The Cincinnati Reds swapped some highly-regarded but partially redundant prospects to get top-of-the-rotation arm Mat Latos from the San Diego Padres last week, and now the club has acquired a Francisco Cordero replacement by getting Sean Marshall from the Chicago Cubs for Travis Wood, Dave Sappelt and Ronald Torreyes. Marshall is a big upgrade at the back of the bullpen and is cheap in 2012, but the Cubs may ultimately win this deal by getting an underappreciated starter under team control for years to come.
A sixth-round pick in the '03 draft out of Virginia Commonwealth, Marshall was an unremarkable starter with the Cubs in 2006 and 2007 and a swingman the next two years, but he has since emerged as a high-strikeout ground ball machine as a full-time reliever. The 6-foot-7 lefty has 10.1 K/9, 2.5 BB/9 and a 56% ground ball rate in 150.1 innings pitched over the 2010-11 seasons, ranking 10th among all 'pen arms with 4.4 Wins Above Replacement. Tyler Clippard, Jonny Venters and Matt Belisle are the only relievers to log more innings.
While Marshall's fastball doesn't get much past 90 on the gun, he complements it with a quality cutter and what might be the best curveball among relievers. Marshall's high-70s bender, thrown nearly 40% of the time, has silenced hitters to the tune of a .194 average and a .236 slugging percentage over the past two years. The overall averages for curveballs from relievers are .201 for average and .299 for slugging percentage.
Marshall has uncanny control and command of his curve. He has thrown 51% of his curveballs in the strike zone -- way above the 43% average -- and he rarely hangs a cookie high in the strike zone:
Just 11% of Marshall's curves were tossed high in the zone in 2010-2011, compared to the 18% average for relievers. All those well-placed breaking balls result in whiffs (hitters miss 38% of the time they swing, one of the top 15 rates among relievers) and grounders (Marshall's 55 GB% is in the top 20).
So Marshall is nails, and he'll earn only $3.1 million next year -- also known as "what Jonathan Papelbon will make by May." But Marshall can chase his own free agent riches after 2012, and in acquiring him the Reds weakened their rotation depth. Sure, Cincy can point to a one-through-five of Latos, Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Homer Bailey and Bronson Arroyo. Rotation plans have a way of exploding like a cheap ACME bomb, however, and their options are murky after that.
Aroldis Chapman's conversion may be waylaid by a sore shoulder. Sam LeCure dealt with a forearm injury last year, and Matt Maloney was claimed off waivers by the Twins. On average, MLB teams called on 9-10 different pitchers to start in 2011. It would be quixotic to think the Reds' rotation, with Latos, Cueto and Bailey all serving DL stints for shoulder ailments last year (and Arroyo's ego getting wounded by so many big flies), won't need extra arms. Unless the Reds are OK spending real cash on a free agent starter, they're stuck scraping at the bottom of the barrel with the Jon Garlands and Brad Pennys of the world.
Which brings us to Wood, an undersized southpaw who won't hit free agency until after the 2016 season. Twenty-five in February, Wood pitched better as a rookie in 2010 (7.5 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, 3.42 FIP in 102.2 innings pitched) than as a sophomore (6.5 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, 4.06 FIP in 106 innings), but a 65 point swing in his batting average on balls in play made the difference look more extreme (3.51 ERA in 2010, 4.84 ERA in 2011).
Wood has a kitchen-sink approach, flinging changeups, curveballs, cutters and sliders as well as a fastball that crosses 90 on a windy day. Perhaps because hitters aren't quite sure what they're going to get, Wood's fastball has been sneaky good. Opponents have hit .259 and slugged .385 against the pitch over the 2010-11 seasons, while starters have allowed opponents to hit .278 and slug .440 versus fastballs over that time frame. He's not bashful about going up the ladder...
...And his high heat is highly successful despite its lack of velocity...
Wood has held hitters to a .355 slugging percentage on fastballs thrown high in the zone, 30 points below the league average for starters. It's very rare for low-octane fastball like Wood's to fare so well high in the zone. Take a look at the average slugging percentage on high fastballs, by velocity. The more zip you've got, the better off you are:
88-90 mph: .427 slugging percentage
91-93 mph: .375 slugging percentage
94-96 mph: .315 slugging percentage
96+ mph: .239 slugging percentage
Marshall is a superb reliever. But The Hardball Times' projection system, Oliver, expects Wood to out-WAR him in 2012 (2.5 to 2), to say nothing of the four years after that when Marshall will get paid like the top late-inning option that he is and Wood will draw just a fraction of his free-agent worth. Wood's projected WAR total next year tops that of Arroyo and Bailey, too, and he won't be there as an option when the Reds inevitably need a sixth, seventh and eighth starter. The prospects also going Chicago's way aren't elite, but Sappelt (.313/.377/.458 at Triple-A Louisville in 2011) could be a decent extra outfielder, and Torreyes (.356/.398/.457 at Low-A Dayton) is a tiny teenage middle infielder with a promising bat.
It's a lot to pay for one year of Marshall, durable and dominant as he is. Chicago, meanwhile, should get credit for cashing Marshall's one year of remaining team control in to get some assets that could be part of the next competitive Cubs club.