No Homer Bailey. No Anthony DeSclafani. No Brandon Finnegan.
2018 will be a year of reckoning for the Reds; the final beta test for the rebuild that thinks it can. There’s nothing wrong with the rotation Jason Linden lists above, in fact that stable of arms has a good chance to be electric. Even Tim Adleman has proven he can be a decent Major Leaguer, if not particularly dominant. But still, the absences are glaring. Without Bailey, DeSclafani, and Finnegan, the Reds trade certainty for promise — injuries robbing the rebuild’s timetable of its definitiveness. But are the Reds actually worse off without their three top guys? Or more accurately, is assuming that Finnegan, DeSclafani, and Bailey can be the top three guys ever again foolhardy in the first place?
Since 2015, Finnegan and DeSclafani’s first full seasons in the Majors, the three pitchers have thrown a combined 580.0 innings. Assuming a frontline starting pitcher, which all three are supposed to be, averages 200.0 innings a season, then over the course of two and a half seasons, the Reds top three starters have contributed just over one starter’s worth of workload.
Finnegan and DeSclafani have each had one full season worth of starts over the past three years, with injuries derailing any chance either had to pitch a full year’s worth in 2017.
By nature a fickle and feckless thing, injuries are impossible to predict. Each ailment affects a pitcher’s body differently; each pitcher’s body reacts to similar ailments differently. Matt Harvey bounced back from Tommy John surgery with nary a hitch in his stats before a different shoulder ailment, thoracic outlet syndrome, was his undoing. Josh Johnson had two Tommy John surgeries before a third final knocked him from the game whereas one shoulder injury spiraled into another for Brandon Webb, knocking him out of the game effectively in 2009. Tim Lincecum, C.J. Wilson, Mark Prior — with pitcher injuries, a trend tends to emerge: You can recover from the first shoulder issue, but you can’t outrun the second.
The caveat therein is that shoulder injuries tend to affect a pitcher’s long term viability far more than elbow injuries, even those of a more serious nature such as Tommy John. Look at Matt Harvey — full bounce back from TJ, loss of effectiveness after shoulder surgery. Or compare Josh Johnson and Brandon Webb, both dominant in their heyday. Johnson still strung it together, albeit less effective, after two TJ surgeries whereas Webb was done after one prolonged bout with shoulder injuries.
That’s not a hard and fast rule of course because nothing is, but by and large, the word “shoulder” should carry more dread than should “elbow.”
However, look no further than the Reds’ own bullpen for a shoulder injury success story. Raisel Iglesias went down with shoulder impingement and came back as one of the more dominating relievers in the league. That said, Iglesias also became a reliever due to the injury — often times a lower stress environment for the arm.
There’s a chance that the Reds big three will be in fair condition come Opening Day 2018, but I wouldn’t count on it. Each have racked up their second arm injury already, and each average just a touch below 94 mph on their fastballs. According to Jeff Zimmerman of the Hardball Times, “A pitcher who throws a fastball harder than 93 mph is almost twice as likely to end up on the DL, for an average of 60 days, than one who throws less than 90 mph.” Power pitching is a draining exercise, especially so on already reconstructed arms.
But that ignores the differences in each of the three’s injuries. Homer Bailey, for instance, has battled elbow injuries — Tommy John and bone spur removal, a common after effect of TJ. Recovery from those injuries often does not lead to further injuries the way shoulders can, however, Bailey will have likely lost some of his effectiveness, the question being how much.
DeSclafani is in similar boat with a sprained UCL and an oblique injury. Though both injuries have a tendency to linger before turning into something more serious, there is no guarantee that DeScalani will have any future problems. Michael Lorenzen also sprained his UCL back in 2015, and he’s been effective out of the pen, if not lights out like Iglesias.
Which brings us to Brandon Finnegan — two shoulder injuries in less than a calendar year. It’s the timing for Finnegan that worries me, with his second injury, different from the first, coming in his first outing back. Of the three, Finnegan has the most potential to fall into the Webb mold of never fully making it back to the mound.
Answering the second question posed in the opening — yes, it is ridiculous to put the hopes of turning the Reds’ rotation around on Finnegan, DeSclafani, and Bailey. In all likelihood, one of the pitchers has seen the last of his days being an effective Major Leaguer (Finnegan), one will bounce back fully (DeSclafani), and one will potentially cut it as a mid-rotation guy for a bit longer (Bailey). All carry an increased risk of another arm injury, which being their third, would likely spell the end of their career.
Granted, the trio could defy the odds with two or even all three bouncing back, but that’s like wishing for a snow day in April. Possible, yes; likely, no.
Instead, the Reds must make a business decision. DeSclafani should be safe — he’s not old enough to be cut adrift and his contract doesn’t make retaining him a problem. Also, his injuries are the least severe of the three, letting him easily slot into next year’s rotation. However, step one should be coming off of the disabled list, so I’ll withhold further judgment on Disco.
With Homer Bailey’s contract as hefty as it is, the Reds have been forced into a position of hoping and praying that his elbow lasts. There’s no potential to trade him, as no team with take on a pitcher who hasn’t pitched meaningfully in over two years and is owed that much money. Cutting him and eating the money would just be to the detriment of future contending teams. Hoping he can maneuver himself into a decent three-starter is all that’s left.
As for Finnegan, it might be time to say goodbye, at least to his time as a starter. Under team control and in the worst position of the three, hoping for him to come back only wastes a rotation spot a young guy without shoulder problems could have. Yes, Finnegan is young and has a lot of time in front of him to recover, but is it worth it? If the rotation next year shapes up to be Disco, Garrett, Bailey, and Reed, do you hope for Finnegan or give that spot to Castillo? Can we even count on Disco to be there?
Injuries are a part of baseball and sadly they derailed the Reds’ master rebuild. However, the time for the Reds’ front office to dwell on what could have been has passed. It’s time for the young guys to make their mark, so the 2018 Opening Day rotation shouldn’t have Finnegan and or put any great hope in DeSclafani and Bailey. Focusing on the big three at this point is simply irresponsible.