The saying, “you can never have too much pitching” is as cliche as it gets in baseball, but it has proven true time and time again. Depth is vital to the success of any baseball team. Although the 2012 regular-season Reds may have tried to prove differently, injuries are inevitable for a pitching staff. The best teams can plug those holes without a significant drop-off.
Each of the last two World Series winners had at least seven pitchers who made 10 or more starts. Last season, the Dodgers lost Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Rich Hill to injuries early in the season. For many teams, it would’ve been a death blow to lose three-fifths of a starting rotation. But Los Angeles plugged in Kenta Maeda, Ross Stripling, and Walker Buehler and didn’t miss a beat.
Depth was a foreign concept to the Cincinnati Reds in recent years. Getting strong performances from the regular five members of the rotation was challenging enough; add in a litany of injuries and you get an unsurprising 4.97 ERA, 4.93 FIP, and 4.49 xFIP over the last four seasons. You get Tim Adleman leading the team in innings pitched and Scott Feldman starting on Opening Day. A future Reds Hall of Famer in Bronson Arroyo scuffling through the tail-end of his career. Prospects promoted to the majors before they’re ready. Such is life as a rebuilding team, but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch.
Those days are seemingly — and mercifully — over.
Getting the pitching was the mantra of the offseason, and the front office delivered. Only two starters from last year’s rotation are returning in Luis Castillo and Anthony DeSclafani. Alex Wood, Sonny Gray, and Tanner Roark, all proven veterans, will round out the rotation, barring the health of their respective right arms.
Health, of course, is far from a given for pitchers. When was the last time the Reds broke camp with all five projected starters healthy? Minus a small scare from Gray’s elbow, the staff is in good shape thus far in spring. But when an injury does occur, it — for the first time in recent memory — won’t be a death blow.
Next in Line
Tyler Mahle, Sal Romano, and Cody Reed are the next in line for a spot. They’ve had varying levels of success in the big leagues, but all three are still young and last year showed flashes of the pitchers they can become. However, the Reds are no longer forced to put them in the starting rotation from the get-go based on potential alone.
Still, if Mahle — the next in line for a place in the group of five — gets the call, that’s a lot better than turning to a veteran brought into spring camp on a minor-league deal. The right-hander got off to a promising start last year before the league figured him out and shoulder fatigue slowed him down. At times, he looked as dominant as he was in the minor leagues, where he has a perfect game and a no-hitter to his name. He flirted with a no-hitter against the Braves in April and fanned 12 Brewers batters in a late June performance. With a plus fastball and control to build off of, Mahle’s future is bright if he can establish better secondary pitches, which he’s already doing. You’ll take that over the Asher Wojciechowskis of the world any day.
Romano and Reed have gone through their struggles as well, but the book is far from written for either pitcher.
Like Mahle, Romano is still working on establishing consistent secondary offerings. His fastball can touch 98 with nice sinking action, and his slider has a sharp bite. He has struggled to develop a consistent third pitch, relying heavily on the sinker and slider. Even with those shortcomings, he has found success at times in his one-and-a-half years in the big leagues. With a better third pitch in the mix to help him miss more bats, he could certainly hold down a spot in the rotation.
The road has been bumpier for Reed, but he seemingly turned a corner last year. He had his first extended run of success in the major leagues, posting a 4.13 ERA, 3.48 FIP, and 3.20 xFIP in six starts to close out the year while featuring his biting slider as his primary pitch instead of the four-seamer. Most importantly, he started to solve his control problems. He dropped his walk rate from 14.3% across all levels in 2017 to 7.2% in 2018, a number much more in line with his early minor league days.
While the Reds would certainly miss any members of the starting rotation if they were out for a significant period, the organization has to feel better about the next-in-line options than it has in previous years. Mahle, Romano, and Reed should be capable of holding their own if forced into action.
But Wait, There’s More!
Behind them, the team has even more options with big-league experience and room to grow. Michael Lorenzen made three starts at the end of 2018 and will get stretched out this spring for possible long relief or swing-man roles. Lucas Sims is a former top prospect of the Braves who has dominated the minor leagues. He has a solid fastball-curveball combination when he can control it.
Brandon Finnegan and Robert Stephenson, despite their horrific showings last year, have seen success in the majors before. Now they’re, at best, the ninth- and 10th-best options for the rotation instead of getting a rotation spot by default. That shows just how far the Reds have come this offseason in building their depth.
Further down the line, the team also has prospects knocking on the big leagues. Keury Mella has already seen some time in Cincinnati. Tony Santillan and Vladimir Gutierrez are top-10 prospects who both pitched in Double-A last season.
Even if Santillan and Gutierrez are still a year away from the big leagues, the Reds have up to eight pitchers they could conceivably plug in the starting rotation if the need presents itself. When the team got down to its 13th starting pitcher in the organizational depth chart two years ago, we were talking about names like Deck McGuire and Lisalverto Bonilla who had bounced around the minor leagues for team after team.
The Reds certainly hope their current starting rotation stays healthy all year. But it’s refreshing to have a viable backup plan to weather any storms along the way. Rather than feeling like the sky is falling every time a starter goes down, the team and fans can take some solace in knowing there’s big-league talent waiting in the wings. That doesn’t mean the Reds will win the NL Central — although it certainly doesn’t hurt their prospects. But it does bring an element of competition to the pitching staff that hasn’t existed during the rebuild. And it means they won’t have to slog through starts from journeyman minor leaguers again. It won’t feel like they’re out of it before the game’s first pitch.
That’s a thrilling development after four straight 90-loss seasons.