks were rarely an issue with Shafer previously. In 391 career minor league innings, he owned a much more palatable figure of 3.2 BB/9, and during a 30.2-inning stint at Triple-A in 2019, his K/BB ratio was a promising 4.38. Walks are a concern for him now, but based on his past, it shouldn’t be an issue that’s impossible for him to work out.
There is also plenty to like about Shafer’s arsenal. Averaging 94.3 mph with his four-seamer, Shafer’s velocity is slightly above average, but the spin he gets on his fastball is what sets him apart. He ranks in the 88th percentile in that department, and according to Statcast, he gets about 1.4 inches above average of “rise” with the pitch. He pairs that pitch with a slider that had a different shape to it in 2019 than it did the previous year. In 2018, Shafer’s slider moved about 3.3 inches above average horizontally, but it had 2.5 inches less drop than average. This year, it still moved 1.3 inches above average horizontally, but it also moved 1.5 inches above average vertically. You can see that difference a bit with the clips below. Here’s Shafer in 2018:
And in 2019:
Shafer, with his high-spin fastball and opposite-direction-moving slider, fits in well with other pitchers the Reds have recently taken a liking to. The two best pitchers the organization has brought in over the past year, Sonny Gray and Trevor Bauer, each have upper-percentile fastball spin and sliders that produce well-above-average downward break. Cincinnati’s biggest internal breakout of 2019, Robert Stephenson, is cut from that same mold as well. The Reds’ overhauled pitching infrastructure produced much better results with Derek Johnson installed as pitching coach, and with the addition of Driveline Baseball founder Kyle Boddy as the organization’s pitching coordinator, the team seems even better equipped to take on interesting projects like Shafer.
What the team might see in De León doesn’t take quite as much explaining. Also 27 years old, De León was a top-50 prospect as recently as 2017, with our Eric Longenhagen touting his fastball/changeup/command package as being worthy of the No. 44 ranking in baseball. Since the start of that 2017 season, however, De León has thrown just 101 total innings of in-game action, including just six at the MLB level. Multiple arm injuries and a Tommy John surgery have all but burned out his once-rising star, but as Longenhagen wrote last week, the addition of a legitimate breaking ball and/or some recouped velocity could still make him a contributor.
While the Reds are hoping the pitchers they’ve acquired can prove that there is more to them than their previous MLB experience indicates, they’re also betting on a pair of outfielders simply recovering what they once had. Martini, 29, doesn’t offer a ton of inspiring tools. He’s a below-average runner, rates poorly defensively, and has a funky sort of all-arms swing that limits how much power he can drill into a baseball.
What can do, however, is work a count. He made 179 plate appearances for the Oakland A’s in 2018, hitting .296/.397/.414 with a 11.7% walk rate on the way to a 130 wRC+. That walk rate went up even higher in 109 plate appearances between Oakland and San Diego in 2019, but his batted ball luck declined (.379 BABIP in 2018 dropped to .299), and his power worsened. In 288 big league plate appearances, he’s notched just two homers and never hit more than eight in any year in the minors. His ceiling is rather low, but considering he’s just one year removed from a 1.3-WAR season in just 55 games (4.3 WAR/600 PA pace), it’s not hard to see why a team like the Reds would want to give him a shot.
Jankowski, 28, has never hit the way Martini has, but he has shown the potential to be an excellent defender. He’s an above-average runner, and in 117 games playing outfield for San Diego in 2018, Statcast graded him in the 85th percentile in outfielder jump and the 77th percentile in outs above average. The problem is that he was in just the second percentile in exit velocity. Over parts of five seasons with the Padres, Jankowski has never produced a wRC+ greater than 91, and he has just eight homers in 977 plate appearances. The Reds’ outfield defense ranked fourth-worst in the NL in 2019, so Jankowski’s services could certainly benefit them as a late-game defensive upgrade, but he’ll have work to do to hit well enough to justify a roster spot.
The Reds have wasted no time pursuing upgrades this offseason, and if rumors are true, they’re far from finished. They were linked to Grandal before being outbid by Chicago, and they have reportedly turned their attention to Zack Wheeler since, to go along with their apparent interest in Didi Gregorius, Nicholas Castellanos, and Marcell Ozuna. So many minor additions to the 40-man roster are a tad head-scratching when major additions are likely down the road, but moves like this have been big bonuses to recent Reds teams.
Matt Bowman, who recorded an 81 ERA- and 81 FIP- in the Reds’ bullpen this year, was claimed off waivers from St. Louis last winter. Scooter Gennett, the team’s third-most valuable player by WAR from 2017-18, was a waiver claim, as was Dan Straily, who pitched 191.1 innings for Cincinnati in 2016 before being traded to the Marlins for Luis Castillo. The Reds’ front office has made a habit of snagging players who other teams gave up on too soon. That’s likely a big reason why, so far this winter, they’ve cast a bigger net than anybody.
Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.