2017 Reds

Starting Pitching Depth and High-Inning Relievers

Last week, Steve Mancuso wrote an excellent piece about the Reds possibly pitching both Raisel Iglesias and Michael Lorenzen for 100+ innings as relievers. Bryan Price has used both semi-frequently for multiple innings at a time this year with great success. No one is surprised by this; Iglesias and Lorenzen possess great stuff, and in short spurts, that stuff plays up quite a bit.

This conversation has as much to do with the rotation as it does the bullpen. Starters pitch far more innings than relievers and have the difficulty of facing a lineup multiple times. These factors make them far more valuable than relievers, though a good bullpen is still important. The Reds have found two guys with legitimate concerns regarding their starting potential (Iglesias: health; Lorenzen: off-speed stuff) and pitched them as hybrid-type pitchers for half a season.

But as I’ve watched some of the better pitching prospects struggle, namely Robert Stephenson, Cody Reed, and to a lesser extent, Brandon Finnegan, and read the arguments for multi-inning relievers, I’ve come to two conclusions about the Reds future bullpen: (1) they should without a doubt employ a couple 100+ relievers, and (2) I don’t know who those pitchers should be yet.

The Reds don’t need answers to number two yet. But by 2018, they should have a better idea of how the pieces fit. The problem isn’t really a problem: they have a large number of talented pitchers who look like Major League starters.

That should mean competition to the betterment of everyone. It should also allow the Reds to do something unconventional with their bullpen by pitching several guys for two to four innings at a time because those who do not make the rotation will still have starter-like stuff.

Barring trades or injury, it seems likely that Homer Bailey and Anthony DeSclafani will be part of the rotation for the next few seasons. Dan Straily is a safe bet to provide rotation insurance should the Reds need it. That leaves two to three starting spots available both next year and long term.

With three spots potentially available (maybe two, depending on Straily) in the rotation going forward, the Reds have a wave of players that will get the first shot:

  • Raisel Iglesias
  • Robert Stephenson
  • Cody Reed
  • Amir Garrett
  • Brandon Finnegan
  • Michael Lorenzen

At the Redleg Nation/Red Reporter event, Reds’ front office members insinuated that Lorenzen is likely destined for the bullpen. About a week later, Zach Buchanan reported that the Reds still hadn’t ruled out trying him as a starter and that he prefers a starting role. Mark Sheldon stated the same even more recently. For now, l’m keeping him as part of this conversation.

Each player has significant upside as starting pitchers but also carry with them significant concerns. Of course, they all have great raw stuff, but that stuff doesn’t negate potential roadblocks in their game. We could write an entire article about each player’s potential and pitfalls, and maybe we will this offseason. I feel pretty good about all of them to varying degrees, but for the purposes of this post, I’ve provided a quick summary of some of the concerns below.

Raisel Iglesias

The only concern here is his physical capacity to pitch 200 innings. The guy can really pitch. If Iglesias can handle the workload, one of those spots is probably his. I really hope he can. I think he would be their best starter next year and maybe beyond that. Unfortunately, it’s pretty iffy that his shoulder can withstand the rigors of 200 innings, and I’m afraid his stated desire for the bullpen will give the Reds an easy out to keep him as a reliever.

Robert Stephenson

Baseball Prospectus raves that “In terms of pure stuff, there are only a handful of players who can match what Stephenson has.” And yet his problem, as we’ve seen this September, is his erratic command. Stephenson has walked over 11% of batters since he reached the AA level in 2013. The command has been so consistently poor that several outlets have suggested he may end up as a high-leverage reliever.

Cody Reed

Prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen had this to say about Reed’s fastball before his first major league start: “Because Reed’s arm slot is just below the three-quarters mark and his arm action is a little long, right-handed hitters get a nice, long look at the ball out of his hand and will punish his fastball if it catches too much of the plate or if he falls behind and into obvious fastball counts.” Hitters proceeded to slug .756 against the pitch. Ouch. Small sample, yes. But when the numbers reflect the scouting report, you have to at least acknowledge a potential problem.

The arm slot is unlikely to change much. Can Reed find a way to make his mid 90s fastball less hittable?

Amir Garrett

Garrett may be the Reds best pitching prospect at the moment, but of course, there are a few concerns. Garrett’s primary issues are command and concerns about his secondary stuff. Baseball Prospectus states that “his command leaves a lot to be desired. His delivery will get out of sync, and he doesn’t always stay on top of his pitches. That could mean an eventual move to the bullpen if he doesn’t develop consistency…”

Garrett’s walk rates have been merely below average before he reached AAA, where it bumped up to 11.3%, a really poor number. In the past, scouts have also had concerns about the effectiveness of his changeup but that seemed to be because he had just started throwing it. It will be interesting to see an updated scouting report as new prospect rankings come out this offseason.

Brandon Finnegan

Finnegan made big strides with his changeup this season and showed plenty of potential, but that doesn’t change the fact that he has walked the most batters in all of baseball (84). His walk rate among starters is the highest by over a percentage point. He is also tied for eighth among all pitchers in home runs allowed (29). These issues led to an ugly xFIP (4.87) and SIERA (4.92). That all has to improve, or he won’t remain a starter.

Michael Lorenzen

Lorenzen’s command has improved substantially since last season but questions still remain about how effective his stuff would be as a starter. His fastball and cutter have enough movement and speed to be successful, even though they will lose a tick or two in the rotation.

But starters can’t live on hard stuff alone, and Lorenzen hasn’t yet proven he has an off-speed pitch to complement his fastballs and hard slider. His curveball has been really effective in a small sample this year, and Matt Wilkes noted that he gets tremendous movement on it. However, until he throws it more often, we won’t know whether it’s good enough to make him an effective starter.

The Proposal

Some of these players will overcome their deficiencies to more closely reach their potential. Right now, it’s really hard to tell who those overcomers will be. I hope the Reds have a better idea than I do, and they should let all of these guys compete as starters. The competition will likely last through 2017 and possibly into 2018 as some guys will still see time in AAA next season to work on command and other shortcomings. Injuries are sure to happen as well. Eventually, barring trades, they all need roles in the big leagues.

When the dust settles and the top five pitchers emerge as starters, the Reds should make at least two guys 100+ inning relievers, even if they aren’t Lorenzen and Iglesias. If Finnegan can’t substantially improve his walk and home run rates, pitch him extended innings out of the pen. If Reed’s fastball makes him too hittable to go multiple times through the lineup, do the same. And so on.

This doesn’t mean that the big inning bullpen pitchers will never start again either. Eventually, someone will get hurt. If the Reds have two or three bullpen arms pitching two to four innings each appearance, they can quickly transition into the rotation to cover one of those spots if need be. But until then, they will have talented pitchers adding significant value to the team by pitching 30-50 innings more than a normal reliever.

Lorenzen and Iglesias may indeed be the guys who fill this role, but even if they become rotation fixtures, the Reds shouldn’t abandon the idea of high-inning relievers. They have the talent to do it regardless of who ends up in the rotation or bullpen. By re-pioneering the role of such relievers, the Reds will take full advantage of their roster. And that will lead to one exciting pitching staff.

22 thoughts on “Starting Pitching Depth and High-Inning Relievers

  1. Nice summary of what is on the table for the Reds this winter regarding the rotation. I wouldn’t mind another option to be firmly on the Reds table this winter. That option would be to go out and obtain a starting pitcher with 4 years left of team control by packaging some prospects. Somebody to pair with DeSclafani and Finnegan going forward and not putting all their eggs in the prospect basket. Stephenson is my main trade piece. This one move could give the Reds a leg up on the NL Central rotations and rival the Cubs. The Pirates will have several young pitchers move up next year for their rotation and they will have to get over the growing pains the Reds have experienced the last 2 years. The Cardinals will go out and get some pitching.
    It would be nice to hear next year a lot of “Starting to come together, Pepper, it’s starting to come together.”

  2. I like the idea of two or more 100+ inning relievers the more I read and think about it. The team’s biggest weakness at present is not having enough effective relievers to create an acceptable major league bullpen, based on the current widespread practice of using pitchers for no more than one inning per day. Why not reduce the number of (ineffective) bodies by increasing the number of innings the effective pitchers pitch? The article was well-written, and I believe paints an accurate picture of the uncertainty still surrounding the entire pitching staff. At this point, it seems that only DeSclafani and Straily are sure things to start the season as starters.

  3. I noticed BP stated that Reed’s fastball “has plus velocity (93-95, occasionally in the high 90s), but it’s plus-plus because it has loads of life and is tough to pick up.” I hope they are correct and that’s Reed’s 2016 performance was due to an injury or SSS.

    • I saw that, and there are certainly mixed messages regarding Reed’s fastball. I probably should have noted that. I only included Longenhagen’s analysis because he noted the concern about the fastball and then MLB hitters destroyed it. Absolutely destroyed it. Again, small sample. But it appeared to reflect what Longenhagen said about the pitch and that concerns me.

      Then again, Reed is only 23. I’m not panicking.

  4. Finnegan’s last 11 starts he has a 2.23 ERA, and the 2nd half of the season he reduced his walk rate from a 12% to 10% while his k rate went up to k/9 of 9.2 meaning he is striking out a batter per inning.

    Based on his 2nd half Finnegan is a starter and he is younger than the three prospects mentioned above.

    • I think Finnegan has a great chance to claim a spot. But I’m not sure where you got the BB% information. Last 11 starts, he had an 11.3% BB%. http://www.fangraphs.com/statsd.aspx?playerid=16208&position=P&type=0&gds=2016-07-29&gde=2016-09-25&season=

      Even if he got it down to 10% for the season (he didn’t come close), that would have been the third worst walk rate among all starters in baseball.

      He showed a lot of improvement as the season went on, but his command is still a concern and must improve by quite a bit.

      • I like the potential of these 9. Hope Homer comes back healthy…that would be huge.Finnegan got better and I think Reed will start in AAA. He got rushed a bit. Not mentioned is cingrani…talk about control problems…What a disappointment.

  5. How about start 6 pitchers at the beginning of 2017 for first 50+- games? 1. Raisel Iglesias 2. Anthony Desclafani 3. Homer Bailey 4. Michael Lorenzen 5. Brandon Finnegan 6. Reed/Stephenson or whoever wins it? Limits innings for Iglesias, bailey and lorenzen and lets all continue to develop hopefully all into starters, then trade one or two for upgrades where needed prior to 2018.

  6. I like this embarrassment of riches. Finally. I like what I’ve seen lately from Lorenzen’s curve ball – both how it moves and how confident he seems to be throwing it. I hope he gets a real shot at the rotation. And I am absolutely not ready to leave Keyvius Sampson off this list. He was lights out at AAA but seems to be getting the Donald Lutz treatment in terms of mound time. I think there is still great potential there, and even if he loses out on a numbers game I think the Reds need to give him enough starts to establish him as a significant trade piece. Still, nice problems to have here…

    • I’m still not convinced that Sampson isn’t a starting pitcher for somebody. He certainly has enough stuff.

  7. Wonderful summary by Nick Carrington on the Reds pitching staff. My only worry is the 100 inning reliever idea is what the fans of bad teams ponder when they have lost 90 games + two consecutive years and do not see much changing going forward. The Reds need 5 good starters, a couple of long men on tough nights, and several other relievers including a 7th inning guy, an 8th inning set up guy, a couple of lefty specialists, and a shut down closer. That’s what winning teams do.

    • I think the Reds need 2-3 high performing relievers who can get guys out for multiple innings for lots of innings…We are talking about redefining the bullpen to maximize situational baseball when the game is on the line. If you can get guys out…it doesn’t matter what handedness you are…Id trust Iglesias to pitch to a lefty with 2 outs in the 7 th and runners at 2nd and 3rd and get the out and then get 3 outs in the 8th….or maybe its Lorenzen or maybe its Finnegan….that’s what this debate is about. Find good pitchers who’s “role” is get outs at critical junctures of the game many times over.

      • I get the interest in flexible relief pitching from fans. Howver, players need to know their roles. They perform better when they do. There is no evidence that making players wonder what position they will play or what role they have in a bullpen delivers more wins. The Reds could be the first to try a grand experiment to get some real world experience on the concept. Given their situation there is nothing to lose. If the front office forces the manager to do it they better give him a a nice guaranteed contract and not fire him if things do not go right. The experiment might need several years of trial and more than a few pitchers to give it a whirl. My guess is 100 innings in relief with multiple appearances over a few days and inconsistent warm ups will generate even more arm issues. As I recall one of the Reds managers batted Adam Dunn lead off for a few games. That was breaking the mold.

        • The Reds have already done the high-inning reliever thing for half a season with Iglesias and Lorenzen and had great success. It wasn’t that long ago in baseball history when most teams had high-inning relievers.

          If it is a gamble, it seems like a good one to me. They appear to have the personnel for it (time will bear out the truthfulness of that statement), and I’d love to see their best pitchers pitching more innings as opposed to splitting those innings with lesser pitchers.

  8. I agree with the concept in theory, but with a caveat or two: Bullpen guys pitching multiple innings won’t be available on consecutive days or, maybe, worse late in the season when the appearances have piled up. This could leave the Reds short of good pitching in many games unless the entire bullpen is first rate–a tall order. Also, it’s not automatically the case that a pitcher with good stuff but poor command (Reed and Finnegan) is well-suited to the pen. He won’t suffer as much exposure in that role as he would as a starter, true, but his implosions will occur when the Reds have fewer innings to overcome the lead that he has let the other team take. The solution, clearly, is to assemble a pitching staff with no weak links(tongue firmly in cheek).

    • Great comment. These are legitimate concerns. They still need a couple good, one inning guys to make it work. But in theory, they would need fewer of them because the high-inning guys would take innings from the worst 1 or 2 bullpen guys.

    • It’s certainly possible that Lamb’s struggles this season are related to injury. His velocity dropped by 1.5-2 MPH this season from 2015 and that makes a big difference. I think he can still be a productive Major League pitcher if he regains that velocity.

  9. I would like to see more from Adleman. Granted, he isnt one of the reds higher rated prospects, but in 12 starts this year he has yet to give up more than 4 earned runs and has been quite a pleasant suprise.

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