Dec. 1: The Reds have now formally announced the signing of Pagan.
Nov. 29: The Reds are reportedly in agreement with free agent reliever Emilio Pagan on a two-year, $16MM guarantee. The deal consists of matching $8MM salaries and allows Pagan, a client of the Ballengee Group, to opt out after next season. It’s a strong deal for the righty, as the contract contains incentives to boost the total further and could allow him to seek a larger contract next winter if he enjoys a good first year in Cincinnati. The agreement is still pending a physical.
Cincinnati relievers combined for a 4.11 ERA that ranked 15th in the Majors and a 4.48 FIP that ranked 23rd in 2023. In general, it’s a thin and unproven group. Closer Alexis Diaz gives the Reds one high-end arm, and lefty Sam Moll proved to be a quietly strong deadline pickup.
Beyond that, the Reds lacked established, healthy arms. Righty Tejay Antone has been one of the game’s top-performing bullpen arms when healthy, but he missed the entire 2022 season following Tommy John surgery and lasted just 5 2/3 innings in 2023 before departing a September game due to elbow discomfort that proved to be season-ending. Lucas Sims posted a stout 3.10 ERA with a strong strikeout rate in 2023 but also walked more than 15% of his opponents. Waiver pickup Ian Gibaut had a nice season (3.33 ERA), but that was the 30-year-old’s first extended run of MLB success.
Adding some stability makes sense, though the 32-year-old Pagan (33 in May) has something of a rollercoaster track record. In seven big league seasons, Pagan has pitched for five teams. At times, he’s looked the part of a bona fide late-inning force, such as his 2019 season when he saved 20 games for the Rays while logging a 2.31 ERA, 36% strikeout rate and 4.9% walk rate. At other times, Pagan has been far too hittable and displayed below-average command. From 2020-22 with the Padres and Twins, he logged a combined 4.61 ERA with a walk rate nearly double that of his excellent ’19 campaign.
Most recently, Pagan gave the 2023 Twins 69 1/3 innings of 2.99 ERA ball, fanning a solid 23.8% of his opponents against a better-than-average 7.7% walk rate. He averaged nearly 96 mph on his heater and continued career-long trends of inducing both swinging strikes and chases on pitches off the plate at above-average clips. However, Pagan’s rocky 2022 showing in Minnesota pushed him down the bullpen hierarchy; after struggling as a closer and setup man in ’22, he was used in the middle innings and lower-leverage spots this past season.
It’s at least a moderate surprise to see the Reds, in particular, wind up signing Pagan, given that the primary knock against him throughout his career has been a susceptibility to home runs. That doesn’t seem to pair well with Cincinnati’s homer-happy Great American Ball Park, although to Pagan’s credit, he averaged a career-low 0.65 homers per nine frames this past season.
Still, entering the 2023 campaign, Pagan had yielded an average of 1.74 homers per nine innings. Among the 1080 relief pitchers to throw at least 250 career innings since way back in the 1800s, that was the highest rate of any pitcher (hat tip to The Atheltic’s Aaron Gleeman for pointing that out back in 2022). Generally, relievers who give up home runs at such a lofty rate just haven’t stuck around long enough to compile a meaningful number of innings at the MLB level.
The Reds are surely confident in their ability to help Pagan continue his newfound ability to mitigate round-trippers, but if his prior home run tendencies return, his new home confines in Cincinnati would likely only shine a spotlight on that problematic history. If he can keep curtailing the long ball, however, he gives the Reds a hard-throwing righty with late-inning experience who could help serve as a bridge to Diaz at the end of the game. Pagan has fanned 28.1% of his career opponents against a sharp 7% walk rate, and he boasts a very strong 14.1% swinging-strike rate in exactly 400 MLB innings.
In terms of payroll, the Reds will have no problem fitting Pagan (or just about any free agent, for that matter) onto the books. Now that Joey Votto is a free agent, the Reds’ only guaranteed contracts had belonged to Hunter Greene and backup catcher Luke Maile, who’ll earn a combined $6MM in 2024. Add in MLBTR’s projected salaries for their six eligible players — one of whom, Jonathan India, is a trade candidate — and a host of pre-arb names to round out the club, and Roster Resource projects a payroll just south of $59MM after accounting for the Pagan deal. And with Maile on a one-year deal, Pagan and Greene are (at least for now) the only players on guaranteed deals for the 2025 campaign.
Jon Heyman of the New York Post reported the Reds had expressed interest in Pagan. Mark Feinsand of MLB.com first reported the Reds and Pagan had agreed to a two-year deal. Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic first reported the $16MM guarantee and the opt-out possibility. Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported the even salary breakdown.