The Reds current rotation consists of only two real prospects, and one of them, Rookie Davis, should probably be in the minor leagues. For all of the talk about a youth movement and figuring out the rotation of the future, the Reds seem content to fill innings with Band-Aids.
We may have expected one of Scott Feldman, Bronson Arroyo, or Tim Adelman to hold a spot in the rotation while others developed but not all three.
I have felt all along that they had a plan, and they likely do, but the contrast is stark between how previous management developed Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey and how the current group is using heralded youngsters Cody Reed and Robert Stephenson.
Cueto and Bailey were thrown in the deep end as young players and both struggled to keep their heads above water for two plus years before blossoming into effective starting pitchers. The Reds allowed them to sink to the depths before they learned to swim with the big fish.
Bailey made his debut as a 21-year-old in June of 2007 and was crowned the savior of the organization from day one. He came tumbling down from that throne with each walk, home run, and hard hit ball. He bounced back and forth from the Reds to AAA from 2007-2009 and posted a 5.45 ERA, 4.85 xFIP, and 15% K% in 195 innings. Not once did he make a relief appearance, though.
Cueto started the 2008 season the Reds rotation and would start 61 games over the next two seasons. His numbers over that span are only slightly better than Bailey’s: 4.61 ERA, 4.41 xFIP, and a 19.2% K%. He also let up 53 home runs combined in 2008-2009. Cueto made zero relief appearances and was never sent back to the minor leagues.
The Reds of the Krivsky/Jocketty era were content to allow young pitchers to muddle through the difficulties of pitching against the best hitters in the world. While fans called for Bailey’s trade and Reds announcers proclaimed that Cueto would never get it, the Reds remained patient.
Bailey and Cueto both began their ascent in 2010 with Cueto eventually becoming one of the best pitchers in baseball. The Reds could have easily justified putting both in the bullpen as they limped through multiple seasons. With their talent, Bailey and Cueto would have likely succeeded in getting 3-6 outs at a time and may have become full-time relief pitchers.
But the Reds were adamant that their two youngsters were starters and allowed them to work through inconsistencies and poor performance in a rotation. That worked out pretty well for the franchise as Bailey and Cueto’s rise contributed heavily to the successful 2010-2013 run.
Now, the Reds again need young pitchers to reach their potential to open a new window of winning. Two names near the top of that list are Cody Reed and Robert Stephenson. Both were top 100 prospects on many prospect rankings going into 2016 with Stephenson the higher rated of the two, but Reed surpassed Stephenson this past off season according to Baseball America.
In spite of their 2016 struggles, many of us expected them to begin the season as starters for the Reds. We have countless examples of young pitchers laboring through several years of poor results before turning around their careers. Instead, the Reds put Reed and Stephenson into the MLB bullpen where they could work with Reds coaches but have limited impact on the team’s success.
This approach to developing starters is not new. Notably, the St. Louis Cardinals have used it several times to great avail. The insidious Adam Wainwright and his young comrade, Carlos Martinez, both spent full seasons in the bullpen before transitioning to starting roles.
Wainwright threw 75 innings exclusively out of the pen in 2006 before throwing 202 innings the next season as a starter. Martinez pitched mostly out of the bullpen in 2013 and 2014 before making 29 starts in 2015.
Maybe, the Reds are following a similar plan with Reed and Stephenson, though the Cardinals were throwing out better pitchers than Feldman, Adelman, and 40-year-old Arroyo in front of their youngsters. They could learn at the Major League level and return to starting after some success.
And yet, Bryan Price’s comments after Reed’s one disastrous start make it appear the Reds have lost faith in Reed as a long-term starter already (C. Trent Rosecrans reporting). The young lefthander “may” get another start but not for a while and would probably need to go to AAA to stretch out again before that start takes place.
Robert Stephenson seems even more buried in the bullpen and in fairness, the results haven’t been great. The Reds have shown no signs that he is starting anytime soon.
I’m not panicking, but we should be somewhat concerned. With the Band-Aids and underdeveloped Davis in the rotation, now seems like the perfect time to see if Reed and Stephenson can make progress as MLB starters. The Reds currently rank dead last in starting pitching ERA, WAR, and innings pitched. What do they have to lose?
The big question is whether they will get the Michael Lorenzen treatment if they dominate in the bullpen (as Reed initially has) or if they will transition back to starters. Lorenzen is now infamously stuck in the bullpen after being rushed to the majors as a starter. He made less than 30 total starts in the minors before his Reds debut while playing centerfield as a college player. Yikes.
The Reds quickly gave up on Lorenzen as a starter even after he developed better pitches, though Reds GM Dick Williams left the door open to Lorenzen’s return to the rotation.
Now that Reed and Stephenson have struggled as starters, will they be relegated to the bullpen long-term before we figure out their potential? It seems more like a possibility as you watch the way they are used, especially as the current rotation continues to cause headaches and the two youngsters remain deep in the bowels of the bullpen.
Williams recently told our own Chad Dotson that the Reds did not want to give up on starters too early because of how important the rotation is to the success of a team. Because Williams was talking to a judge, I believe he was under oath, though I don’t understand our legal system completely.
Williams has impressed me thus far in his tenure, and if he truly believes what he says, the Reds will give Reed and Stephenson an extended look at some point. It’s a long season and the calendar just flipped to May, so I still expect them to.
But based on Williams comments about the importance of starters, I would have expected them to give Lorenzen a look as well and they likely won’t. The contrast of development between past starters and Reed and Stephenson gives me pause as well. I don’t understand what current plan is, but I’m willing to give them some leeway for a bit. That rope is only so long before we should get majorly concerned.
Yes, the Reds have other young starters as well. However, Sal Romano, Tyler Mahle, and Luis Castillo all need more time in the minors just as Lorenzen did and Bailey before him. The time for Reed and Stephenson is now. Let’s hope the Reds know what they are doing.
UPDATE: The Reds optioned Cody Reed to AAA today. I haven’t seen anything yet, but I expect him to start down there. Probably a good move to get him more innings and repetitions instead of going so long between appearances out of the MLB bullpen.