2017 Reds / 2018 Reds

Organizing the Starting Pitching Competition

The Reds expect their rotation to improve in 2018 and how could they not. This season, the Reds gave 46 combined starts to Lisalverto Bonilla, Bronson Arroyo, Tim Adelman, and Asher Wojciechowski. Next year, they expect to pitch only guys who may have a future as starters with the team.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article in response to an Enquirer piece where Dick Williams suggested the Reds would seek a quality starter for next season. They will definitely explore the possibility.

As things stand now, though, the Reds have a bunch of guys that could impress enough at Spring Training to secure a spot. While Sal Romano, Robert Stephenson, and Tyler Mahle have impressed to varying degrees, we must consider important factors like peripherals, level of competition they’ve faced, and service time. Suggesting they have put themselves in a good position is accurate. Suggesting they all have earned a spot is negligent.

As the season ends, we can begin to see what the competition will be like. Instead of ranking players, which would require us to split hairs depending on the pitching characteristics we value, I find it helpful to categorize players into tiers. These tiers are fluid and as we see some performances down the stretch or hear health news, they could change, but I think they are a fair representation of where the competition currently is.

Tier 1: The Locks

Barring something completely unexpected, these guys will be in the rotation on Opening Day.

Homer Bailey

Key 2017 Stats

  • 17 starts
  • 100.2 IP
  • 94 MPH fastball velocity

Bailey will always feel like an injury risk, but he has pitched enough this season with pre-injury stuff to get the benefit of the doubt going into next year. He has shown signs of his former self, and the Reds hope he can become more consistent as he continues to work his way back from multiple surgeries. With his track record, he’s a lock.

Questions that Remain: Will he stay healthy and return to pre-injury form?

Luis Castillo

Key 2017 Stats

  • 27.3% K%
  • 58.8% GB%,
  • 12.2% LD%

It’s hard to oversell just how impressive Castillo was in his rookie season. He held opposing batters to a .198 AVG and a line drive percentage that was 8% below league average. In his last start against a contending Brewers team, he struck out ten while walking no one. Oh, and he throws 98. Castillo has ace potential and definitely begins the season in the Reds rotation.

Questions that Remain: Will he continue to improve the slider? Can he limit homeruns?

Tier 2A: The Walking Wounded

They have a bit of a track record, but major injuries have put their status in question.

Anthony Desclafani

Key 2017 Stats

  • 2 minor league innings pitched
  • 0 surgeries

Desclafani is still only 27 with three more years of control and has had success in the big leagues, posting a 4.04 SIERA in 341 innings. However, Disco has dealt with injuries for two straight seasons, and major surgery remains a possibility. After not throwing close to 150 innings for two straight yeras, can the Reds count on him to provide that many in 2018? That seems unlikely, but if he’s healthy, Desclafani will probably start in the rotation unless the Reds want to ease him back into the mix.

Questions that Remain: Will he stay healthy? Will he be the same pitcher after fighting injuries for two seasons? Will he be able to pitch significant innings?

Brandon Finnegan

Key 2017 Stats

  • 2 shoulder injuries
  • 4 big league starts

Finnegan had multiple shoulder injuries this year, hurting the same muscle in a different spot in his comeback in June. Even if the shoulder doesn’t become a chronic issue, Finnegan’s command issues (11.4% BB%) and ugly peripherals (4.92 SIERA) from 2016 should concern the Reds.

He did show a lot of promise as his changeup developed in 2016, putting up a 2.93 ERA in the second half. His peripherals improved as well due largely to a significant increase in strikeouts. Still, he should have to compete for a spot rather than being handed one.

Questions that Remain: Will the shoulder issues be a continual problem? Does he have the command to start?

Tier 2B: The Upper hands

They’ve shown enough in the minors or Major Leagues to gain a step on their peers.

Sal Romano

Key 2017 Stats

  • 51.5% GB%
  • 4.07 ERA
  • 4.69 SIERA

Known as a strike thrower, Romano struggled with control through his first eight starts. But in his last six, he has only a 7% BB% and posted a 2.09 ERA. He’s had the benefit of facing the Pirates and Mets twice each, both with poor offenses amplified by injuries. Regardless, the improved control is encouraging, and while Romano hasn’t guaranteed himself a spot, he has put himself above some of his peers heading into Spring Training.

Questions that Remain: Will his recent trends continue against better competition? Is the changeup good enough over the long term?

Tyler Mahle  

Key 2017 Stats

  • 2.06 ERA (AA-AAA)
  • 5.4 BB% (AAA)
  • 9 homeruns allowed

Mahle rocketed in the top 100 on most prospect lists with a superb minor league campaign. His starts with the Reds were a mixed bag. His 2.70 ERA looks nice, but the way he did it was unsustainable. Mahle struck out only 15.2% of batters and walked 12%.

Known for his control, we would expect those numbers to improve, but it’s clear that Mahle still has some work to do. Scouts also continue to question his offspeed stuff and delivery. His continued development may come in the Reds rotation or in AAA, where the Reds could gain another year of control if Mahle pitches for five or six weeks.

Questions that Remain: Will he adjust to the Major League strikezone? Is his breaking and offspeed stuff good enough to be a top of the rotation guy?

Tier 3: The Talented, Yet Unproven

They might have the best stuff of the competitors, but serious questions remain.

Amir Garrett

Key 2017 Stats

  • 11.8% BB%
  • 23 homeruns in 67.1 IP
  • 7.49 ERA

Garrett has good stuff and is wildly athletic, meaning he will compete for a spot in Spring Training. Like the other players in this category, he has not consistently thrown strikes. After Garrett returned from a hip injury, he started throwing harder, an encouraging sign, but until he reduces both his walk percentage and homerun rate, he will have little success.

I’m a fan, but it’s clear Garrett has some serious delivery issues to work through.

Questions that Remain: Does he have enough command to start? Will he be able to limit homeruns in GABP?

Robert Stephenson

Key 2017 Stats

  • 14.5% BB%
  • 12.9% SwStr%
  • 4.86 SIERA

Bob Steve has undoubtedly improved since he was rocked repeatedly during the early season, but he still has a long way to go. In his last six starts, he has an excellent 2.84 ERA and struck out over 29% of batters. That’s awesome. He’s also walked over 15% of the batters he’s faced during that time. For context, the highest BB% among qualified starters is 10.8%, so it’s hard to be successful like that for an extended period of time. Plus, the Reds have shown little patience for guys who walk people in bunches.

On the flip side, Stephenson generates a lot of swings and misses. His swinging strike percentage is 3% better than the league average for starters, a testament to his excellent stuff. He just needs fringe average command to be successful but isn’t close to that right now. Stephenson’s last two starts will be telling as he faces some teams with solid offenses.

Questions that Remain: Will he throw enough strikes to be effective over an extended period?

Michael Lorenzen

Key 2017 Stats

  • 54.4 GB%
  • 9.1 BB%
  • 3.81 SIERA

Lorenzen wants to start, and Bryan Price appears open to the possibility. Lorenzen’s season is a testament to how bad mechanics can have immediate negative consequences. Around the All Star break, he introduced a strange recoil to his delivery, a motion meant to keep him better aligned with the plate. Instead, he failed to extend properly during his release and lost life on his pitches.

Opposing hitters took advantage in a big way, hitting line drives in bunches and batting .322 off of him. From the All Star Break until he gave up the recoil on August 24, Lorenzen let up 18 runs in 20.1 innings, a 7.97 ERA. Before and after the recoil, he’s thrown 59.2 IP and given up only 19 runs, a 2.87 ERA (2.63 ERA since abandoning the recoil, even after last night). If the mechanics are truly ironed out, it would behoove the Reds to at least look at Lorenzen as a starter in Spring Training. Make him force the issue or be put back in the pen.

Questions that Remain: Will his stuff hold up in longer outings? Does he have the command to start? With his injury history, will starting cause another elbow problem? Because of Lorenzen’s stuff, the Reds should at least take a look and see what he can offer.

Tier 4: The Long shots

They find themselves behind their peers, but if injuries or trades happen, they could compete for a spot.

Jackson Stephens

Key 2017 Stats

  • 4.92 ERA (AAA)
  • 4.23 xFIP (AAA)
  • 93.8 MPH fastball

Stephens had really nice seasons in 2015 and 2016, posting high 2 and low 3 ERAs. But, he struggled in AAA this year in 139 innings. Doug Gray likes the curveball, and he did touch 97 in an adrenaline filled start against the Cubs earlier this year. Stephens has looked solid at times with the Reds, but he either isn’t ready to start in the big leagues or will end up a reliever.

Questions that Remain: Does he have enough stuff to get Major Leaguers out? Will he be moved to the bullpen?

Rookie Davis

Key 2017 Stats

  • 4.47 ERA (AAA)
  • 3.93 xFIP (AAA)
  • 5.0% BB% (AAA)

I wrote in April that Davis wasn’t ready for the big leagues, and that still seems to be the case. He has never had success at AAA, and his peripherals in AA last year suggested he had unsustainable results. Thus far, teams have lit him up in the Majors. He, like Stephens, needs more time in the minors or a transition to the bullpen where his stuff can play up.

Questions that Remain: Does he have enough stuff to get Major Leaguers out? Will he be moved to the bullpen?

Cody Reed

Key 2017 Stats

  • 3.55 ERA (AAA)
  • 12.7 BB% (AAA)
  • 21.3% K% (MLB)

Reed seems dangerously close to becoming a reliever. Up until this season, he did not walk many people, but as he tinkered with his mechanics, he lost the ability to throw strikes consistently. The fact that the Reds started Davis and Stephens ahead of Reed late this season speaks volumes about where he is in the pecking order. I give him a punchers chance to change minds because of his stuff, but he has a mountain to climb to do it.

Questions that Remain: Has he run out of chances to legitimately compete for the rotation? Will better mechanics make him effective again?

What Happens?

Again, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Reds acquire a pitcher in a deal that could include some of the players on this list. That would change everything. If not, Desclafani and Mahle are huge wild cards. Disco likely gets a spot if healthy, and Mahle may have to dominate in Spring Training to stay with the Reds because of service time considerations. If those guys aren’t in the rotation, things open up exponentially.

Besides Castillo and Bailey, I see Romano as close to securing a spot unless he gets rocked in his last few starts. That would leave Finnegan, Mahle, and the players from tier 3 to compete for one or two spots, depending on Desclafani’s health.

Barring another wave of injuries, the Reds look to be in good shape heading into next season. A lot will likely happen between now and Opening Day, but the Reds have more raw pitching talent than they’ve had in a long time. Because of that, 2018 could be really fun.

 

31 thoughts on “Organizing the Starting Pitching Competition

  1. Fantastic post, Nick. It helps to sort it out like that. Like you say, some of the categories are close together and a few players could switch.

    When both are healthy, DeSclafani is a *much* better pitcher than Finnegan. Both of them are pretty large injury risks, though.

    It’s telling how much fortunes change over a year, even over an offseason. Look at how stocks rose and fell (and rose and fell) since this time last year. Many of the pitchers on this list are so young, with a relatively short track record. It would be a surprise if the same up-and-downs and surprises didn’t happen this coming season.

    • Yes, I agree on Disco and Finnegan. The big connection isn’t really where they are in terms of performance but their health. I struggled with what to do with Finnegan here.

  2. Nick thanks for the great summary.

    For me, Stephenson and Lorenzen belong in the same category as Mahle and Romano which is what makes 2018 so promising despite the retaining of Price.

    Only other quibble: Homer Bailey belongs in Tier 3. His contract is a sunk cost. He can definitely contribute to the team next year, but there is no way he should be a lock for the rotation. Perhaps he can be the sixth of a six man rotation or used like the Montgomery’s of the Yankees and Cubs. There is no way of repping Bailey’s performance this year to be more hopeful or successful than that of Mahle’s or Romano’s, and he simply does not have the swing and miss ability possessed by Stephenson.

    With Bailey’s 2016 and 2017 track record, the introduction of the juiced ball, and the swift evolution toward the plethora of 95-100mph flamethrowers in MLB….there is no way Bailey is a lock – if one cares about optimization and winning.

    • Totally agree, Stephenson first 3 MLB starts last season were pretty solid, toome they over used him in September and made him a head case. Pretty solid numbers since August despite one hiccup against Cards.
      Bailey has been pretty lousy the past few starts and overall numbers are horrible, not going tp reach 100 ML innings this year- may not even get 90, what can one expect next season even without set back…150 IP, 25 starts? What’s the track record on guys coming back with similar pitched season and injury history?

    • I can’t believe Bailey is not a lock. But, I hope he comes back better than before, because he never was that consistent…dominant when on, not so much when off. He’ll be considered the ace until Castillo (and maybe Disco, if healthy) overtakes him. Will he be the season opener though?

  3. Nice work, Nick.

    That list makes me squint harder than I ever have about baseball to see a playoff-caliber pitching staff. Lots of “needs to be fully healthy” and “how do they look over 30 or starts in a season” in there.

    The layout of the Barnhart extension plus this list gives me a vibe right now that the Reds think 81-81 is their ceiling in 2018 and the real, real fun starts in 2019.

    And Cody Reed? Put the Big Walk Machine in Louisville and see if the light bulb (ever) comes on. He hasn’t been great with the Bats and that WHIP just stays high whenever he pitches in Cincinnati, like last night.

    If needed, acquiring a LH reliever (Cingrani, anyone?) (kidding) would be more effective.

    • It’s a shame Reds analytics are in the stone ages while the Dodgers acquired a GM who is forward thinking. With a couple quick tweaks Lo and behold Cingrani became extremely effective once again. For further explanation see the FanGraphs article….

  4. I think Stephenson has shown enough improvement to be with Romano/Mahle upper hand group. He’s got better stuff and his results as a starter, not that misguided ill-used bullpen stint, are pretty good. I’d definitely say he has an upper hand on Garrett and Lorenzen, and if service time is factored in he has an upper hand on Mahle too. May have one regardless.

    • I think that’s reasonable based on how good his stuff is. But no one can succeed with his BB% long term. I love the strikeouts, but his results won’t last unless he cuts his walks down by about 1/3 and that’s a lot. That’s why I’m more comfortable with him in that third tier.

      What he does in his last two starts against better teams will help us better understand where he is. Again, I think this structure is pretty fluid and things change, sometimes quickly.

      • I agree his BB rate needs to be cut drastically. At the same time he was asked to go to AAA to work on his control. He did that. In his last 4 starts he walked only 1 guy over 21.2 IP (against 26 K’s). In his last 6 starts he walked 5 in 31.1 IP (against 37 K’s). Once he began to get consistent work and was stretched out in the rotation at Louisville he excelled. That shows me he can get it done.

        That hasn’t really carried over to the Reds, but neither did Castillo, Romano, and Mahle’s control initially. All three of those guys were thought to have very good control but they still struggled at first. Stephenson has struggled with control throughout the upper minors, but showed this summer he has it in him to throw strikes consistently. I would guess once he feels more settled in the majors we’ll see his BB rate come down to a more respectable percentage. He doesn’t have to have as good of control as some of the others because his stuff and K-rate are going to be that good, especially as he’s developing a slider.

        At least that’s my opinion. Regardless, good article Nick and good discussion.

        • Thanks for reading! I like the discussion, and you provide important context. I guess where we mildly disagree (I’m really not down on Stephenson!) is that I want to see that control improve in the Majors before I give him a nudge into that next tier. I think your position is quite reasonable though.

  5. They could always throw Wandy Peralta in the mix too? He was a starter in 2015…same as Lorenzen. He just wasn’t a good one. His stuff can be ridiculous though, and we need a lefty!

  6. Unfortunately, I think the Reds have to assume that neither Desclafani nor Finnegan will be starters. Disco looks destined for TJ surgery, and Finnegan’s max-effort mechanics pretty much scream “shoulder injury.”

    I think Stephenson has turned the corner, and will be eligible to step it up a notch next year, plus I think Amir Garrett’s hip injury probably explained a lot of his struggles. I am higher on Cody Reed than almost anybody other than Brian Price; big, tall lefties often take a while to learn to groove their mechanics. BobSteve, Garrett and Reed will all stand to improve with a good, pitching focused strength-training program in the off season. (As will Homer, who seems eager for it.)

    Alex Cobb of the Rays may be a fit for the Reds, as a free agent. He will be 30, and just finished his first full season off TJ surgery. He may cost too much, but the AL-to-NL move would fit here, plus he is allegedly (though who really knows) a good clubhouse presence for younger pitchers.

      • Right… Reds would have to send over almost all his remaining salary and wouldn’t get much in return. Rather people like it or not, Bailey is worth a lot more to the Reds than he is to anyone else. The only way he would have value to other clubs is perhaps at the deadline next year, if he’s been pitching like a #2 or #3 kind of starter and seems healthy. Even then, the Reds would probably have to kick in significant cash to get any kind of return on him. Reds fans need to stop hating on Bailey and the contract and just root for him to be able to provide value for our Reds.

  7. Homer Bailey is a .500 career pitcher who got lucky with 2 no-hitters…….trade him

    • You don’t throw two no hitters with nothing but luck. He may not be what you or other fans expect him to be, but Homer has more than luck going for him

    • He has no value. The Reds are on the hook for his salary, like it or not. Just gotta hope to get something from him.

    • Who would be stupid enough to take him, unless the Reds pay the majority of his contract. Then you still get nothing back.

  8. With that contract, Bailey isa staying a Cincinnati Red. I am not sure that is a bad thing. Even if he pitches just above replacement value that is better than a lot of guys that were trotted out this year. Castillo has a chance to be something special as does Stephenson IF he gets the control figured out(I am a little higher on him than some). Add to that Romano and Mahle and we still have a rotation that can hopefully at least keep us in games. If Desclafani comes back that is a bonus and pitches close to pre injury levels that is a bonus. Finnegan I am doubtful about.

  9. Outside of Homer and Disco, won’t all the young starters be on an innings limit next year?

    • I think Castillo and Mahle might be, but I don’t think Romano or Stephenson will be (innings limited). The makings of a very good rotation.
      I do think that Homer Bailey will be stronger next year. Sometimes it takes that long after TJ surgery.

      Jackson Stephens needs another year at AAA. He looked good against the Cardinals Tuesday night, until the second time through the line-up.

      Finnegan may likely end up in the bullpen next year. Maybe back to the rotation in 2019.

      Rookie Davis, not impressed. Saw him pitch against the Clippers in Columbus on the last day of the Minor League season, and he does not have command of the strike zone. Another year in AAA, or move him.

      Reed has a million dollar left arm and a ten cent head. Maybe the light goes on, maybe not. Maybe he would be a great reliever. Maybe that’s all he can be. Don’t blame Bryan Price and the Reds organization for a guy that is a head case. I think his problems are between his ears.

      Lorenzen, I would almost say…ditto. Mike is a great guy, but he got this idea about changing his mechanics, and it has backfired.

      The Reds could be very competitive next year, if the luck with pitching breaks their way. They have had a ton of bad luck the last two years, they might be due for a run of good luck. They went from last in 1989 (injuries) to World Series champions in 1990.

      • What leads you to believe Reed has a ten cent head? In the few interviews I’ve seen he seems no different than any other earnest kid who wants to do well. If he has confidence issues, that’s where you need a proper coach, a sports psychologist, to unlock his potential. Price is not a pitching guru. Otherwise he wouldn’t have wasted Cingrani’s potential, he would find a way to help Reed reach his potential, he wouldn’t waste Stephenson on the bench when there were ample opportunities to use either Reed or Stephenson in long relief of poor starts by Arroyo, Feldman, Bailey, Adleman, Davis, Garrett, and all the AAAA pitchers the Reds splattered against the wall looking like an ugly Jackson Pollack painting hoping to find a Picasso. It’d be a billion years plus before the monkey haphazardly hammers out Shakespeare.

        Perhaps the easiest fix would be to get Reed to use some proper prescription glasses so he can see what he’s aiming at better. Per an old cincinnati.com/cincinnati enquirer article near the beginning of the season Reed uses trusty several year old prescription goggles which leave him seeing things a little blurry at the plate.

        And whose idea was it for Lorenzen to change his mechanics? Why would he want to mess with his pitching motion when he was experiencing pretty good success during the first half of the year? I must have missed that article which got to the origin of the change.

        • I can’t really disagree–from my fan’s perspective–but there is this: We’ve been bitterly critical of Price’s management of the sorting in regard to the pitching, yet here we are acknowledging that next year’s pitching seems very promising. With Stephenson, for instance, his handling early in the season was completely mystifying, but now he’s showing signs of turning the corner. We don’t know what was going on with him and don’t know about Reed, either, but maybe there’s method to the apparent madness.

          • Next year’s pitching is based on what Homer has done in his return and very small sample sizes of the rest of the bunch and of course the hope that Disco and Finny return.I have always said and Nick provides the data that they wasted(46) a ton of starts on warm bodies while not giving Reed,Bob and others a chance.We could discuss all day and have done it why they didn’t but the fact remains they didn’t so instead of 25 or 30 starts as a measure we have to go with much less.Nick’s list will change the more these guys pitch.Some may not move and some will but the more they pitch and get the experience then the clearer the picture.The picture could have been and should have been much clearer with more starts but the Reds chose to do some more sorting again next year.I think the Reed and Bob situation along with Garrett and Rookie are clearly on Price because they all started with the big club.I think its more madness then method.

          • Boy its a fine line between letting these young guys (Reed, Stephenson, Garrett, et al) pitch through their weaknesses and hope they improve and not throwing all those games away too. We say the Reds (some blame it all on Price) of wasting 46 starts with the likes of Arroyo and Feldman etc. but would we all be so patient to see Reed, Garrett, Stephenson) get pounded 46 more times or would we all chastise Price for leaving these guys in their too long or too much. I guess you would have to believe that they would learn, work on things during the game, and improve after each pounding.

  10. Perhaps you could have added a tier 5 “Prohibitively Unlikely”. Nevertheless, Jon Moscot is still a Reds property, is he not? Deck McGuire even has earned a passing mention for 2018 consideration. He’s on the 40 man roster & pitched several shutout innings for the Reds.

  11. Homer
    Castillo
    Romano
    Stephenson
    (trade)

    Disco is dead(figuratively) along with Finnegan.

  12. I’ d be cautiously optimistic on Bailey. Counting the minors, he has thrown over 100 innings for the first time since 2014. Unless there are things we don’t know, he had a successful year, when the context is applied of rehabbing from Tommy John and then a bone spur surgery. He now gets a full off-season to build his way into ST for next year. He could throw 150-60 innings next year and 200 in 2019. He is still only 32 next year. Or not.

    Finnegan missed the entire year- BUT- this is first injury hiccup of his career. I am cautiously optimistic about him as well. I think he’s better suited as a Norm Charlton high innings high leverage bullpen guy, but with no apparent LH pitcher seizing the opportunity to start- I think the Reds will give him that.

    Disco is the guy that might be the most uncertain of all. He missed a lot of 2016 with the oblique but still managed to throw 123 innings and position himself as the Eugenio Suarez of the pitching staff- young developing player leapfrogging his prior year. Then 2017 happened with a serious elbow injury followed by another pitching related arm injury that rendered 2017 a lost year. The Reds know certainly a lot more about his health, but hard to see a scenario where Disco goes 14-9 and throws 180 innings after not pitching this year. Perhaps he should start in the bullpen from April through June and pitch in a scripted way like Lorenzen and Iglesias did out of the bullpen in 2016. Manage his innings, get his arm 100% and he is your 6th starter when invariably something goes awry with SP #1-5 around Memorial Day.

  13. Nice article Nick. I love how you broke it down. I’m guessing that the Reds brain-trust is doing that same sort of sorting but at a much higher level of detail. The premise of breaking the starting pitching down into tiers, or manageable chunks, is a sound one.

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