If you missed the premise of this post, check out yesterday’s position player article. Essentially, you can protect five pitchers in the Reds organization from being picked in an expansion draft. Just because you don’t protect someone, doesn’t mean they are gone, just that they could be chosen by an expansion team. I write lots of words in this one, so let’s get started.
The Reds group of young pitchers is really difficult to project. The following pitchers have all been top 100 pitching prospects at some point by a major outlet:
- Amir Garrett
- Cody Reed
- Robert Stephenson
- Michael Lorenzen
- Luis Castillo
- Brandon Finnegan
- Raisel Iglesias
- Tyler Mahle
Other youngsters have more recently grabbed fan’s and writer’s attention, such as Sal Romano and Rookie Davis. Selecting who to protect depends on whose stuff you believe in the most and whether you think they can command those pitches effectively. I also considered contracts, service time, and injury history. This was extremely difficult for me, and I look forward to dissenting opinions because you could defensibly protect any number of combinations. First, I considered the following pitchers:
- Anthony DeSclafani
- Amir Garrett
- Brandon Finnegan
- Cody Reed
- Luis Castillo
- Michael Lorenzen
- Raisel Iglesias
- Robert Stephenson
- Sal Romano
- Tyler Mahle
All ten pitchers have Major League stuff to varying degrees but come with major question marks. When I began thinking about this exercise I thought I would just choose the five I thought would make the best starters going forward. But as I thought about it, I realized that I needed to be concerned about losing talented arms for nothing, which changed some of my picks.
Also, Vladimir Gutierrez is noticeably missing from consideration. Frankly, I don’t know what to make of him yet.
Guys that Didn’t Make It
Finnegan experienced some success in 2016, posting a 3.98 ERA in 172 innings. But he also had the second highest walk rate among all qualified starters with an 11.4% BB% and posted an FIP of 4.68. Still, as a 23-year-old, Finnegan impressed at the highest level, especially with his changeup. He’s certainly proven his stuff is good enough to get MLB hitters out. Unfortunately, Finnegan has now hurt his upper arm/shoulder area twice, and the Reds should be concerned about his max effort delivery. If he can come back healthy, he obviously has quite a bit of potential, but shoulder issues sometimes portend a move to the bullpen. I’d hate to lose him, but we’ve seen too many other guys with chronic shoulder issues struggle to pitch consistently. With those concerns, Finnegan didn’t make my list.
Desclafani pitched well in both 2015 and 2016, posting 5.1 pitching WAR in 51 starts. His control has always impressed, and he has at times looked like a potential number two starter, though his career ERA is 3.99. The biggest issue with Disco is that he’s only been healthy for one full season and missed major portions of both 2016 and 2017. Desclafani has a partial tear in his UCL, which often leads to Tommy John surgery. He’s under control through 2020, but if he goes under the knife, he may not return until the middle of 2019. Protecting him would be quite a risk.
I know he’s on track to return in August, but I can’t get past possible surgery sooner than later, so Disco gets unprotected.
It was just last season that Reed was the pitching darling of the Reds system. He dominated in AAA early before hitting a bit of a rough patch before getting called up in June. Our own Jason Linden even suggested Reed might be the best pitcher on the Reds staff upon his arrival. That obviously wasn’t the case as he posted a 7.36 ERA, and his peripherals weren’t much better.
The Reds put Reed in the bullpen this season in a perplexing move, and while he had his moments, the strong command he previously displayed in the minors left him. The stuff remains solid, even though scouts worry about his arm slot, but he can’t consistently locate his pitches. On June 8, he went eight innings and struck out six while only walking one. His next start, he walked five batters in only five innings. If the command returns, I think he becomes an effective MLB starter, but it’s hard to gauge when or if that will happen. The uncertainty is enough to keep him off my list.
Romano throws plenty of strikes, which is refreshing after seeing so many youngsters struggle to find the zone. He has elite velocity like Castillo but a tick below him at 96-98. In Romano’s second MLB start, his slider looked really nasty and the combination of fastball, slider, and command makes him an attractive option to protect. At his size, he must also look terrifying to opposing hitters in the box, and his name reminds me of a mafia member who takes care of people, if you catch my drift.
However, while Romano has a changeup, he’s only thrown it five times in roughly 259 big league pitches. That’s concerning to me. Two pitch guys often end up as relievers, and that’s the profile for Romano right now. He’s only 23, and Doug Gray has some confidence that his changeup can be effective. But, he’s been in the organization since he was 17, so it’s not like he hasn’t had the opportunity to work on the change.
The fastball/slider combination is so strong that the changeup just needs to be adequate. If that happens, I believe he’s a middle of the rotation kind of guy. Otherwise, Romano could dominate as a high-leverage reliever. Without a competent third pitch right now, I just can’t use a spot on him.
Robert Stephenson is actually showing signs of commanding his pitches and if that happens, watch out. He’s only walked three batters in his last 27.1 innings while striking out 34. Small sample of course, but Stephenson was so wild previously that his current run seemed impossible a month ago. If this stretch is more trend than outlier, he may indeed be a starter instead of the reliever he seemed destined for.
I’m not jumping on that bandwagon yet, but it wouldn’t be the first time a young pitcher finally got himself together and began living up to the potential. Even though Stephenson has been around forever, he is still just 24 years old, plenty of time to figure it out. Stephenson remains a high-risk, high-reward pitcher that drives everyone crazy. I really want to keep him and went back and forth on him several times. I’m hoping his inconsistency scares off an expansion team.
Coming into 2017, Garrett was a top 100 prospect (#63 Baseball America; #32 Baseball Prospectus) and look at widely as the Reds best pitching prospect. He’s largely struggled in 58.1 innings with the Reds this year. His two biggest issues have been walks (11.0%) and home runs (20). The fastball averages about 92, which isn’t bad, but opposing hitters have teed off on it, hitting 13 bombs and slugging .697.
However, Garrett has shown glimpses of brilliance, like his 7 inning, 12 strikeout performance against Baltimore earlier this season. He’s a phenomenal athlete who played major division I college basketball, so it’s quite possible that he can better control his fastball, changeup, slider arsenal.
While I like the pure stuff of other guys a little more, I trust athletic guys like Garrett to make adjustments more quickly and effectively. And I think he has an extra gear of velocity he hasn’t tapped into. For those reasons, I’m protecting Garrett.
Castillo became everyone’s favorite pitching prospect when he didn’t fall flat on his face upon arrival in the Major Leagues. He’s struck out a ton of batters thus far (29.3%) but also walked quite a few (11.4%). He’s also let up five home runs in three starts but held his own against some difficult lineups.
Castillo’s fastball averages 98 MPH, which is ridiculous for a starter, and his changeup plays well off of it. But the slider is fringy at best causing some to believe he might end up a reliever. However, I have to wonder if scouts have seen him recently. While the slider isn’t polished, it looks much more effective than the scouting reports suggest.
Regardless, guys that throw as hard as Castillo have a bigger margin for error than others, so he can probably get by for a bit while working on the slider. I have no idea how many years the elite velocity can last, but his command is good enough that he could manage to lose a tick or two. No way I’m letting him go.
The Reds seemed ready to ramp up Lorenzen’s usage in the bullpen; Dick Williams even told Chad Dotson on the RLN podcast that they’d like to get him 100+ innings. Well, Lorenzen is on pace for fewer than 90 innings, and pitched more innings per appearance last season coming back from elbow issues/mono than in 2017.
If you take out the Washington debacle last Saturday, Lorenzen’s ERA is 2.76. But that catastrophe did take place, and it exemplified the biggest difference between the dominant Lorenzen of 2016 and the unpredictable one of this season: inconsistent mechanics. Chris Welsh did a wonderful job of identifying the mechanical issues during the broadcast Saturday, and if you’ve watched Lorenzen this season, you’ve seen several appearances where he was just way off.
The unfortunate result has been spotty command in and out of the strike zone. His K% is down at 21.1% (23.8% in 2016), and he’s got an 8.4% BB% if you take out the four intentional walks (6.4% in 2016) His groundball rate went from an otherworldly 62.7% to an above-average 54.7%.
On the positive side, the stuff continues to improve and Lorenzen appears more and more comfortable using his breaking and offspeed pitches as the season progresses.
Remember, his hard stuff includes a cutter that acts a lot like a slider, so if you include that as a breaking pitch, it changes things even more. Outside of Saturday, Lorenzen has dominated in six other scoreless appearances in July, striking out roughly 30% of batters faced so far. I still see a starter who continues to learn how to pitch after being a position player most his life, and the Reds appear willing to entertain the idea now. He’s protected in part because I can’t imagine an expansion team not taking him. He’s a 25 year old that has proven he can’t get people out, and I’d free him to throw his five pitches for six to eight innings.
I think Iglesias is the best pitcher on the staff, and it’s not that close. If he was a starter, he would likely be the Reds’ number one, but alas, the cruelties of pitching injuries have restricted him to the bullpen. As a reliever, he has overwhelmed hitters by striking them out over 30% of the time and holding opponents to the .161 batting average. He walks too many guys, but his other numbers are so strong that it doesn’t seem to be a problem.
The fastball averages over 96 MPH out of the pen, and his slider is almost unhittable as batters slug .135 against the pitch. Still, Iglesias is on pace for fewer than 80 innings and while those may be dominant innings, their value pales in comparison to a solid starter. That’s a big strike against him.
But, an expansion team would also surely pick a talent like Iglesias with years of control remaining. Protecting him ensures that the Reds can trade him as teams overpay for quality relievers near the deadline, even at the risk of losing another young, talented starter. Tough call. But, I’m not losing him for nothing, and I’m only trading him in the right deal.
Like Reed and Stephenson before him, Mahle is the new savior of the pitching staff. He was under the radar coming into the season with several outlets not even ranking him as a top ten prospect in the Reds organization. Now, Baseball America ranks Mahle as the 78 best prospect in all of baseball. What in the world happened?
First, Mahle has gained some velocity; he used to sit 88-92 but now works 91-94 and can ramp it up when he wants to. He apparently has pinpoint control with the heater as well. Second, he embarrassed AA hitters this season, throwing a perfect game and posting a 1.85 ERA in 85 innings. That’ll do Mr. Mahle.
The biggest concern is that Mahle doesn’t have great offspeed or breaking stuff at the moment. He throws a ton of fastballs to make up for it, so I’m uneasy about what that looks like when he reaches the Majors. Good fastball command can dominate AA, but pitchers need to bring other offerings to the table at the highest level. Maybe it won’t matter, and at 22, he could still improve his secondary pitches, but he’s not a sure thing by any stretch. I prefer the stuff of others guys, but Mahle’s higher floor makes him a safer guy to protect than a Robert Stephenson.
This list changed several times throughout the writing process, and if you gave me another day to think about it, I’d probably change my mind again. As I stated earlier, my list would be different if I just picked the five I think would be the best starters. Right now, it’s hard to tell if Reed’s command will return with his new mechanics or if Stephenson has finally found some control or if Garrett can recapture his early season success and so on. The answers to these questions will dictate the amount of success the Reds have in the next 3-5 years.