2017 Reds

Who is Cincinnati’s Best Young Starter?

Steve Mancuso wrote an interesting piece a few weeks ago about the possibility of the Reds starting the “Filthy Five.” Essentially, he suggested the Reds start five of the six young arms that are currently knocking on the door or have run through it. These pitchers included the following:

  • Cody Reed
  • Robert Stephenson
  • Amir Garrett
  • Brandon Finnegan
  • Rookie Davis
  • Sal Romano

The post sparked a fascinating discussion about service time issues and the presence of veterans like Scott Feldman or Bronson Arroyo on a rebuilding team. Many fans want to hold back pitchers they particularly believe in to get an extra year of control. If they aren’t as confident in a pitcher’s long-term future, they don’t worry as much.  As I considered these issues, I realized something: I’m not sure who I believe in the most out of these six. I like them all to varying degrees, but they all have their warts.

Luckily, the Reds have years of control on all of these guys, so they have time to figure out who belongs in the rotation for several years, who will transition to the bullpen, and who may end up on another team. But, I think it’s interesting to consider who may be the best between these young starters based on the information currently available to us, and I’d like your input.

I’m going to provide a little bit of information on each of these six pitchers. You are welcome to bring in other relevant data to the conversation as well. Essentially, I want to know who you believe will have the best Reds career when considering things such as floor, upside, numbers to date, and scouting information. You can only pick one and should give a reason for your selection. Fun, right?

Cody Reed (24)

Cody Reed dominated the upper minors in 2015 and half of 2016. He struck out plenty of batters while walking few and had an ERA of 2.17 in AA and 3.08 in AAA. His fastball/slider combo are well regarded among scouts, and he has a changeup that flashes average and shows potential growth.

When Reed reached the majors in 2016, he struggled in ten starts. While his walk (8.3%) and strikeout numbers (18.7%) were solid, he allowed 12 home runs in 47.2 innings and posted a ridiculously high .362 BABIP. The latter two numbers are thankfully impossible to sustain, but scouts have concerns. Eric Longenhagen of Fangraphs has noted several times that Reed’s arm slot gives right handers a great look at his pitches, and the splits bear this out. Right-handers slugged .614 against Reed while lefties slugged .435.

To combat this, Reed has worked on being less predictable and throwing all of his pitches for strikes regardless of the count. No one doubts the stuff, which is really good from the left side and includes a 92-95 MPH fastball. Whether Reed can command his pitches well enough and limit hard contact from right handers remains to be seen.

Robert Stephenson (24)

Robert Stephenson engenders a special kind of frustration among Reds fans. The scouts have shown him plenty of love in the past. As recently as 2015, his stuff was “frontline starter material” with huge upside (Fangraphs). Baseball Prospectus stated that “there are only a handful of players who can match what Stephenson has.”

He possesses a mid-90s fastball and a curveball with “ridiculous depth and spin.” Stephenson’s third pitch, a changeup, has been borderline plus as well. By all accounts, his raw talent screams ace. Because of his elite stuff, Stephenson has and will receive more chances than other players with lesser stuff and better minor league results. Not that he hasn’t enjoyed some minor league success. He dominated A ball in 2013 as a 20-year-old, striking out a Kershaw like 31.3% of batters for the Dayton Dragons. He flashed brilliance at times in AA in 2015. But those same scouts that rave about his pitches also identify his biggest weakness and the root of all frustration among fans: command.

Stephenson’s pitches look great. They just frequently zip and zoom way out of the strike zone. In parts of four seasons at AA or higher, Stephenson has never posted a single-digit walk rate. That’s what we saw from him last season. He dominates when he gets into a rhythm and shows command. When he gets out of sync, which happens all too frequently, he looks borderline Ankielish.  There are also reports that Stephenson’s stuff took a step down in 2016, though velocity went up some during Spring Training this year. If you believe in the pure upside, Stephenson might be your guy, but he comes with plenty of risk.

Amir Garrett (25)

Garrett is an incredible athlete. As you’ve probably heard, he played basketball for St. Johns before giving up the lesser sport to focus on baseball. Since that time, Garrett has shot up prospect lists and overtaken Stephenson as the pitching darling of the system. His walk rates have tended to run a little high, made worse by a tendency to go on walk binges during certain starts. Still, he’s missed a lot of bats in the minors and made huge progress in the last three seasons.

Many people think the jump from A ball to AA is the biggest adjustment in the minors. Garrett challenged that notion by posting a ridiculous 1.75 ERA and 25.1% strikeout rate in 77 innings last season for Pensacola. He failed to match his success in AAA but showed flashes of dominance.

Garrett works in the low 90s and reaches 96. He also throws a slider and changeup, though the slider is more advanced. Baseball Prospectus notes that his changeup must improve, and both Keith Law (ESPN) and Eric Longenhagen (Fangraphs) believe better command is the key. But all see him as a potential mid to front rotation starter.

Brandon Finnegan (24)

Out of these six, we have seen the most out of Finnegan in the Major Leagues. He made 31 starts in 2016, completing 172 innings after pitching a little over 100 the year before. The results were mixed. His ERA was just under 4, which for a 23-year-old is awfully good. But, he had the second worst walk rate (11.4%) among all qualifying starters and a 4.92 SIERA and he allowed 29 home runs. The walk rate improved slightly over the course of the season but not much. Frankly, the questions about whether he is a starter or reliever long term were not completely answered.

However, some serious improvement did occur. Finnegan developed a changeup that dramatically increased his effectiveness. His strikeout rate spiked from 16.6% in the first half to 24.6% in the second half, and hitters batted only .133 against the changeup. They also missed 40% of the time when they swung at the changeup, which probably made them feel silly. So, the walks remain a concern, but they are less so if Finnegan can continue striking out batters at a high rate.

Finnegan works 92-94 with the fastball and also uses a slider. We don’t have much of a track record in the minors, but he limited hits last year with a .256 BABIP. Eno Sarris  predicted that Finnegan would become the Reds’ ace this season, and if you believe in the strikeout rate spike, you can see why.

Rookie Davis (24)

Davis was the main piece in the ill-fated Aroldis Chapman deal, and while we all wanted more for Chapman, Davis should contribute positively in some capacity going forward. In 2015 while still in the Yankees system, he pitched well in A+ with a 25.9% strikeout rate and only a 4.4% BB%. He was reportedly throwing mid 90s with an excellent curveball.

Then, 2016 happened. He posted a tidy 2.94 ERA in 101 innings in AA but the velocity dipped to 90-92 and his strikeout rate plummeted to an abysmal 15% as he dealt with hip flexor, hamstring, and groin injuries throughout the season. The Reds promoted Davis to AAA toward the end of the season, and he got beat around to the tune of a 7.50 ERA in 24 innings.

Well, it appears that some of Davis’ troubles were injury related. He averaged almost 95 MPH on his fastball this spring, and our Enquirer friends reported that Davis added a new slider to his arsenal, a pitch that received rave reviews. If his curveball is truly his best pitch, as some scouts suggest, then the improved velocity and new slider could propel him to new heights in 2017.

Sal Romano (23)

Our friend, Doug Gray, has been the high man on Sal Romano for several years now (although we’ve been talking about him here at RN for a while, too). The Reds drafted Romano as a 17-year-old with an 88-91 MPH fastball. He now consistently throws mid 90s with an above-average slider. His changeup seems to be improving, but it needs more refining for him to reach his potential.

Romano has always permitted a lot of hits in the minor leagues, but he’s adjusted well to each level with some time. For instance, he got lit up in the first half of 2016 in AA with a 4.45 ERA. But, in the second half, he posted a 2.14 ERA and struck out 69 batters with only nine walks in his last 12 starts. That’s an insane strikeout to walk ratio. His peripherals have always been better than his ERA and if he learns to limit hard contact, he will take a big step forward because he doesn’t walk a ton of people.

Romano impressed in Spring Training this year, striking out 25 and walking only three batters in 20 innings. The command is really impressive, and he seems like an average changeup away from being a really good Major League pitcher.

Conclusion

I still have a hard time choosing just one of these guys. Stephenson has the widest range of outcomes. He could be a top of the rotation guy or end up in the bullpen. I don’t like the volatility, so he’s out. I need to see what Davis looks like with improved stuff this season before I’d commit to him. Reed’s arm slot issues are just enough to scare me away, though I see more upside in him than others seem to.

I love strike throwers like Romano and am tempted to take him, but he’s pitched one game that counted over AA, so there’s just not enough data on him. That leaves me with Finnegan and Garrett. It’s hard to ignore Finnegan’s improved changeup and strikeout rate, and I love the experience he’s already had in the Major Leagues.

However, since I have to choose just one, I’m taking the uber-athletic Garrett. Since committing to baseball, he has made huge strides and while almost 25, he seems to have fewer improvements to make than some of the other youngsters.

In a year, my conclusion may change as we gain more information. I can probably be convinced of a different choice right now because of how hard this decision is. Regardless, the Reds have a group of young pitchers to be excited about. Throw in Anthony Desclafani, Raisel Iglesias, and Michael Lorenzen, and the Reds have the makings of an excellent staff.

Your turn. Who has the best Reds career?

35 thoughts on “Who is Cincinnati’s Best Young Starter?

  1. I am going with Finnegan and Romano for the reason the others are more risky. Command and control. Finnegan today, Romano tomorrow.

  2. Finnegan has the lowest risk because he’s shown some ability to get major league hitters out already. My list goes like this (no surprise to you, Nick, since you’ve noted my downness on BobSteve):

    Finnegan
    Garrett
    Reed
    Romano
    Davis
    Stephenson

    • Lowest risk at the top and highest at the bottom. I can understand that. Tough call for me between Reed and Romano if I had to give a complete order of the six.

  3. I’ll go
    Garrett
    Finnegan
    Romano
    Davis
    Stevenson
    Reed

    Young pitchers like this, could end up in any order. There are several other great pitching prospects in the reds system…Tough assignment (to rank these pitchers in order). Ergo, nice article for speculation purposes.

  4. Hi Nick from Caracas, Venezuela, for me:
    – Finnegan
    – Garrett
    – Luis Castillo
    – Romano
    – Reed
    – Stephenson

  5. Finnegan is easy to put at the top of the list, because he has the most ML experience, and seems to have grown and adapted quickly.

    I see Romano and Davis as being somewhat similar: both “big” guys, with a lot of velocity. I actually think the Reds think more of Romano, because they are giving him time in AAA to develop, and throwing Davis into the fire now (and he may end up swapping places with Reed or Stephenson in the BP if he flops as a starter this year).

    Amir Garrett is a great all-around athlete, and will make mistakes but learn quickly. The reports are he has struggled on occasion in the minors with his mechanics, but can be very “on” when he is throwing well.

    Stephenson has been given a lot of opportunities to succeed, and he seems to be struggling now. Perhaps with all his touted potential, he has reached a ceiling.

    Reed has a great arm, but I see him struggling in the Majors until he finds out how to pitch at this level. He does not lack physical talent, but has looked less than impressive in appearances last year. Someday something will click and he will arrive, but who knows when that will happen?

    Upside (short term):
    Finnegan
    Garrett
    Romano
    Davis
    Reed
    Stephenson

    Long term (2 years?)
    Garrett
    Reed (or he may flop spectacularly)
    Romano
    Finnegan (but he may be a left handed Johnny Cueto and rocket up to the top!)
    Davis (may end up in the bullpen)
    Stephenson (who may find himself traded if he doesn’t develop)

    This also leaves out Michael Lorenzen, who may yet get a chance to start in 2018 if he can navigate 2017 in the bullpen without arm problems.

    • I think Lorenzen and Iglesias are done as starters. If they were going to move either one back into the rotation, this would have been the year to do it.

      • On Lorenzen, it depends. Can he get more ABs pitching as a starter-or out of the pen?

      • I am suspect of Iglesias, unless he would work to bulk up his upper body as Homer did a few years ago.

        I think the Reds would still consider Lorenzen as a starter….next year…if he has no more arm/elbow problems in 2017. He has the heart and drive to be a starter, but he has not been able to stand up to the grind of throwing a hundred pitches every 5 days.

        • I don’t know what bulk would do for him. His problem is his shoulder. He throws plenty hard as is. Koufax and Randi Johnson, among many other great pitchers, were not bulky.

  6. Brandon Finnegan
    Sal Romano
    Amir Garrett
    Cody Reed
    Robert Stephenson
    Rookie Davis

    If you want to extrapolate it a level further and project a little more:

    Brandon Finnegan
    Vlad Gutierrez
    Sal Romano
    Luis Castillo
    Amir Garrett
    Tyler Mahle
    Cody Reed
    Robert Stephenson
    Scott Moss
    Rookie Davis
    Tony Santillan

    A few dark horses:

    Jackson Stephens
    Andrew Jordan
    Keury Mella

    And there is a very real possibility of adding someone like Hunter Greene, JB Bukauskas, Alex Faedo, or Brendan McKay this June

    • Very, very much like I see it.

      A 2018 rotation of DeSclafani>Finnegan>Lorenzen>Garrett>Romano could challenge the Mets to be the best 1 through 5 in the NL next year. And the wild card that will be Homer Bailey also in the mix.

    • I don’t think Jackson Stephens is a darkhorse, so much as a guy that just pitches and doesn’t have spectacular velocity/stuff. This year in AAA will be interesting to see how he progresses. If his “inside” numbers stay the same as in AA and the lower minors, I think it means he is ready for the Bigs.

  7. A year and a half ago, Everyone espoused the merits of Reed and Stephenson as the future of the Reds pitching staff. Then came the 2016 reality. Until a pitcher proves capable of getting major league hitters out, he’s unproven. Now Reed and Stephenson are being considered by many as flawed castoffs.

    With this premise in hand, the only young starter who has proven that he can get major league hitters out is Finnegan and Finnegan is looking more and more like a top of the rotation pitcher. Remember that Finnegan was rushed to the majors as a reliever out of organizational necessity, with vitually no minor league development. Because he had some limited success on the big stage as a reliever, when he struggled as a starter at the major league level (again with no minor league development), he began to get a relutation as a flawed starter with an upside at the major league level in the bullpen. I believe Finnegan’s availablility in the trade was a direct result of this thinking and the Reds are the beneficiaries of that thinking.

    Realistically, Finnegan should just now be beginning to compete for a major league opportunity, but he has 1+ years of major league service time and a year of experience as a starter at the major league level. Finnegan will not acheive super-2 status after this season, even with a full season on the major league roster, so he will not be arbitration eligible until the 2019 season and the Reds will have contractual control through arbitration through the 2021 season. Finnegan is the only one of the six young pitchers with any demonstrated capability to get major league hitters out as a starter and his results over the past three months of major league service time have been exceptional.

    Finnegan is at the top of the Old Cossack’s list, with the other five pitchers still unproven. I do believe Garrett and Romano have the best chance of joining Finnegan as stalwarts in the major league rotation down the line and any of the other five could ‘find themselves’ after initially struggling and make the necessary adjustment like Finnegan did to become effective starters at the major league level.

    • I drove the Robert Stephenson bandwagon from 2013-2015, but at this point, he needs to prove he can consistently show control. The fastball has taken a step back, and the curveball that looked so deadly when I saw it in Dayton in 2013 just doesn’t seem the same anymore either.

      The fact that nerves are an issue for Reed is a red flag for me.

      2nd half Finnegan and what we saw in his first start this season is a top 15-20 pitcher in MLB. He’s proving it at the highest level and has the least amount left to project. All he needs now is consistency .

      • ,” but at this point, he needs to prove he can consistently show control.”

        I’ll buy that. And it would be nice if he had ample opportunity to try to develop that consistency. Maybe if two-fifths of the rotation didn’t include Feldman and Arroyo, we’d all have a better look.

        • Absolutely correct. There is no need to burn a 40-man spot on Arroyo during this season and especially at this juncture. Reed or Stephenson should be getting work in the starting rotation now. There are too many unanswered questions with these young pitchers and the Reds need to make hay and find out what they have in these kids this season.

  8. Super pumped that I am going to the game in St. Louis tonight and get to see Garrett’s debut! Unfortunately, my wife and my in-laws are huge Cards fans and are going with me. Hopefully Garrett pitches well and the Reds come out on top!

    My list is:
    1. Finnegan
    2. Garrett
    3. Romano
    4. Reed
    5. Davis
    6. Stephenson

  9. I must agree that Finnegan has the largest major league resume to review, and looked great the other day…. I really like Garrett and think that his ‘potential stick’ is higher.

    We should know more after 2-3 starts when they are scouted more and teams get a line on them.

    Fun to watch!

  10. Man, this is a fun topic/article. Thanks for putting this together.

    My thought process was almost identical to yours.

    With Stephenson I doubt the command will ever improve enough to be an effective starter. Would LOVE to be wrong, it’s just been an issue for a while now, and doesn’t seem to improve. So he’s out.

    Davis, I’m just not sold he has the stuff. Maybe he does, but I foresee the pen calling him in the near future.

    With Reed I have questions about his command at the big league level, the fact that he was hit hard last year, and the HR balls. Pitchers prone to fly balls will give up the long ball in GABP. I like him sticking as a starter but I still have too many concerns as of now.

    Romano, I love the stuff. I believe he was once described as having a depleted uranium sinker (by Cooper maybe…?). The K’s are nice, the command is excellent, and he’s built to be a work horse. He’s a little hittable but also a ground ball machine. If he had more experience in the upper minors, and I was sure there was going to be a spot for him in the rotation, he’d probably be higher up.

    Garrett, he’s a super athletic lefty and has really taken to baseball since fully committing. The BBs are a concern still as is developing a 3rd pitch. I’m also a tiny bit concerned about options. He was added after the 2014 season meaning this is his last option year (if he’s sent down at all). Due to not starting his season on time for the first couple of years he’s a little bit behind the development curve. With that said, he’s done nothing but put up solid numbers since he’s been given the chance.

    That brings me to Finnegan. I like the improvement last year. I like his bulldog mentality on the mound. I like that he’s already here and pitching a full work load. He’s the guy I predict will have the most future success.

  11. Luis Castillo is the best pitcher in the organization right now and I don’t think it’s that close. This kid is an eyeball slicer who pitches with no fear and has three plus pitches that he can throw for strikes in any count. I think he has a big year in the minors and rockets up prospect boards and maybe even gets some starts with the big league club post all star break. I have no idea why the Marlin’s would give this kid up.

  12. This is a great post and topic. I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s thoughts on it and it’s really fun to speculate. Keep in mind that pitchers can change a lot from age 23-24 to age 26-27. Lots of pitchers have terrible first years in the majors, even ones that end up being Hall of Famers. In Greg Maddux’s first full season (1987) his ERA was 5.61, FIP was 4.50 and he walked 4.28 batters in 9 innings. His career numbers ended up 3.16/3.26/1.80. Not saying we have future Maddux’s here, just that we shouldn’t write off the young guys after a bad start or two, or even a season.

  13. I can understand if one says it’s close. They all have strengths and weaknesses. But, you have to go with Finnegan in that group. He showed why last season. And, none of the others have shown yet. Oh, they may end up being better than Finnegan, possibly if not probably. But, now, who would I want if a game was on the line? Finnegan has to be the choice.

    Definitely not writing the others off, either. This is one thing I want to see this season, though. I want some pitching “positions” answered.

  14. Garrett, watching him dominate tonight with his off speed pitches
    Finnegan, experience plus talent

    Castillo, might have the best arm in the organization (Silly Marlins)
    Davis, health and new pitch
    Ramano

    Reed, trying to make a major mechanical changes worries me

    Finally Stephenson…who will likely become a top of the rotation starter for some other team. He’s the classic case of an uber talent individual who won’t listen to criticism until he utterly fails ie gets traded/released.

  15. Finnegan reminds me of Don Norman – and that’s a good thing! Since the middle of last year, he’s been very tough. Just a great competitor. Then we saw last night (4/7) we saw what Garrett is capable of. Wow!! So, my ranking is:

    Finnegan
    Garrett
    Romano
    Reed (I’ve been a big fan since last year. I have faith that he’ll get it, despite getting roughed up – or maybe because of it)
    Castillo
    Davis

    I still think – have hope – that Stephenson will find the control he needs. He could be a very useful cog in the bullpen.

  16. You can’t teach elite ML stuff – that’s why Stephenson is atop my list. The Reds have to work, work, work with young Stephenson – he can be the man that leads a championship caliber staff – I’m talking about winning the whole enchilada in 2-3 years – not just competing in the NL Central.

    When I read, “they frequently zip & zoom out of the strike zone”, that says the young man has velocity and movement. Most pitchers don’t naturally have both. A young guy with a live arm & control problems – how rare! But when he figures it out, watch out! Randy Johnson had some horrific early struggles (led the AL in walks 3 years consecutive), but he ended up as a championship caliber pitcher. And there are numerous other examples that aren’t HOF names, but had terrific careers.

    I will make the case for continued patience with these young guys, especially Stephenson. You have to build 162 game stamina, focus on staying fundamental and provide learning opportunities. As loyal but impatient fans, we want to see the best/finished product today – but it’s going to take time.

    List for start of 2018 season:
    Stephenson
    Finnegan
    Garrett
    Romano
    Reed

    That’s a pretty dang good young staff come 2018, 2019 especially When you throw in the possibilities of Disco, Homer, Rookie and the makings of a solid pen.

  17. I’ll take Romano, in a difficult pick over Garrett. He is physically prepared to be an effective power pitcher so that satisfies the “you can’t teach great stuff guys” but it’s this quote that makes me optimistic: “He’s adjusted well to each level with some time”. MLB is hard – just look at the struggles of Stephenson and Reed, or Steve Mancuso’s example of Greg Maddux. But the guy who adapts, who learns to pitch and get major league hitters out and take best advantage of his natural gifts, that’s the guy I want. Joey Votto wasn’t the can’t miss prospect – that was Jay Bruce. Sal Romano may be the Joey Votto of this pitching group. And if we’re lucky, maybe Garrett will be too!

  18. It’s tough to decipher who will end up being great and who will fall to the wayside. If going by what I’ve seen so far, I’d probably have to throw my hat in the ring for Finnegan and Garrett. I think Romano is young enough in our eyes/patience that he has a lot more time. Reed and Stephenson are tarnished because they were relegated to the bullpen and had their warts last year and I don’t feel much support from the Org. for them. Bailey was always treated as “just you wait” from my memory since he was in the org, I don’t see that for a lot of these new guys, which surprises me with their youth, you’d think they’d be treated with some kid gloves, a little.

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