You’ve likely already read or heard Lisalverto Bonilla will be the man starting on the mound Saturday night versus the Giants in place of Rookie Davis who was sent back to AAA. Just who is Bonilla, how did he come to be a Red and what might we reasonably expect to see from him?
Bonilla’s long and winding road to the Reds
Lisalverto Bonilla, a not-quite-27 year old right handed pitcher, became a Red when Cincinnati claimed him off waivers in February from the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Reds are Bonilla’s fifth MLB organization, adding another twist to the many in Bonilla’s career. The Dominican native signed with the Phillies in 2008 at the age of 18. After advancing as far as class A+ with the Phillies, in December of 2012 Bonilla was traded to the Texas Rangers. At the time he was traded, Bonilla was generally regarded a #10-15 level prospect in the Phillies system.
Bonilla reached MLB with the Rangers in September of 2014 at the age of 24. In 3 September starts Bonilla recorded an ERA of 2.12; but, his xFIP of 4.37 indicates he may have been more lucky than good. Following the season he was not seen as a Rangers top 20 prospect.
At this point fate intervened in the form of elbow woes. Bonilla underwent Tommy John Surgery and did not pitch at all in 2015. After spending the 2015 season on the Rangers disabled list, he was waived and landed with the Dodgers who succeeded in getting Bonilla off their 40 man roster without losing him.
In 2016 Bonilla pitched in the Dodgers minor league system. As noted by Doug Gray here, Bonilla seemed to gain traction as a starter at Class AA and AAA in the second half of the 2016 season. During a run of 13 starts over 75.2 innings, he compiled a 3.45 ERA striking out 76 and posting a K/BB rate of 3.8. At the end of 2016, Bonilla became a minor league free agent and was signed to an MLB contract by the Pirates for 2017. As recounted previously, Bonilla was later waived by the Pirates and claimed by the Reds.
With the Reds
Bonilla was never quite seriously in the mix for the Reds MLB starting rotation during spring training. In mid March, Bryan Price made it official. Bonilla would not make the Reds rotation; he was still seen as a possible Reds reliever. However when the final cuts came, Bonilla was sent back to AAA where he was used only as a starter. Bonilla made five AAA starts interrupted by a call up to the Reds bullpen after his second start. He made a single relief appearance with the Reds then was sent back to AAA and resumed his starting role.
Bonilla overall numbers as a starter at AAA this season do not shout out that he is ready for promotion to a major league rotation. In 5 starts he has pitched 25.2 innings with a FIP of 5.24 and a WHIP of 1.75. A confirmed optimist would point out that his last two starts (1.91 FIP over 9.2 innings) were much better than his first three. However his strikeout, walk, and WHIP rates were all essentially the same as in the first three starts, suggesting luck may have come his way.
Let’s compare Bonilla’s AAA numbers with the MLB numbers of Rookie Davis, the man he replaces in the rotation.
|Lisalverto Bonilla 2017 AAA||5.24||2.10||3.16||9.47|
|Rookie Davis 2017 MLB||5.71||1.42||6.16||7.11|
Two categories immediately jump out, BB/9 and HR/9. Bonilla may walk significantly fewer batters than Davis. However Bonilla’s HR/9 rate could balloon even more at MLB thus offsetting the fewer walks he may allow. Bonilla’s MLB relief appearance earlier this season comes to mind. In an otherwise excellent 5 inning stint versus the Cubs he allowed a 3 run home run which put a competitive game out reach for the Reds. The real story in the numbers though is that FIP indicates neither guy is really ready to be an MLB rotation starter.
Lisalverto Bonilla has been in professional baseball for nearly a decade. Prior to this year, the sum of his MLB experience with three organizations was 6 September appearances, including 3 starts, all which came 3 years ago. I wish Bonilla success; but his record indicates he is merely next man up to grab for the brass ring on the Reds starting pitching carrousel which goes round and round and round.