Late last season, the Reds starting pitching situation looked promising. They had an abundance of young, talented pitchers ready to resuscitate a rotation that was on life support from a couple years of either pitchers past their prime (Bronson Arroyo) or castoffs from other organizations (Asher Wojciechowski, Lisalverto Bonilla, Tim Adleman, etc.).
The new-found health of Homer Bailey and the potential for Anthony Desclafani to return to his former self was supposed to bring stability to the 2018 rotation. Those two paired with future ace Luis Castillo would provide a strong top three with guys like Robert Stephenson, Tyler Mahle, Sal Romano, Cody Reed, Amir Garrett, Michael Lorenzen, and Brandon Finnegan competing for other spots.
The future seemed bright. Instead, as we enter the summer months, the Reds starting pitching is in disarray, and because of poor performance and some head scratching decisions, is much thinner than we thought just a few months ago.
Bailey’s struggles have compounded the fact that the Reds have more questions than answers right now. Finnegan, Romano, and Mahle have all been inconsistent at best with the former two pitching quite terribly most of the season. In AAA, Stephenson and Reed continue to fight against old vices.
That leaves Castillo as the lone guy who looks locked into a spot going forward. Even if you believe that Disco can return to form and pitch 175+ innings for the next couple of seasons, a big “if”, that’s only two starters to feel good about.
The Reds may fill a slot or two through trades or free agency, but they really need a couple of young pitchers to reach their potential if they have any hope of keeping this ship from sinking. The youngsters listed above all have identifiable flaws they must overcome to succeed as starters in the big leagues, and their future depends on how well they mitigate those flaws.
As we look for hope, let’s examine the shortcomings of each and discuss how far they have to go to become useful MLB starters.
Robert Stephenson – Stephenson continues to be the same guy he has been for the last three to four years. He strikes out a lot of batters because his stuff is elite, but he also gives out free passes at an alarming rate, walking over 13% of hitters this year. You can cherry-pick two or three starts where he has shown better control, but you could just as easily emphasize a few starts where he’s lost it completely. In Cincinnati Magazine, Chad makes a strong case that the Reds should give Stephenson some starts, but that may have more to do with the current state of the rotation than Stephenson’s growth.
Walking that many guys in the Major Leagues doesn’t work. Even when he had some success at the end of 2017, he still had severe control issues. To succeed, Stephenson must decrease his walk percentage to at least 10% and probably lower than that. In 2017, only four starters out of 75 who threw at last 150 innings had a walk rate over 10% and only one of them, Robbie Ray, had a SIERA under 4.79.
With a walk rate around 10%, a starter typically must strike out a lot of guys to maintain some success. Stephenson possesses the stuff to strikeout batters, but unless he gains more control, he’s likely going to struggle. He may have both the lowest floor and highest ceiling on this list.
Brandon Finnegan – Finnegan battles against the same control issues that Stephenson does, only Finnegan’s stuff isn’t quite as good. In five MLB starts, he walked 14.6% of batters and did not get past the fifth inning in any of them. Like Stephenson, Finnegan has struggled with command in the strike zone as well, resulting in a lot of homeruns.
In 2016, Finnegan had some success by developing a more effective changeup. He still walked too many people, but he generated a ton of swing and misses with the change to compensate. Teams have adjusted since, slugging .714 against the changeup this season, and Finnegan’s control has degraded even more. Maybe it’s rust from not pitching much last season, but if he doesn’t find the strike zone more consistently, Finnegan seems destined for the bullpen.
He had an excellent start on Sunday; hopefully, that’s a sign of things to come.
Cody Reed – Reed has a 4.63 ERA and 4.30 xFIP in Louisville this season. He’s walking a lot of guys as well (10.4%), but the biggest challenge to him as a starter is his arm slot. Major leaguers have obliterated his fastball because he gives hitters, especially right handers, a long look at the ball out of his hand.
If Reed could find a way to hide the ball longer, he may assuage some of those concerns as long as the stuff stays the same. If not, his fastball/slider combo may play well in shorter stints out of the bullpen.
Sal Romano – Like Stephenson, Romano had a good stretch at the end of last season. His effectiveness corresponded with the increased use of his changeup. This year, Romano has thrown the changeup less and seen his BB% rise and his K% shrink to a concerningly low 15.3% (MLB average for starters is over 21%). Romano’s ERA currently sits at 6.00, and he has a 5.20 SIERA.
Romano biggest problem is that he’s mainly a fastball/slider guy who needs a third pitch to be successful. Maybe he has a good reason for avoiding the changeup at the moment, and teams are hitting .364 against it, but it’s hard to succeed as a starter with only two viable pitches.
Tyler Mahle – Mahle has the least experience of these five but also the most success this season. His 4.38 ERA and 4.19 SIERA are both respectable, and he has a good strikeout to walk ratio (22.3% to 8.8%). Mahle’s issues relate to the long ball. Mahle has a 20% HR/FB percentage while the league average for starters is 13.2%. That has led to 13 home runs allowed in only 12 starts.
Mahle’s homerun problems may result from underwhelming secondary stuff. While he only throws his slider and changeup about 30% of the time, Mahle has let up six of his 13 homeruns on those pitches. Opposing batters are slugging .536 against the changeup and .560 against the slider. In short, he has let up a lot of hard contact when he goes away from the fastball.
Scouts warned us about Mahle’s secondary stuff before the season started with Eric Longenhagen of Fangraphs calling them “middling.” Because of his command, Mahle doesn’t need excellent secondary pitches to succeed, but if he can tighten them up just a little, he could take a big step forward. He’s also the youngest pitcher on this list.
What once seemed like a promising core of young starters has become a big question mark. While always subject to change based on new information, here’s where I’d rank the five in terms of likelihood to succeed as a MLB starter:
Mahle gets the top spot because good command and the ability to manipulate pitch speeds goes a long way, even if his stuff isn’t on the same level as some of his peers. I wrestled with whether Romano or Stephenson should be second on this list; they are really 2A and 2B for me. Stephenson gets the nod because the stuff is so good that he just needs below average command to succeed; his upside remains intriguing.
As the struggles continue to mount, Reed could find himself in the bullpen sooner than later where he can use his wipe out slider as his primary pitch and avoid getting beat on fastballs. Finnegan’s herky jerky mechanics have always concerned me and may play a role in his injuries and lack of command. I fear he is a bullpen arm as well.
That assessment leaves the rotation on shaky ground.
The wild cards are Amir Garrett and Michael Lorenzen, both relegated to the bullpen right now. Frankly, the Reds starting pitching is thin, and I question the wisdom of limiting the promising arms that get chances to start.
Garrett has never started with a healthy hip, and he has three solid pitches, including a nasty slider that batters are hitting .054 against this season. Last year, opposing hitters punished Garrett’s fastball. You have to wonder whether some increased velocity engendered by a healthy hip could improve his fortunes as a starter.
Lorenzen has some injury concerns that should be taken seriously, but if the medical team signs off, he has the stuff to be a successful starter. He threw four excellent innings on Friday and would have given up zero runs if a hard-hit ball didn’t bounce out of the middle of Billy Hamilton’s glove. Lorenzen has dominated in a small sample so far this year, and if he can show the same command in future appearances that he did on Friday night, watch out.
Between the two, Garrett is the one who has the best chance to succeed, but it does not seem likely he will start a game this season. The Reds also appear unwavering in their commitment to keep Lorenzen as a bullpen arm as well.
That leaves us with the other five pitchers who may need to fill two or three spots long term. At the moment, I feel good about Castillo and Mahle as current and future members of the rotation. The rest have serious flaws to overcome.
All of these guys are young and still have time to develop, but we need to start seeing some progress. The rebuild depends on it. For the rest of 2018, the Reds need to do whatever they can to gain a clearer perspective on the future of these pitchers because those answers will affect how they approach the offseason.