Before the 2017 season, Steve declared this A Season for Sorting:
The Reds may or may not already have the pieces they need to be a contender in 2018 and beyond. No one has the answer to that. No one. If it turns out the Reds need more players, they’ll consider major trades or free agent signings. Perhaps they’ll package young pitching for hitting. Because, braindead clichés aside, you can have too much pitching relative to hitting in an organization.
But this isn’t the season for those moves. It’s time for sorting what we have.
Reds General Manager Dick Williams echoed those thoughts, when he said (in reference to the 2017 season): “This next year will really help us crystalize who goes where.”
After this season, we’ll do a deep dive here at Redleg Nation to determine exactly what we’ve learned after all the sorting has been done. There are still five weeks left in the season, and there are plenty of questions that still need to be answered. But the 2018 picture is beginning to fill in a little, and there are some surprising developments.
Two weeks ago, I tweeted this little gem:
The closest thing the Reds have to a sure bet for the 2018 rotation is a guy who was in Double-A a couple of months ago.
— Chad Dotson (@dotsonc) August 17, 2017
That’s probably still true. Luis Castillo (age 24) has been more than anyone expected after being called up from Double-A Pensacola at the end of June. His record is only 2-7 — I haven’t heard anyone mention that, surprisingly, which is an indication of how far we’ve come in analyzing pitchers — but his ERA is 3.26 over 13 starts. And it isn’t just his ERA; the advanced metrics all agree that Castillo has been outstanding. His ERA+ is 135. His xFIP: 3.65.
And check out this chart, which shows that Castillo has the highest average fastball velocity of any starter (minimum 50 innings pitched) in the entire major leagues, at 97.8 mph. He’s a potential ace of the staff.
So yeah, Castillo is still the best bet for the 2018 starting rotation. For most of the season, however, I think we’ve all been more than a little dismayed at the lack of progress demonstrated by this group of young starting pitchers, as a whole. But in the last couple of weeks, against all expectations, more youngsters have begun to stake a claim for 2018.
In August, all #Reds pitchers
age ≤ 26: 118 IP, 3.75 ERA, 8.6 K/9, 0.8 HR/9
age ≥ 27: 112.2 IP, 7.83 ERA, 9.5 K/9, 2.0 HR/9
— Joel Luckhaupt (@jluckhaupt) August 29, 2017
Let’s look at some of the individuals:
I was in the park for Romano’s big league debut back in April, which did not go well. He’s battled through injury and inconsistency, but lately Romano has clearly begun to settle in. He has pitched at least six innings in five of his six starts in August. In his last three outings, Romano has posted quality starts, tossing 20 innings with a 2.70 ERA as the Reds won all three.
Oh yeah, and if you check out the velocity chart above, you’ll see that Romano’s average fastball (96.1) is the 11th-highest in all of baseball.
He has stuff, but Romano is still a work in progress. His ceiling may be “#3 starter” but there is no question that he has earned his way into the conversation.
Did you see Mahle’s big league debut last weekend? He ended up allowing 3 runs in five innings, but looked more poised than a 22 year-old rookie has any right to look. Of note, Mahle did walk four batters, and control has been a huge problem for almost all of these young pitchers. But I’m not worried about Mahle.
You see, Mahle has better command than nearly anyone else in the organization. Check out his minor league numbers.
Dayton (Low-A, 2015): 2.43 ERA, 135 strikeouts, 25 walks, 152 IP.
Daytona (High-A, 2016): 2.50 ERA, 76 strikeouts, 17 walks, 79.1 IP.
Pensacola (Double-A, 2016): 4.92 ERA, 65 strikeouts, 20 walks, 71.1 IP.
Pensacola (Double-A, 2017): 1.59 ERA, 87 strikeouts, 17 walks, 85 IP.
Louisville (Triple-A, 2017): 2.73 ERA, 51 strikeouts, 13 walks, 59.1 IP.
This is actually why I’m so high on both Castillo and Mahle. Those guys threw more strikes in the minors than any of their peers in this group. Sure, they’ve been a little inconsistent so far on the big league level in terms of throwing strikes. That’s what young pitchers do. I’m hopeful they’ll figure it out.
Mahle has shot up from Low-A to the big leagues in two years, based strictly on the fact that he’s been pretty well dominant every step of the way. I wouldn’t be surprised if he never went back to the minor leagues.
He may be the most frustrating of all the pitchers in the group, but I mentioned on twitter recently that even Stephenson seemed to be making progress. Until I read this piece by Lance McAlister, however, I didn’t realize how good he’d been in August. In four appearances (three starts), Stephenson is 2-0 with a 1.96 ERA and he’s holding opposing batters to a slash line of .182/.304/.258.
Sure, he’s still desperately trying to master the command of all his pitches — he’s walked 10 and struck out 21 in 18.1 innings this month — and the improvement we’ve seen has been in a tiny sample size. But I think it’s incontrovertible that we’ve seen some progress from Stephenson since he returned from the minor leagues (after an order from the Reds to throw strikes…or else). And here’s another fact: Stephenson has the best stuff of any of these guys. When he’s throwing strikes, he’s unhittable.
The best thing about these four guys: their ages.
Luis Castillo: 24
Robert Stephenson: 24
Sal Romano: 23
Tyler Mahle: 22
And let’s keep going…
Cody Reed: 24
Amir Garrett: 25
Rookie Davis: 24
Brandon Finnegan: 24
(Anthony DeSclafani: 27)
And what about the relievers?
Michael Lorenzen: 25
Ariel Hernandez: 25
Wandy Peralta: 25
(Raisel Iglesias: 27)
That’s a lot of young pitching with a ton of talent. Some of them have to work out, right?
In that “Sorting” piece linked above, Steve laid out very nicely the questions facing the Reds in regards to the starting rotation:
Homer Bailey, DeSclafani, Dan Straily and Brandon Finnegan have presumptive spots in the rotation. But Cody Reed, Amir Garrett, Robert Stephenson and Rookie Davis should get good looks facing major league pitching and could challenge for several of those slots. Beyond that list, the club still has to determine what roles Raisel Iglesias’ shoulder and Michael Lorenzen’s pitch portfolio will allow.
Straily, of course, was traded for Castillo. Huzzah! Bailey, Disco, and Finnegan have all demonstrated an ability to pitch effectively at the big league level, and an equal affinity for the disabled list. If any of those guys can return to form and remain healthy, it’s a huge boost to the 2018 rotation. You have to put them as “unknowns” right now.
And hope hasn’t been lost for the young guys who haven’t shown as much (or any) progress this season. I was as high as anyone on Cody Reed before this season; he’s just bursting with talent. Reed’s ERA is just 3.66 at Louisville, but he’s continuing to struggle with the strike zone. He did allow just one hit in three shutout innings in his last outing, and he didn’t walk a batter (21 strikes, 6 balls). Either Reed will put it all together or he won’t, but it’s not time to give up hope yet.
Rookie Davis made the Opening Day roster, and has suffered through injury and poor performance at times during the season. He’s healthy now, though, and beginning to perform effectively at Triple-A. For the season, Davis is 4-3 with a 4.17 ERA; in his last four starts, he has struck out 26 hitters and walked one. You would expect Reed and Davis to get an opportunity for more big league starts in September, especially since Castillo and Mahle are approaching their innings limits.
Amir Garrett…well, I don’t know what to say about Garrett. After his magnificent performance in the Reds rotation early in the year, he’s had a rough time. Garrett has to be injured, right? He has performed so well during his entire professional career, and was even dominant at times. Because I choose to be optimistic, I’m just going to assume that he’ll get healthy and be back to his old self by next spring.
Yes, the 2017 rotation has been an abject disaster in almost every way. But recently we’ve seen some real progress from some of the kids, all of whom are under the age of 25. I know I’ve been daydreaming about this all week, but is it possible that the Reds aren’t far from having an effective rotation?
Time will tell. I know I’ll be watching closely over the next five weeks, just to see who else gets sorted out…or in.
Blame Chad for creating this mess.
Chad launched Redleg Nation in February 2005, and has been writing about the Reds ever since. His first book, “The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds” is now available in bookstores and online, at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and wherever fine books are sold. You can also find Chad’s musings about the Cincinnati Reds in the pages of Cincinnati Magazine.
You can email Chad at firstname.lastname@example.org.