A Minors Obsession

Spring battles: The bullpen

Last week we kicked off this series by taking a look at the Cincinnati Reds rotation and the minor leaguers/prospects who could contend for spots. Today we move to the other end of the pitchers and look at guys who could be contending for a spot in the bullpen.

The Cincinnati Reds bullpen in 2016 was downright atrocious, especially in the first half of the season. Getting back Raisel Iglesias and Michael Lorenzen in the second half really helped stabilize things, but it will go down as one of the worst ever. Part of the reason it was so bad is due to the fact that the rotation couldn’t stay healthy, so a lot of the bullpen options had to be moved into the rotation. That led to the bullpen being built on options 6-15 instead of options 1-7. In total, the bullpen posted a 5.09 ERA last season with 297 walks and 528 strikeouts. If we remove Iglesias and Lorenzen from that, things get so much worse. The ERA jumped up to 5.65 with 265 walks and just 426 strikeouts.

The team has hit the free agent market to try and improve things. They signed reliever Drew Storen. They acquired reliever Austin Brice in a trade with the Marlins. They even gave a minor league contract to Bronson Arroyo.  Still, there seems to be some competition for several spots in the bullpen.

The Players

Short of injuries, it would seem that Michael Lorenzen, Raisel Iglesias and Drew Storen are locks. That still leaves four open spots. Guys like Tony Cingrani, Jumbo Diaz and Blake Wood probably head into camp with a head start on jobs than the minor league guys, but all have things to prove as well.

These guys would seem to have some sort of chance to make the bullpen with a good spring: Barrett Astin, Lisalverto Bonilla, Austin Brice, Rookie Davis, Wandy Peralta, Sal Romano, Alejandro Chacin, Evan Mitchell and Nick Routt. The last three names listed are not on the current 40-man roster but will be in big league camp. Bonilla, Brice and Peralta have some limited big league experience among that group.

What do they need to show in the spring to get the job?

We will go in alphabetical order, starting with 40-man players before jumping to the non-40-man players. Barrett Astin kicks things off for the 40-man group. If he comes out this spring and does what he did in Double-A last season, there’s probably a good chance he wins a job. He throws lots of strikes, he can miss some bats and doesn’t walk batters. He also gets plenty of ground balls, posting a 64% groundball rate in 2016 at the Double-A level. He also fits the Reds idea of wanting relievers that can pitch multiple innings in an outing.

Lisalverto Bonilla may be a name that’s brand new to you. There’s a reason for that: He was just added to the organization yesterday. After missing the 2015 season due to having Tommy John surgery he returned to the mound last season. His first half was a bit of a struggle in the bullpen, but he moved to the rotation in the second half and posted outstanding numbers. While he may get a look as a starter in the spring with the Reds, it’s more likely he’ll be viewed as a reliever. If he can repeat what he did in the second half of his 2016 minor league season where he posted a 3.45 ERA in 75.2 innings with 20 walks and 76 strikeouts, he could make a strong argument to round out the bullpen. Like Astin, he too could fit the role of multi-inning reliever that the team seems to want.

Before the Reds signed Drew Storen, it seemed that Austin Brice may have had the inside track to the final spot in the bullpen entering spring training. His limited action with the Marlins last season didn’t go well in the ERA column where he posted a 7.07 mark in 14.0 innings. On the flip side of that, his WHIP was 1.00 and he had 14 strikeouts and just five walks in that span. To win a job he would likely need to just show what he did in the minor leagues in 2016 where he posted a 2.74 ERA in 102.0 innings with 30 walks and 89 strikeouts. Like the previously mentioned players, his past experience likely allows him to handle a multi-inning role.

Rookie Davis was the headliner in the Aroldis Chapman deal to the Yankees. While his ERA was shiny last year in Double-A, his peripherals left plenty of room for questions. Overall he posted a 3.82 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A but only had 77 strikeouts in 125.0 innings. His stuff also took a step backwards from the previous season. Davis did battle multiple small injuries throughout the year, ones that weren’t enough to put him on the shelf, but may have led to his stuff simply not being there. If Davis is going to have any chance to win a spot he’s going to have to show the kind of stuff he flashed in 2015 before he joined the organization and also put up very strong numbers from the very beginning.

After getting a taste of the big leagues late last season, Wandy Peralta now knows what he’s going to have to improve upon. It’s actually quite simple: He’s got to throw more strikes and find more consistency with his secondary offerings. Despite being a left hander, he has performed significantly better against righties for quite a while now. Peralta throws very hard, but he’s going to have to do more than that if he’s going to beat out the competition. His ERA was 2.33 while in Triple-A, but his walk rate was high-ish and his strikeout rate was very low. He’s going to need to take big strides forward.

Sal Romano is the final option from the 40-man roster and I hesitate to even list him here as he’s been a starter for his entire career. However, Mark Sheldon listed him as making the bullpen in his recent piece breaking down the potential 25-man roster. The 23-year-old right hander is the Reds #5 prospect and he really took big strides in the second half of 2016 in Double-A. In his final 12 starts of the year he dominated, posting a 2.12 ERA in 76.1 innings with just nine walks and 69 strikeouts. While he has no Triple-A experience, he’s got one of the best fastballs in the organization and solid secondary stuff. And he throws strikes. Toss in that he can fill a multi-inning role and he could be a real dark horse to make waves as either a starter or reliever that pushes things until the end of spring training.

Every year Alejandro Chacin goes out and puts up outstanding numbers as a reliever. Then every year he moves up a level and has to prove himself all over again. He doesn’t have a blazing fastball, relying more on outstanding movement with the pitch from a low 3/4 arm angle, a strong change up and a solid enough breaking ball. Last season he posted a 1.78 ERA in Double-A while racking up 30 saves and striking out 75 batters in 60.2 innings. That did come along with 26 walks (three were intentional). With strong competition, he will once again have to come out and prove himself, though if history tells us anything, he’s up for the challenge. Throwing more strikes would certainly help his chances, and he did do a much better job of that later in the season – he walked just 11 batters (one intentional) over his final 38.0 innings. Not being on the 40-man roster will work against him, so he will likely have to outperform the other contenders.

Evan Mitchell is a guy who sort of jumped onto the scene this past season. He had been solid in the past, but in 2016 he posted a 2.87 ERA between Daytona and Double-A Pensacola. He then went to the Arizona Fall League where he topped out at 98 MPH. The right hander doesn’t just throw hard, he’s an absolute groundball machine. In the 2016 season he posted a 66% groundball rate – the best in the organization. While you’d like to see him miss a few more bats, he is a strike thrower who keeps the ball in the park and on the ground. If there were a guy I had to pick that most people haven’t heard of, that we may start to really hear good things about as spring develops, it would be Evan Mitchell. His non-40-man inclusion is working against him here, but he’s got the stuff and profile that could get him the gig with a strong spring.

Left hander Nick Routt finds himself in a good spot for a non-roster invitee. The Reds seem to need a left handed reliever for their bullpen and he’s one of a very few that they have to look at. He dominated at the Double-A level in 2016, posting a 0.89 ERA in 50.1 innings with 12 walks and 46 strikeouts. The now 26-year-old struggled in a call up to Triple-A, however. He walked more batters, 13, than he struck out, 12, over the span of 17 appearances. Unlike Wandy Peralta, another lefty he could be competing against, Routt has had better success against left handed hitters. In 2015 he walked just one of the 84 left handers that he faced and held them to a .602 OPS.  Last season he walked eight of the 89 that he faced and held them to a .587 OPS.  If he can perform in the spring like he did at Double-A Pensacola last year, he could take that final spot in the bullpen, but he’s going to have to avoid whatever it was that caused him to struggle in Triple-A for that to happen.

There are a lot of options here, and I even left off more than a few other names and quality prospects who simply seem to have very little chance because of their limited upper minor league experience. If I had to handicap the odds for this group, I’d say everyone has less than a 50-50 shot of making the team. Heading into the spring, it would seem that the bullpen favorites would be Lorenzen, Iglesias, Storen, Wood, Diaz and Cingrani. That leaves just one spot left, and it’s possible that it goes to one of the young starting pitchers who doesn’t make the rotation. From this group though, I’d say the favorites in no order would be Sal Romano, Barrett Astin and Austin Brice.

6 thoughts on “Spring battles: The bullpen

  1. Very nice write up. I think you have 5 of the bullpen pieces down with Lorenzen, Iglesias, Storen, Cingrani, and Wood. Jumbo, with his jumbo HR’s allowed won’t make it out of spring training I’m afraid. Brice seems like a good replacement. And we’re back to one spot available. I would say the new kid, Lisalverto, will be given every shot to make the team. I know his name is pronounced Lee-sal-ver-to, but I want to call him Lysol.
    I can hear Thom Brennaman now, “They are bringing in Lysol from the bullpen to clean up this mess.”

  2. Now add Ogando to the mix. I’m not for Garrett, Reed, Stephenson or Romano going to the bullpen for the Reds. Injuries happen and we need capable starters at Louisville just in case to fill in. Travieso might open the season on the DL. I like Bonilla to take Travieso’s place in Louisville’s rotation if he can’t go to start the season. My prediction is Adleman, Jumbo, Cingrani, Wood, Iglesias, Lorenzen and Storen.

  3. Lorenzen –> Starting rotation! I know the powers that be apparently have their minds made up, but not even considering this seems very strange. As though there’s something they don’t want to discuss.

    • That was before the news on Homer.

      I think it would be wise to start Lorenzen in the rotation to start the year. See how he responds to starting after stellar bullpen work last year. If he carries over 2106, you leave him in the rotation.

      If he reverts as a starter back to 2015, when Homer is back, you move him back to the pen

  4. Barring someone simply lighting it up or failing, I believe Cingrani will be in there, also. I believe Blake Wood has a head-start on remaining positions. I also believe they will be taking at least one more lefty. So, that will be Routt or Wandy.

    All of this could still change, also, if the Reds pick up someone another club drops during ST. That’s happened before.

  5. Z Buchanan is saying that Bonilla will stretch out as starter in spring but may not be a starter once season starts. Maybe if he does well as starter, keep him in minors to develop as starter, but otherwise competes for bullpen?

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