In a moment of transparency, Reds manager Bryan Price handicapped the battle for the starting rotation at the onset of Spring Training. Not surprisingly, the top of the rotation was pretty much set in stone, but the way Price laid out the remaining plan let fans know who had a leg up over who for the back end of the rotation.
Price laid out the following ‘tiers’:
Tier One – Locks
Tier Two – Probably a lock
Tier Three – Battling for 5
Tier Four – On the outside looking in
Price let it be known that this was far from the final philosophy that would be used to make the Opening Day rotation, but gave the sense that based off of previous experience and successes, this would be the pecking order headed into Spring. While not making decisions based solely on Spring Training statistics, it’s likely that some of these tiebreakers, and even some movement between tiers, could be caused by outstanding or lackluster performances in Spring.
Left off the list were left-handers (and, as recently as a year ago, top pitching prospects) Amir Garrett and Cody Reed. Both pitchers struggled mightily in 2017, and therefore were either written off or forgotten to be included in the initial set of tiers.
So, now that we’ve played through a few weeks of spring training let’s take a look at where things stand. I’ll be listing these players in order of how I see Bryan Price stacking his rotation heading into the season.
Tier One – Locks
#1 & Opening Day Starter – Homer Bailey
Reasons for being this high: Money; 2 No-Hitters; Finally came back from the DL last season
Reasons he shouldn’t be this high: He (probably) isn’t the best Reds pitcher
Spring Stats: 8.0 IP, 9.00 ERA, 5:1 K/BB, 11 hits, 8 ER, 4HRs
Bailey has looked healthy this spring, which is exactly what all Reds fans should be hoping for. He fired 2.0 shutout innings against the Indians in his spring debut, striking out three and not allowing a walk. He followed it up with a 2 hit (but 2 HR) performance against the Giants. His outing yesterday started off what turned out to be a slugfest between the Reds and the White Sox, and roughed up his bottom line quite a bit. He’ll look to bounce back in a few days.
If Bailey is healthy, and short of an outright dominant spring from either DeSclafani or (less likely) Castillo, I think Price names Bailey the Opening Day starter. He’s the longest tenured Reds pitcher, and going out there on Opening Day should boost his confidence a little bit. Although I don’t think he’s the best option when you’re looking at purely who the best pitcher on the staff is, I’d be fine with Homer starting Opening Day.
#2 – Anthony DeSclafani
Reasons for being this high: Has more experience than Castillo; maybe best pitcher if healthy
Reasons for not being higher: If he isn’t 100%, Castillo is better; Can he be 100%?
Spring Stats: 4.0 IP, 6.75 ERA, 3:1 K/BB, 7 hits, 3 ER, 0 HR
Disco looked like his old self in his spring debut, where he went 2 scoreless innings, striking out two and walking no one. Things didn’t go as well the second time around, when he gave up 4 runs in the first inning against the Royals. Let’s just chalk that last outing up to Spring Training weirdness, right?
DeSclafani is in the same boat as Bailey in 2018, coming off a seemingly endless string of injuries that have prevented him from stepping on the mound. If a 1-2 punch of Bailey and Disco can stay healthy for the majority of the season, this rotation will be much better than it has been over the past few years. You could make an argument that if both are healthy, Disco should get the nod for Opening Day. I would rather see DeSclafani in that spot, but if given the choice between the two of them, I don’t think Bryan Price could possibly choose Disco over Homer.
#3 – Luis Castillo
Reasons for being this high: He’s filthy.
Reasons for not being higher: outside of age and experience, there really isn’t one
Spring Stats: 4.2 IP, 1.93 ERA, 5:0 K/BB, 6 hits, 1 ER, 0 HR
Castillo has come out of the gates strongly in spring, having not walked anyone in 4.2 innings, while racking up five strikeouts. Although you’d like to see less than 6 hits, he’s been able to mitigate that damage into only one earned run.
If I’m managing the 2018 Reds, Luis Castillo is my Opening Day starter, and we’re opening up the season by punching the Washington Nationals in the mouth. Castillo is a rare talent, is probably already the best pitcher on this staff, and is absolutely the most exciting pitcher on this staff. What’s not to love here?
Tier Two – Near Locks
#4 – Amir Garrett
Reasons for being this high: He’s shown he can do it; Insane start to spring
Reasons for not being higher: either hid or lied about being hurt last year, wasn’t included in initial group
Spring Stats: 7.0 IP, 2.57 ERA, 11:2 K/BB, 3 hits, 2 ER, 1HR
Yep, I think Amir Garrett has already done enough this spring to catapult himself above Brandon Finnegan for fourth starter dibs. The southpaw has been lights out in Spring, eliminating any hitter who dare step into the box against him in his first two outings. He “struggled” a bit in his third outing, but the bottom line still is the best of the young Reds pitchers. Amir looks every bit the pitcher who was arguably the organization’s top pitching prospect only a year ago, and he’s hungry for what he believe he’s owed.
But, as we stated above, these decisions shouldn’t be made solely on spring training stats, and this one hasn’t been. This scenario is mostly a mix of A) Amir being healthy and throwing well, B) A few absolutely stunning starts last year from Amir, and C) Brandon Finnegan not being up to speed with the rest of the group. I could definitely see Bryan Price letting Finnegan get up to speed with a mini rehab assignment in AAA to start the season, or potentially in the major league bullpen. If Amir continues to pitch the way he is, he’s the no brainer option for this spot in my opinion.
#5 – Brandon Finnegan
Reasons for being this high: He’s shown he can do it; High upside
Reasons for not being higher: He’s behind in spring; walks too many guys; was hurt most of last year
Spring Stats: 2.0 IP, 4.50 ERA, 1:1 K/BB, 2 hits, 1 ER, 1 HR
Finnegan’s spring got a later start than his counterparts on this list, having made his debut this past Tuesday. He looked alright, outside of a leadoff mistake pitch that Francisco Lindor hit well over the fence.
It’s likely that Finnegan will need to outpitch Garrett, Sal Romano and Robert Stephenson through the rest of spring in order to prove that he’s ‘caught up’ with these guys. We saw the dominance Finnegan is capable of in his first start of 2017, when he pitched 7 innings of 1 hit, 9Ks, 1 BB baseball. Unfortunately, it was his only start of the year in which he was able to pitch more than 3 innings. Reds fans are certainly hoping Finnegan can provide more of that dominance in 2018, but he’s got a little bit to prove before he’s considered a lock for the rotation.
Tier Three – On the outside looking in
#6 – Sal Romano
Reasons for being this high: Throws strikes; Gets guys out
Reasons for not being higher: Not moving the needle in spring
Spring Stats: 8.0 innings, 4.50 ERA, 8:1 K/BB, 11 hits, 5 ER, 1 HR
Big Sal has gotten hit around a little bit early on in spring. His defense certainly hasn’t helped him, as anyone who has watched/listened to the games knows. But, to be a solid major league starter, you can’t always rely on the defense to bail you out. Romano hasn’t been able to do much more than to tread water so far this spring, but that mostly goes for everyone in this competition not named Amir Garrett.
Due to service time issues with Garrett, I think Romano slates in after him for sure. If Romano wants to make the big leagues out of camp, he’ll need to hope Brandon Finnegan isn’t quite ready when the season starts. He’ll also need to outpitch the other guy in this tier.
#7 – Robert Stephenson
Reasons for being this high: Former top-of-the-top prospect; showed a lot of corrections late last year
Reasons for not being higher: Still struggles to throw strikes
Spring Stats: 3.0 IP, 15.00 ERA, 5:4 K/BB, 7 hits, 5 ER, 2 HR
In my opinion, Robert Stephenson and Sal Romano entered the year neck-and-neck for the fifth starter spot. Although Stephenson’s numbers look worse, I think they’re probably still just as equal in the eyes of Bryan Price as they were at the start of spring. Stephenson hasn’t been hit around quite as badly as Romano has been, but he’s given up just as many earned runs. If you look at the stat lines, it’s easy to see why: 4 walks in 3 innings is not the way to convince your manager that you should be starting baseball games at the big league level.
Like Finnegan, Stephenson started the spring slightly behind the rest of the pitching staff with some neck soreness. It’s because of this – and because he still hasn’t shown he can throw enough strikes – that he’s slightly lower on the depth chart than Romano.
Tier Four – Probably not gonna happen (yet)
#8 – Tyler Mahle
Reasons for being this high: Has had a strong spring; throws strikes; gets guys out
Reasons for not being higher: service time; struggled with command during his call up last year
Spring Stats: 6.2 IP, 4.05 ERA, 7:2 K/BB, 4 hits, 3 ER, 0 HR
Mahle’s spring stats alone would place him above both Romano and Stephenson in the rotation battle if the season were to start today. He’s continued to show a great ability to throw strikes and get outs, changing angles and speeds on his fastballs to induce ground balls and whiffs alike.
The system, similarly to fellow top prospect Nick Senzel, is probably what is placing Mahle in this grouping. The Reds can ensure that Mahle will be under team control for an extra year if they keep him in the minor leagues for a few months to start the season. Whether or not this is a good idea is a different topic for a different article, but if Bryan Price were true to his word, Mahle would likely be starting the season in the rotation. I doubt that happens, and you’ll likely see him starting in Louisville for the first portion of the year.
Tier Five – Likely out of the conversation
#9 – Michael Lorenzen
Reasons for being this high: Electric stuff; Fan favorite
Reasons for not being higher: Stuff plays down when not in the bullpen; Awful spring outing
Spring Stats: 4.2 IP, 14.73 ERA, 6:2 K/BB, 7 hits, 6 ER, 0 HR
Lorenzen really had to prove that he was a better option to start games than Sal Romano and Robert Stephenson in order to really be taken seriously as a starting pitcher. Unfortunately for him, he’s done the opposite. He started out strong, allowing only one run on two hits in 2 innings with three strikeouts in his first appearance. But his second start – which saw him give up 5 runs on 5 hits and two walks through only 1.2 innings – was exactly the kind of start someone in his position needed to avoid.
I never really understood the hooplah over Michael Lorenzen starting in the first place. Sure, maybe last year it wouldn’t have hurt to get him a few starts in lieu of the worse pitchers the team trotted out there instead, but in the long term vision, it’s obvious that Lorenzen isn’t one of the top options. He works best to me as a late inning reliever who can go multiple innings and give the team a good chance at limiting runs for a chunk of the game. That’s just as important to the team as a fifth starter to me anyway.
#10 – Cody Reed
Reasons for being this high: Awesome stuff; Former top prospect; Goggles
Reasons for not being higher: Struggles with mental aspect; Is he still tipping pitches?; Hasn’t proven it in spring
Spring Stats: 5.1 IP, 8.44 ERA, 4:2 K/BB, 12 hits, 5 ER, 1 HR
Spring has gotten off to a rough start for Reed, who might be blowing his last chance to prove he’s a starter at the big league level. He’s got nasty stuff, as shown in his time in AAA and a few spurts at the major league level, but he gets hit around a lot. The tune has stayed the same this spring, already having given up 12 hits in only 5.1 innings.
Whether or not he’s still tipping his pitches is a question that will need answering, and if it’s still an issue, it will need to be fixed if he ever wants to pitch at the big league level. If a hitter knows what you’re about to throw, not even the best stuff in the world would fool big league hitters for long, even coming out of the bullpen. I’m hoping something clicks for Cody Reed, because I’m a big fan.
So, here’s how I see the rotation taking shape on Opening Day:
- Homer Bailey
- Anthony DeSclafani
- Luis Castillo
- Amir Garrett
Brandon Finnegan will either start the season on the DL, in the bullpen, or AAA for a start or two. Romano, Stephenson and Mahle will start the season in AAA. If Finnegan isn’t ready to make the first start required by the fifth starter (potentially as late as April 12), one of either Romano or Stephenson will be called up to make that start, and slot into the fifth spot until Finnegan is either deemed ready, or is banished to the pen for life.
After the season get some steam behind it, the rotation should be constantly monitored for lapses in performance. As soon as someone is decidedly not cutting it at the big league level, they get replaced with the next man on the list, at least for a little while. Same goes for injuries – just plug in the next guy up.
What do you guys think? Has Amir Garrett done enough to establish himself as a no brainer? Will Brandon Finnegan be Aroldis Champan’d? Should Luis Castillo be starting on Opening Day? Discuss below!