There has been a lot of worry and consternation about the Reds’ all-rookie starting rotation, not only for the rest of this year but for next year too. It is possible Walt Jocketty will bring in a veteran starter or two over the winter to help bridge the gap until the multitude of young minor league starters are ready to bolster the major league rotation.
The strength of the Reds’ minor league system is starting pitching. I have never said that about the Reds’ farm system before. There are more and better young starters up and downÃ‚Â the system right now than anytime I can ever remember. Developing starting pitching has been a major problem for this franchise reaching back multiple decades. The number of home-grown quality starting pitchers over the last twenty years has to be one of the lowest totals of any franchise in all of baseball. Johnny Cueto is the one crowning glory of this period. Homer Bailey has been a nice developmental success, although it took a lot longer than expected. Mike Leake was another one, but he was basically ready for the majors when he was drafted. He did go straight to the majors after all, so he is not really a feather in the cap of the minor league development system.
But things have changed tremendously the last couple years. I have ranked an amazing 27 pitchers that I consider realistic options to start games for the Reds during their careers. Some of them are already in the rotation, some are still in rookie ball. Some of them were drafted by the Reds, some of them were acquired via trade, some were signed via minor league free agency, some were claimed after being released by another team.Ã‚Â Two of these pitchers were signed as Cuban defectors.
Curiously, none of them were signed by the Reds as international free agents or so called “July 2nd” Latin-American youngsters, although Keury Mella was a July 2nd IFA signed by the Giants and traded to the Reds. The Reds have signed a lot of young Latin-American hitters in recent years, most prominently Yorman Rodriguez. They have signed a few IFA pitchers, but none of them have panned out as starters as of yet. Johnny Cueto was signed for a song in this fashion, but he is gone now unfortunately.
The guys near the top of this list are either in the rotation now or will be in 2016 or 2017. The guys further down the list either need extensive development yet, are destined for the bullpen or are fringe, replacement-level, fill-in starters at best.
There is not going to be enough room in the Reds’ rotation for all of these guys when they are ready. Some will be moved to the bullpen, not necessarily because they aren’t good enough to start but simply because there are not enough slots for all the deserving candidates. Some of them will likely be used as trade fodder to acquire the position players the Reds will need.
Ok, let’s move on to the rankings. These represent my opinions on the Reds’ best candidates to start for the next few years. This is not a re-hashing of the consensus opinion copied from other analysts. Some of these rankings may be quite a bit different than you have seen published in other places. You might even find a couple of these rankings rather shocking…
1) Homer Bailey is the only veteran starting pitcher on the team, and he is recovering from Tommy John surgery on his elbow. There is a chance he could be ready by Opening Day next year, but it is also possible he won’t be back on the bump until the All Star break or even later. Even when he does returnÃ‚Â it is not uncommon for TJS survivors to struggle with their command and control in their first season back. When healthy, Homer has proven himself as a solid #2 starter, having posted ERAs in the 3.50 – 3.70 range each of the last three years.
2) Here is the first shocker on my list. Right now you could safely argue that the whole debate about making Aroldis Chapman a starting pitcher again is dead. Jocketty and Price simply aren’t going to do it. But maybe Jocketty and/or Price will not be back next year. If new people are running the show they might see things differently and move Chapman into the rotation. Now that the Missile is close to free agency, he and his agent may actually approach the Reds and ask that he be given another chance to start games. Money talks, and starting pitchers make a LOT more money than relief pitchers, including closers. As an elite closer Chapman is looking at something like a $60 million free agent contract. Even mediocre starters can snag a deal like that. Elite starting pitchers can hit well over $100 million, perhapsÃ‚Â $150+ million. In the past Aroldis has made it clear he wants to close games, not start them. But he has a hundred million reasons to change his mind soon. If Chapman does give starting another shot he would essentially be an uber-elite pitching prospect again. He may not throw 103mph as a starter, but even if he loses a few blips on the radar gun he can still be an extremely effective starting pitcher with his fastball, slider, changeup combination.
3) Robert Stephenson has been the Reds top prospect for a few years now. He is pitching well at AAA Louisville and is likely to get a September call-up in a couple weeks from now. He has plus stuff to go with a blazing fastball. He strikes out a lot of batters, which is a huge key for success in the big leagues. Unfortunately he has struggled with walks sinceÃ‚Â reaching the AA level. Last year he struggled with the long ball but has made big strides toward fixing that flaw this year. Stephenson was the Reds’ first round pick in 2011 and has been considered one of the best ten pitching prospects in all of baseball the last three years. He is very likely to be in the 2016 Opening Day rotation, or very soon thereafter.
4) In my opinion Raisel Iglesias is clearly the best of the bunch currently in the Reds rotation. Iglesias was signed out of Cuba last year for a big money contract. His 4.73 ERA right now is not pretty but his peripherals look very good. He strikes batters out and he doesn’t walk many. He has plus stuff and good velocity. He strikes out 9 batters per game (average is 7) and his 3.31 K:BB ratio is quite good and likely to improve as he gains experience.Ã‚Â He is 25 years old but doesn’t have much mileage on his arm. He was a reliever in Cuba and barely pitched at all last year. Due to his build and mechanics many scouts have pegged Iglesias as a relief pitcher, but the Reds believe he can start and so far they have been absolutely right. I think he is likely to be a productive member of the Reds rotation moving forward perhaps as a #3 starter type. The only question is whether he can hold up to a major league starter’s workload.
5) Anthony DeSclafani started out the season brilliantly but faltered a bit as the season wore on. In the rotation since Day 1 of the season, DeSclafani has been one of the bright spots in a dim season for the Reds in 2015. The 25 year oldÃ‚Â was acquired in the Mat Latos trade with the Marlins. He doesn’t have plus velocity or stuff but he is a smart pitcher with a bulldog attitude. His peripherals portray a sub-par strikeout rate and an average walk rate. He can survive as a starting pitcher but doesn’t really have much more upside than what we have already seen.Ã‚Â Strong candidate to remain as the Reds’ #4 or #5 starter moving forward.
6) Brandon Finnegan was the centerpiece of the Johnny Cueto trade with the Royals. Finnegan wasÃ‚Â the Royals’ first round draft pick last year. He pitched in both the College World Series and the World Series last year as well, the first player ever to do that. He was similar to Mike Leake in that he was drafted as a major-league ready pitcher without elite upside. Finnegan throws harder than Leake but does not have Leake’s athleticism. The Reds have collected a large number of starting pitchers that were viewed by most other teams as relievers. Finnegan fits that mold. The Reds will develop Finnegan as a starter but if that doesn’t work he should be a very effective relief pitcher. He is likely to get a September call-up and is a candidate for the the 2016 Opening Day rotation. There is some star potential here. If all goes well he will slot into the rotation ahead of DeSclafani. I considered ranking him ahead of DeSclafani but until we know if Finnegan is going to remain a starter I will put him behind Disco.
7)Ã‚Â Most people will probably find this an aggressive ranking of John Lamb, who was also part of the Cueto deal. He is frequently mentioned as a back end of the rotation guy without much upside these days. The 25 year old Lamb was once considered a potentially elite starting pitcher prospect in his younger days. But he got hurt and underwent Tommy John surgery. His recovery did not go well. He missed essentially two seasons and when he did come back his velocity and control did not come with him. His stuff the last couple years was significantly worse than it was pre-surgery. But this year Lamb has made a strong resurgence. His stuff still doesn’t wow scouts but his statistics were very impressive for the Royals AAA affiliate in the notoriously hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. He strikes out a lot of batters without walking many and he keeps the ball in the park. Given the strides he has made this year there is reason to believe that his progress will continue as the surgery is further and further in the rear-view mirror. I expect continued improvements next year, culminating in a solidified place in the Reds’ starting rotation for a few years. Lamb is ready for the major leagues and is likely to receive a September call-up this year.
8) The last piece of the Cueto haul, Cody Reed has done more to boost his stock this year than any other pitcher on this list. Prior to this season the lefty Reed was not much of a prospect, but his performance this year has really opened a lot of eyes in prospect circles. The lefty is shooting up the charts. Like Finnegan, Reed is often mentioned as a future impact reliever. There is star potential as as starter here however, with late innings reliever as the fallback option. Unlike the tall, thin and crafty Lamb, Reed is an even taller and more thickly built power thrower. Still in AA ball in Pensacola, Reed is likely at least a year or two away from from his Cincinnati debut.
9) Amir Garrett is another guy whose prospect stock is way up. He wasn’t drafted until the 22nd round in 2011 because teams didn’t think he would sign due to his commitment to play basketball at St. Johns. After giving up his college basketball career Garrett has focused on baseball and built himself into a very good prospect. Before the Cueto trade Garrett was appearing in the top five of some Reds’ prospect lists (including hitters), sometimes ranked behind only Stephenson and Jesse Winker. The influx of talent in the Cueto and Leake trades has stolen some attention from the excellent season that Garrett has put together for Daytona. One of five lefties in the top 10 of this list, Garrett had a breakout season last year at Dayton and has kept the ball rolling in Daytona this year. He gets a lot of strikeouts but still needs to hone his control. He hasn’t walked a tonÃ‚Â of batters yet but next year he will be jumping to AA ball, which is where a lot of pitchers (including Stephenson and Ben Lively last year) start to struggle with walks because the more experienced hitters they face there are less likely to bail out the pitcher by swinging at poor pitches. Garrett is still at least two or three years away from the major leagues, but is steadily cementing himself as a serious rotation candidate forÃ‚Â 2018 or so.
10) Keury Mella was the keystone of the Mike Leake trade. He was considered the Giants #1 overall prospect when the trade occurred, but the Giants had a very weak farm system.Ã‚Â He has exhibited excellent strikeout and walk rates throughout his minor league career. Arm and shoulder injuries have been a persistent problem though, which is one reason why many scouts believe Mella is destined to be a reliever (sound familiar). His mechanics are a bit unorthodox as well, which is another reason why people see a reliever when they watch him. The Reds will continue to develop Mella as a starter but he does have impact potential as a reliever if starting does not work out. Mella is yet another young pitcherÃ‚Â with star potential both as a starter and a reliever. If weÃ‚Â have enough guys like this we are bound to get a couple genuine stars out of the bunch, am I right?
11) Nick Travieso was the Reds’ 1st round pick in 2012. Most observers considered the pick a reach because he would likely have been available in round two, but the Reds wanted to make sure their guy didn’t slip from their grasp. Travieso was viewed as a strong but raw arm when drafted out of high school. The Reds opted to overhaul his mechanics right from the start, and that resulted in a loss of much of theÃ‚Â velocityÃ‚Â thatÃ‚Â was the drawing card that attracted them to him in the first place. Travieso struggled in his first two minor league seasons and fell off the prospect map outside of the Reds fan base, but that is not really uncommon for pitchers drafted out of high school. Last year Travieso began to turn things around with a solid 3.03 ERA in Dayton. His peripherals weren’t quite that good but he definitely showed strong improvement. This year at Daytona his ERA is exactly 3.03 again and his peripherals have taken another step forward even though he moved up a level. Smooth and steady progress often wins the race. If he continues climbing the minor league ladder while displaying solid peripherals, Travieso could be a rotation option in 2018.
12) Many of you might find this ranking a shocker. Michael Lorenzen has been considered a top three overall prospect for the Reds the last couple seasons. I was not convinced of that then and I am even less convinced of it now. I just don’t see a successful starting pitcher when I see him pitch and especially not when I look at his peripherals throughout his major and minor league career. Another converted reliever, I think Lorenzen will be moved to the bullpen sometime soon. In the bullpen his velocity can blossom and he can concentrate on his slider as well. We have frequently heard scouts say Lorenzen has a plus fastball and a slider that flashes plus. I see a hard but straight fastball that gets pummeled when thrown in the strike zone. Ã‚Â I see a slider that flashes plus, but only rarely. Lorenzen’s strikeout and walk rates are awful — I mean worst in the league awful. He has never shown good K/BB rates even in the minor leagues. There is a disconnect here between stuff and results. The stuff might look good at times but the results have been really poor. I think he should be moved to the bullpen so he can concentrate on refining his fastball command and his slider that shows potential. I love his athleticism and bulldog mentality. Those give me some hope that he can eventually turn into a quality starting pitcher if given plenty of time in the minor leagues, but he really needs to make a LOT of progress for that to happen. I don’t think the Reds are in a position to give him that development time, so bullpen it is. The argument in his favor is that he has not pitched much in his life and still has a lot to learn because he was an All-American outfielder and closer in college. I can buy into that a little, but he has had a LOT of instruction and repetition since being drafted and while pitching in the majors. I haven’t seen any growth or advancement in his underlying skills. There is obviously a lot of potential here but the gap is too wide. Move him to the bullpen and maybe some day he can revert to starting if his pitches develop.
13) Tony Cingrani was the Reds’ first attempt to turn a former reliever into a starter. It worked for a while, but the fact that Cingrani had only one major league quality pitch put the kibosh on that effort, or at least it should have. I am listing Cingrani as a rotation candidate here because I think the Reds still view him that way, possibly out of desperation. I think Cingrani will make a nice left-handed specialist out of the bullpen. Let him focus on what he does best: throw deceptive fastballs 85% of the time. You can’t get away with that as a starter for long, but he can be a solid part of a good bullpen. Cingrani has also had trouble staying healthy long enough to be a reliable member of a rotation.
14) Keyvius Sampson was a pretty good prospect early in his Padres minor league career, even making some top 100 prospects in baseball lists a few years ago. But the Padres released him this spring and the Reds snapped him up. His results in the minor leagues have been solid if not stellar, so I don’t know why the Padres let him go for nothing. His biggest problem has been the walk. He gets enough strikeouts to succeed but the walks will haunt. He has struck out more than a batter per inning throughout his minor league career, but his K:BB ratio has been barely 2:1, which is a recipe for disaster as a starting pitcher. Still only 24 years old, perhaps the Reds can refine his control and allow him to make a go at a career as a starter, but the more likely avenue is a career in the bullpen as a middle reliever. I ranked him this high because he is already getting a chance to pitch in the rotation, but I think several of the guys below have quite a bit more upside.
15) Josh Smith has a boring name and has had a boring career thus far, but don’t overlook this guy. He has posted solid peripherals throughout his minor league career. His stuff doesn’t raise any eyebrows. He has below average velocity. But I think he has a chance to be a #5 starter in the major leagues. He is 28 years old and has to be considered a replacement level player right now, but I would rather have him in the Reds’ rotation than David Holmberg. Smith can strike batters out and he rarely walks people. His pro career K-BB% is a very good 14.8% (Lorenzen’s is 5.0% and major league average is 12.1%). The fact that SmithÃ‚Â walked 13 batters in his 12 innings with the Reds is a shocker considering he has consistently put up very low walk rates in the minors. His career minors ERA is 3.57. Not bad. I don’t think he gets much of a chance to stick in the Reds rotation because he doesn’t really have any upside, but he doesn’t really have much downside either. He could be a surprise candidate to start in 2016.
16) Tyler Mahle is putting up great numbers for Dayton this year. His career has been marked by good strikeout rates and fantastic walk rates. The Reds 2013 7th round pick has greatly exceeded expectations.
17) Sal Romano is another guy who has exceeded expectations. The 2011 23rd round pick is a ground ball specialist who has allowed only 23 home runs in 442 minor league innings, and only 3 HRs in 108 innings this year. Now in the upper minors at AA Pensacola he is a guy to watch. A bit of a late bloomer from a cold-weather high school in Connecticut, Romano has positioned himself for a potential callup in 2017. No huge upside but steadily improving.
18) Antonio Santillan was the Reds’ 2nd round pick this year. The big 18 year old Texan is throwing forÃ‚Â the Reds’ Arizona complex league team.
19)Ã‚Â Jon Moscot was the Reds’ 4th round pick in 2012. He reached the bigs this year and started three games for the Reds before severely injuring his shoulder diving to make a tag on a play at second base. His minor league peripherals show a lack of strikeouts and too many walks once reaching the upper minors. There is some potential here but nothing too exciting.
20) Jackson Stephens throws fairly hard and doesn’t walk people. He has had some elbow issues. He was an 18th round pick in 2012 but has opened some eyes. Profiles more as a reliever but still has potential to start.
21) Tanner Rainey was a 2nd round supplemental pick this year out of a small Alabama college. His peripherals in 31 innings at Billings look very good in the small sample.
22) Jonathon Crawford was acquired in the Alfredo Simon trade from Detroit. He was the Tiger’s 1st round pick in 2013. The Tigers were rumored to have quickly soured on him and were allegedly not reluctant to send him to Cincinnati. His numbers in the minors look pretty good, but not really what you would expect from an advanced college arm pitching in the lowest levels of the minors. He has only pitched 13 innings this year due to injury. Right now he is a wild card. We won’t know what we have until he pitches a lot more.
23) Nick Howard is yet another Reds attempt to turn a reliever into a starter. So far this project has turned into a nightmare. Howard was the Reds’ 1st round pick last year. He was a hard-throwing closer in college at Virginia, where his team advanced to the finals of the College World Series. The Reds have bounced Howard around between the rotation and the bullpen as a pro. Howard has struggled mightily with the walk, especially this year. He was shut down early this season because he simply couldn’t throw strikes, with some whispering that he has the yips, which is a slang term for a mental bloc that prevents a player from throwingÃ‚Â the ball to a target. Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblauch were famous second basemen that developed the yips and could no longer throw the ball to first base, forcing retirement. Cubs’ pitcher Jon Lester has garnered attention this year for his case of yips that prevented him from throwing over to first base for nearly two years. I suppose this problem that Howard is having could wreck his career if it is true. Prior to shutting him down the Reds moved Howard back to the bullpen but this move may not be permanent. Right now Nick Howard simply cannot be ranked very high despite his first round pedigree. Hopefully he can get back on the mound and resume his career and regain his prospect status.
24) Wyatt Strahan was the Reds’ 3rd round pick last year out of USC. He is pitching wellÃ‚Â at Dayton this year but hasn’t really done anything to stand out yet. There is solid potential here but until he moves up the ladder we won’t know for sure. He is a hard thrower but the delivery is herky-jerky and needs a lot of refinement.
25) Ian Kahaloa was the 5th round pick this year. The 17 year old hasÃ‚Â apparently generated some excitement at the Reds’ rookie league complex. 17 strikeout vs 2 walks in his first 13 innings. Very small sample size at a very low level.
26) David Holmberg is the definition of replacement level. Acquired from the Diamondbacks in the Ryan Hanigan trade. Not enough strikeouts and too many walks to consider the big lefty a true prospect despite his age of 24. Could be a 5th starter for a bad team. Not much if any upside.
27) Tejay Antone was last year’s 5th round pick. He has a 2.93 ERA at Dayton, but peripherals are lacking.
There is a strong trend in the Reds’ system of hoarding a large group of B level pitching prospects with the upside to become A level prospects. Many of these pitchers are likely to be relievers when all is said and done, but at least one or two are going to be high-quality starting pitchers for the Reds. Some of the rest will become very good power relievers. So not only are the Reds likely to have a strong home-grown rotation they should also end up with a much better bullpen as well.
Right now the only A level pitching prospect the Reds have is Robert Stephenson. Obviously A prospects are more desirable than B prospects, but I would argue that it is better to have 10 B prospects than one or even two A prospects. The cost of trading for a Grade A pitching prospect is exorbitant, so the Reds have done the next best thing and hoarded Grade B prospects. The Reds have a very deep group of good-but-not-great pitching prospects. The Reds may have only one good veteran pitcher right now (and he is badly injured), but they do have a large pitchingÃ‚Â orchardÃ‚Â that is likely to bear plenty of tasty fruit over the next few years.