The competition surrounding Reds’ rotation is generating most of the hubbub at camp, but with Homer Bailey and John Lamb unfit for the start of the season, a safe assumption can be made that in some order, Anthony DeSclafani, Raisel Iglesias, Michael Lorenzen, Brandon Finnegan, and Jon Moscot will occupy the five starting spots to begin the 2016 campaign.
But what about the bullpen, a group that ranked 11th in strikeout rate, 12th in walk rate, and 13th in both hard-hit rate and in xFIP among the 15 National League clubs in 2015? (And those numbers came with Aroldis Chapman in the fold!)
Chapman, of course, is the glaring omission this spring; J.J. Hoover has already been tabbed by Bryan Price to replace the Missile in the ninth. But what about the other six to seven slots? Let us examine the arms who could be comprising Cincinnati’s bullpen.
I remain unconvinced that Hoover will last the season in the closer’s role due to his increased walk rate and declining strikeout rates from last season. Hoover also owns a career xFIP (4.22) that is nearly a run higher than his career ERA (3.34). Still, the veteran right-hander threw his very-effective fastball harder than ever (93.4 mph) last season, and he remains a solid bullpen cog.
Diaz’s career strikeout rate (27 percent) is beyond sterling, but that searing, high-90s fastball of his also results in plenty of round-trippers for opponents, as Diaz’s home run-to-fly ball ratio leapt from 11.1 percent in 2014 to 16.4 percent in 2015. The burly right-hander was also far more effective against righties (1.99 xFIP) than lefties (4.74) in 2015, a trend that has become a career norm for the 32-year-old. Diaz did improve in some areas last year, though. As noted by his FanGraphs’ player page, Diaz ranked among the top 25 relievers in the MLB in swing-and-miss rate in 2015, and he also reduced his walk rate. If Hoover falters in the closer’s role, Diaz is likely the next man up.
Cingrani, who battled through yet another injury (shoulder) last season, was given a minor dose of what Brandon Finnegan experienced with the Royals in 2015, as the 26-year-old was shuffled between starting and relieving roles in both the majors and the minors. In the big leagues last summer, Cingrani out-pitched his 5.60 ERA and his .329 BABIP, but the lefty’s 16.1 percent walk rate must plummet in order for Cingrani to regain the effectiveness he harbored during his first extended stint with the Reds in 2013.
In Prime Position
After posting a 4.97 xFIP in 12 starts with the Reds in 2015, Sampson has been moved to the bullpen for 2016. Doug Gray did a superb job of breaking down how well Sampson has fared as a starter and a reliever (in the majors and minors) the first time he goes through a lineup. As Doug explained, Sampson consistently struggled when facing hitters a second and third time. Thus, a move to the bullpen makes sense, and Price has already stated that he sees the right-hander as a possible long-relief option. Sampson, whose fastball has good sink/run to it, must bring his steep walk rate (10.4 percent) down, though bases on balls have been a career-long problem for Sampson since he began pitching professionally for the Padres in 2009.
Reason No. 1 Wood is likely to make the Reds’ Opening Day bullpen? Money. Cincinnati inked the hard-throwing 30-year-old right-hander in November to a major league deal (terms not disclosed) and inserted him onto the 40-man roster. Steve dug deep into the Wood signing when it happened, so whet your in-depth scouting report appetite there. In short, Wood managed to slash his walk rate last season working with the noted pitching whisperers within the Pirates organization at Triple-A Indianapolis. Think of Wood as another Jumbo Diaz: a big guy (6-5, 240 pounds) with a powerful right arm who can struggle to find the strike zone, as indicated by his 11.4 percent walk rate in 127 career major league innings.
An overlooked piece in the Aroldis Chapman trade, Cotham received his first shot (9.2 innings) in the majors in 2015 with the Yankees. Last season was Cotham’s third different stint in Triple-A, but his first go-around as a full-time reliever. The 28-year-old Cotham acquitted himself well to the switch, logging an FIP of 2.32 (1.74 ERA) complete with arresting strikeout (24.2 percent) and walk (4 percent) rates.
On The Fringe
There’s a good chance O’Grady never pitches for the Reds organization in an official game. The 25-year-old southpaw with “average stuff” was selected in the December Rule 5 draft, and must be returned to the Angels if he does not spend the entirety of the 2016 season on the Reds’ 25-man roster. O’Grady, who has pitched just 8.2 innings at Triple-A, spent most of 2015 at Double-A and recorded an FIP of 3.38.
Picked up off waivers by the Reds last May, Mattheus didn’t exactly impress in his first season with Cincinnati, notching an xFIP of 4.05 with a very low strikeout rate (5.73). The 32-year-old righty returned to the organization on a minor league deal in January, and could have an inside track to a bullpen slot based on his relative familiarity with the organization.
The right-hander has racked up 47.1 frames for the Reds over the past two seasons, but no matter the level he’s pitched at since beginning of his career in 2012, the 25-year-old has struggled with his control. It’s a good bet Contreras returns to Triple-A, where he struck out 55 and walked 30 in 39.2 innings last season.
The 23-year-old Weiss was spectacular at High-A Daytona and Double-A Pensacola in 2015:
|Innings||Strikeout Rate||Walk Rate||FIP|
Weiss’ sterling performance last summer has him in serious consideration for a bullpen job, and as Mark Sheldon notes, Weiss’ chances are boosted by the fact that the Reds are rebuilding. Even if he spends some time at Triple-A to start the season, Weiss and his his mid-90s fastball and nasty slider will reach the big leagues sooner rather than later.
Villarreal, 28, owns unremarkable stuff and unremarkable numbers, but he does have a soft spot in this writer’s heart for his willingness to clean up various inherited messes. That said, there are higher-upside arms that need to be receiving innings.
Once a mainstay in the Giants rotation, Sanchez has bounced around over the last half-decade, and has not pitched in the majors since 2013. The 33-year-old lefty is technically competing for a rotation spot with the Reds, but could be moved into the bullpen mix before long. On top of his hiatus from the majors, Sanchez, who is not on the 40-man roster, will have to convince Price & Co. to lend him a roster spot in spite of his 12.5 percent career walk rate.
Hoover, Diaz, Cingrani, Sampson, Wood, Cotham, Mattheus, Weiss
Price went with an 8-man bullpen for long stretches last season to combat the extreme youth in the rotation; the Reds won’t be much more experienced in 2016. Hoover, Diaz, and Cingrani are in barring injury or calamitous spring showings. The same could probably be said of Sampson, Wood, and Cotham. Mattheus making the team is a pure gut feeling, and I think Weiss will pitch himself into a spot over the next month.
In any case, the bullpen that leaves Goodyear will receive a few adjustments when Bailey (a lock to return to the rotation) and Lamb (seemingly destined for the rotation, but could end up in the bullpen) return from their respective injuries. Something to keep mind as the season wears on — especially after the Super Two cutoff passes sometimes in early June — is the possibility of the Reds’ top pitching prospects (Robert Stephenson, Cody Reed, etc.) beginning their major league careers in the bullpen if there no slots to be had in the rotation.