Should the Reds look into picking up Ryan Yarbrough?

There are several players that were designated for assignment this week that could make sense for the Cincinnati Reds to look into. One of those players could be Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Ryan Yarbrough.

The left-handed pitcher has split time between the rotation and the bullpen throughout his 5-year career with the Rays, going 40-31 with a 4.33 ERA in 579.2 innings that included 59 starts and three seasons where he threw more than 140 innings.

Cincinnati has three starting pitchers locked in for 2023 with Graham Ashcraft, Hunter Greene, and Nick Lodolo. After that they have a handful of guys who either have never pitched in the big leagues or guys who have that also have big question marks around whether or not they should be big league starters.

The Reds bullpen isn’t exactly flush with quality pitching and while they may be counting on some guys returning in 2023 who have had success in the past with Tejay Antone, Lucas Sims, and Tony Santillan – all of them are coming back from injuries that aren’t exactly “easy” things to return from with two back injuries and a second Tommy John surgery.

With starting and relief experience, Ryan Yarbrough could potentially help out in either the rotation or the bullpen. The question we need to look at and try to answer is can he do either or both roles successfully?

The last two seasons have been the worst of his career. In his first three seasons he posted ERA’s of 3.91, 4.13, and 3.56 – all seasons where his ERA+ was better than average (ERA+ is adjusted for the parks a guy pitches in). The last two seasons, though, have seen his ERA just to 5.11 in 2021 and 4.50 in 2022 with an ERA+ well below average in both seasons.

The soon-to-be 31-year-old had more than a few interesting splits during the 2022 season. As a starter he held opponents to a .731 OPS versus an .848 OPS as a reliever. His ERA was nearly identical in those splits, though, and despite nine starts and 11 relief appearances his innings total was also nearly identical (40.1 and 39.2).

As a lefty you would expect him to dominate left-handed hitters. He did. Righties hit .308/.367/.500 against him. Lefties didn’t get to see him nearly as often – just 80 total plate appearances (275 for righties) – but when they did, they hit just .159/.253/.261 against him.

The first half and second half splits were quite big. In the first half he posted a 5.49 ERA and opponents hit .296/.263/.484 against him with 11 walks and 24 strikeouts. In the second half of the year he posted a 3.54 ERA and opponents hit .256/.322/.413 against him with 11 walks and 37 strikeouts. He faced just one more batter in the second half than he did in the first half, so his walk rate remained the same but his strikeout rate jumped up more than 50%. His groundball rate also went up, going from 34.1% to 42.1% in the second half.

There’s no way to spice things up for Yarbrough when it comes to velocity – he doesn’t throw hard. If you put him on any D1 team in the country he would probably have 6-7 guys that throw significantly harder than he does. This season he didn’t quite average 87 MPH. After returning from the injured list in May he averaged 86.7 and 85.8 MPH for the first two months, but did pick up a little from there as he went 87.5, 86.8, and 87.3 in the final three months of the year.

What is also interesting to see is that in August and September all of his pitches started to move differently than they had earlier in the season. His slider picked up nearly 2 inches of horizontal movement and an inch more sink, his cutter picked up similar additional movement, the fastball didn’t pick up any additional sink but did pick up about an inch of horizontal movement, and his change up also saw additional run and sink to it.

There are some reasons to believe that he could return to the kind of pitcher he had been in the past. His second half was good and it doesn’t just look like it was luck – his pitch profile changed and the results followed. But the wiggle room may be very small for a guy who can’t hit 90 MPH in today’s game, too.

With Cincinnati there’s always going to be the question of money and free agency. Yarbrough isn’t a free agent until after the 2024 season if he’s picked up on waivers or traded for before he clears waivers. MLB Trade Rumors projection for his 2023 salary was $4,200,000. That’s not expensive, but it’s also not cheap for a pitcher coming off of a year where he was considerably below average.

There is plenty of money for the team to spend. As things sit right now, using the projected arbitration numbers, the team has a payroll of about $70,000,000 for 2023. Would it make sense to put in a waiver claim on a guy like Yarbrough who could potentially provide starting pitching depth but also be an option out of the bullpen at that price?

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