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.

Analysis

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:

  1. Mahle
  2. Stephenson
  3. Romano
  4. Finnegan
  5. Reed

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.

22 Responses

  1. Michael Petry

    Great analysis. I realize there’s going to be some inconsistency from start to start and even within starts, but I feel like the inability to go deep into games is a real concern. Even when pitchers have a relatively clean inning, it seems like they’re having a high number of pitches and this adds up to keep them from working beyond the 4th or 5th inning.

  2. Sliotar

    “…Mahle have all been inconsistent at best.”

    “That leaves Castillo as the lone guy who looks locked into a spot going forward.”

    In the words of C.P. Scott, in his famous editorial of The (then Manchester) Guardian:

    “Opinions are free, but facts are sacred.”

    Statistically this season, Castillo and Mahle are as close as you get:

    https://www.fangraphs.com/teams/reds/stats

    Castillo / Mahle

    K% 22.0%/ 22.3%
    BB% 8.9%/ 8.8%
    HR/9 1.75 / 1.84
    BABIP .309 / .303
    xFIP 4.00 / 4.04

    The Reds have these two to build around as a start of a rotation. They just need to monitor them, from being shelled in a start to overworking them in total this season…and let them mature.

    • VottoMatic125

      THIS!!! (great post)….Castillo and Mahle are the only guys who show they have the consistent stuff to be starters, and I think they will be great/very good as they mature. All the others are BP arms, let them work their issues out in the pen in AAA or on the 25. If it all works out with a couple FA starters and a BP stacked with live arms, the future could be very bright! Patience…..this is a throw away season as well.

    • Jeff Gangloff

      I agree, but that’s 3 starters that you need to fill roster spots with. Who are we counting on to fill those spots? Romano, Harvey, Bailey, Stephenson, Reed, etc?

      Not a ton of good options there. The Reds are going to have to make some moves in order to pick up at least a couple more quality starters.

      • Keith

        With India as the draft pick, maybe they trade Senzel for SP. They have depth at 2B, Suarez at SS and maybe India at SS.

      • Jeff Gangloff

        No way I would trade Senzel. He is the surest thing you have as an organizational prospect right now. He should be untouchable.

      • Michael E

        YEah, I’d rather offer quantity of good over elite. Maybe package Stephenson, Romano and another top 15 prospect for a better SP or CF type.

    • Nick Carrington

      Cute.

      I did write I believe in both going forward: “At the moment, I feel good about Castillo and Mahle as current and future members of the rotation.”

      The only reason I have a little more faith in Castillo is his sample is a bit larger: 12 more starts than Mahle at this point.

      Remember when everyone was writing that Romano had “turned a corner” at the end of last year? Now, he’s struggling mightily. I believe in Mahle more than I ever did in Romano, but I think it’s wise to get closer to a full year of starts before being so sure.

      Anyway, I agree with you (like I said in the article). Both look like good bets going forward. I’m just a tad more sure of Castillo because of the sample.

  3. Jeff Gangloff

    Nice write up.

    It’s weird, I feel more confident about position players than I do starting pitching right now. I could have said the opposite at the beginning/end of last year.

    I think a solid core of position players is right around the corner, especially with the India pick last night. The starting pitching is a mess, though and it looks even bleaker when looking in AAA. Thats why im so frustrated with the lack of opportunity for Garrett.

    • Sliotar

      Jeff,

      (Excellent piece you wrote yesterday, by the way)

      Your posts point out the dilemma the Reds have, as a small-market team and in their current MLB talent situation:

      Either…

      A) Spend a lot to fill holes in the short-term (and there are holes) (and it will cost a lot of $)

      or

      B) Wait for the Greene/Trammell/India wave, while locking up Castillo/Mahle/Senzel/Whoever to Suarez-type deals, so there is a controllable mass of players for a true window.

      But, that starts when…2021? 2022?

      IMO, this makes dealing Iglesias/Gennett/Any Other Non-Core Guy a top priority over the next few months..to bridge the gap on paying to fill holes in the short term.

      The sticker shock of trying to pay for SP, with Bailey still on the books, is likely to be a tough sell to Castellini/Jocketty/Williams/Krall/Rosie Red…whoever is making the decisions.

      • Alex

        So, that’s the real trick. If you think that 2021 is the next window, which it very well could be if you are waiting for those prospects to be the next core. That puts a guy like barnhart in an interesting spot, his contract is a steal and there are lots of teams that need quality catchers. He could bring back alot of value as well. So, do you trade a guy like him cause he will be at the end of his contract and no way he re signs anither hometown discount after screwing himself the way he did. Its an interesting thought experiment cause most of the current regulars outside of Suarez would be old or near free agency. Is it time for a re boot of the rebuild/reboot?

  4. james garrett

    Great article and so far I agree 100%.If Bob and Garrett can get a few starts then that changes some things going forward.We will know more by the end of the year about Castillo/Mahle but I believe more starts only makes them better.I am a big Bob fan because I don’t think it means anything if he continues to walk guys in the minors or suddenly stops walking guys.What he does in the majors is the only thing that matters.Guys can’t hit him in the minors because of his electric stuff and some of it maybe his wildness.If I had my way he would have a spot right now in the big league rotation for the rest of the year period.We would know all we need to know after 17-20 starts from here on out.He has that wipe out slider that nobody in the organization has got or even comes close to having.

    • Nick Carrington

      Bob Steve’s slider is one of the nastier pitches I’ve seen. He’s so frustrating. Enormous talent. He could be a top-of-the-rotation starter or flame out entirely. It’s weird that he has so many professional innings, and there is still that wide variance in what he may become.

  5. David

    Keury Mella is not that far away, and Tony Santillian could be moved up faster. I could actually see Mella making a September call up to the Reds this year, if he doens’t have too many innnings on his arm.

    Santillian SHOULD be moved to AA this summer, but perhaps the Reds won’t do that. Again, if he moves to AA this summer (mid season), I could see him making the jump to the ML sometime next year.

    Whatever happened to Asher, anyways?

      • WVRedlegs

        Asher Wojciechowski?? He is at the AAA team of Baltimore, doing fairly well.
        Or maybe thinking of TeJay Antone? He missed all of 2017 with Tommy John surgery. He just came back and is at Daytona. He has made 2 starts and shaking off a lot of rust. I hope he can regain his form. He was doing very well until his elbow went.

  6. WVRedlegs

    Nice information on the pitching. Very interesting, but we might need some help.
    The League standings are getting revved up. There are 6.5 games that separate 4 teams in 3 different divisions, the AL West, NL Central and NL East. Only 4.5 games separate last from first in the NL West. And Cleveland cannot pull away in the AL Central. Maybe some teams start shopping early here in June and don’t wait until after the all-star break. June trades aren’t all that rare.
    The Mariners have now passed up the Astros by a game and they start a 2 game set tonight. Losing first place to the M’s has to have many in Houston a bit ansy. The funny thing is the M’s and Astros play 10 times between July 30 and August 22. Just before the trade deadline. Either team could look to add before they battle each other that many times.
    The standings will surely change some, but having so many more teams in contention could bode well for the Reds trade market having many more potential buyers than there are sellers. If relievers fly off the shelves at premium prices again this year like last year, the Reds should make available any and all in the bullpen. It can be re-constructed over the winter. Iglesias, Hughes, Hernandez, Lorenzen and possibly Brice and Floro could really bring back some quality. Brice and Floro might have to be paired with one of the first 4 in a package to make it work. They won’t trade the whole bullpen, but 3 or 4 could get dealt.
    Then there is Peraza and 3 outfielders to trade also.
    Once the draft ends and teams start signing their players and assigning them to rosters, let’s get the trade market opened up early in June. Hopefully the Reds can get one very good ML ready pitcher out of all that.

    • Old-school

      Buster Olney had an article up on the Astros need to go all in and get an elite bullpen arm.

      • WVRedlegs

        Now we’re talking. The Yankees were already in the market for a starter and just announced that Jordan Montgomery will have to have TJ surgery. He has been out for a month, but his recovery will go well into 2019. They’ll need, or at least be looking for 2 starters now. One that is young and could be controllable for a few years is what they are said to be looking for. Archer just hit the 10 day DL. Stephenson or Finnegan maybe?? Their recent AAA outings are somewhat encouraging.

    • Mike Adams

      I think Matt Habel’s post on the Reds outfielders and Nick’s above on starting pitching identify the two largest on-field issues the Reds have.

      WVRedlegs, you said in your next to last paragraph “Then there is Peraza and 3 outfielders to trade also.”

      I agree. Duvall, Hamilton and Schebler have not done the job well enough for the Reds to compete for the division. The Reds really need at least two, or three, outfielders who can hit well.
      Here’s hoping those three outfielders will give way (by whatever means) to younger guys/FA’s who can hit the ball consistently well, except for the short slumps all guys go through.

      On Matt Habel’s post I commented with a listing of Reds average per game attendance for the last few years to compare with his analysis on Reds outfielders.
      The team needs to do something to turn things around. (Yes, I am echoing others here.)

  7. bouwills

    Pre-game notes on Louisville Bats site are worth a read. Evidently Bats starters have accomplished some noteworthy pitching lately. A glimmer of hope perhaps?

  8. jay johnson

    Heres what I think the staff should be:

    Starters
    ———–
    Anthony D(find out if he is healthy)
    BobSteve(once and for all)
    Castillo(prove it)
    Garrett(whats the deal here)
    Lorenzen(Seemed to be capable and has the stuff)

    Mahle and Romano sent to AAA(get that extra year and try to improve on what theyre doing now)
    If either of starters above prove not to be or are unhealthy bring Mahle back.

    Release Peralta(he stinks)
    Release Harvey(dont see the point)

    Bring up Reed and Finnegan to be your two bullpen lefties.Both long or short

    With this as our staff we are truly getting the picture for the near future not this blinded vision we are getting now.

    We would be seeing what all the kids can do.At least for a little over half a season.

    Let them sink or swim