We know Brandon Finnegan wants to be a starter. We know the Reds harbor the same feelings. But can prudence and patience prevail over rushed, unsound logic in the RedsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ latest reliever-to-starter experiment?
To Bryan PriceÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s credit, everything weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve heard points to him pining for Aroldis Chapman to start during his days as Dusty BakerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s pitching coach. Recently, Price referenced Chapman when speaking to FinneganÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s future.
“I think the feeling is he could be pitching in the big leagues right now as a relief pitcher, but the ceiling is kind of like where we were with (Aroldis) Chapman years ago,Ã¢â‚¬Â Price said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Do we really want to commit to the bullpen when the kid can potentially be a starting pitcher? The value, really, is as the starter. If that’s something down the road if we determine he’s better suited as a reliever, that’s an easy switch. He proved he could do that last year and this year.”
The key word in that quote is Ã¢â‚¬Å“value.Ã¢â‚¬Â Even as more and more high-brow economic terms have seeped into baseballÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s lexicon over the years, the starter vs. reliever argument comes down to basic math: starters pitch more innings than relievers, and thus possess the ability to positively affect a greater numbers of games.
At present, Finnegan, who was recalled from Triple-A Louisville on Sept. 7, is working out of the RedsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ bullpen, though Price hasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t ruled out the 22-year-old left-hander making a spot start or two before the season ends. (Update: Finnegan will start FridayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s series opener in Milwaukee as part of a revamped RedsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ rotation.)Ã‚Â In 2.2 innings for the Reds, Finnegan has allowed a hit while striking out four and walking one. Things werenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t very rosy for Finnegan in eight starts for Louisville: 30.1 innings, 6.23 ERA/4.34 FIP, 5.04 BB/9, 8.90 K/9.
As I wrote back in late July after the Reds acquired Finnegan in the Johnny Cueto trade, the transition back to the rotation for Finnegan — who flourished in a starting role as his college days at TCU wore on — is likely to be slow and arduous. Before he was acquired by the Reds, this season was a lost one in terms of development for the Fort Worth, Texas, native. Finnegan alternated between starting and relieving in the minors through early June to go along with a few relief appearances here and there for the Royals. As a professional, FinneganÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s longest outing as a starter is five innings. HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s never thrown more than 88 pitches in a start.
ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s also a mental transition to consider. Remember: Finnegan has already experienced tremendous success as a baseball player. Not only did Finnegan make baseball history last season by pitching in the College World Series and the World Series during the same calendar year, but he logged time in tough spots in the majors — and thrived. Given that success, deep down in the inner recesses of his baseball soul, Finnegan probably believes that he belongs in the majors — and as a reliever, he absolutely does.
(Watch this video of Finnegan. Now watch this video of Billy Wagner. The similarities are eerie whenÃ‚Â it comes to body build (Finnegan is listed at 5-11, 185 pounds; Wagner was listed at 5-10, 180 pounds) and pitching profiles (mid-to-high 90s fastball, nasty slider). The potential for Finnegan to be a late-inning terror is there.)
If Finnegan already knows he can pitch in the majors and experience sustained success, will he be able to handle a dose of disappointment if he has to begin 2016 in Louisville to continue to work on becoming a MLB-ready starter? Despite publicly stating his desire to become a starter, will Finnegan be willing to trade short-term success — and possibly the role of RedsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ closer — for what could be a much more meaningful (and lucrative) career as a starter? Only time will tell — that is, if the Reds provide Finnegan with the necessary time to make the conversion. It seems like Brandon Finnegan, Starting Pitcher, has an ally in Price. ShouldÃ‚Â Price lose his job, it will be interesting to watch how Finnegan’s development unfolds orÃ‚Â changes.
FinneganÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s potential as a starter already has one in-house skeptic in Delino DeShields, FinneganÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s manager at Louisville, who saw the southpaw make all of eight starts at Triple-A.
“Honestly, I see him as a power arm in the bullpen,Ã¢â‚¬Â DeShields said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I see him as a guy who can pitch seventh and eighth inning of ballgames — a lefty who can be a setup type of guy. I think his stuff will play better in that role.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“But we’ll see. He’s a young guy. He hasn’t pitched a whole lot. This is really his first year of pro ball, so it’s probably too soon to label him.”
To be fair to DeShields, he did add that qualifier at the end of the quote. But DeShields is far from the only doubter, as experts at Baseball America and FanGraphs have cast concern on the feasibility of Finnegan as a starting pitcher.
But thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not the point, is it? The point is that the Reds are very likely to suffer through an average-or-worse year in 2016: the pitching is too young, the hitting is too inconsistent, and the division is too good. The Reds should avoid a repeat of history, and let Finnegan prove he cannot start.
My fear is this: if Walt Jocketty finds his blockbuster trade and successfully deals Chapman, the Reds will obviously need a new closer.Ã‚Â (I hear those of you clamoring for the death of the closer role, and IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m on your side. But that ninth-inning institution isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t going anywhere, so we have to roll with it for now.)
Some believe the closer-in-waiting is J.J. Hoover. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m not ready to make that leap yet, though Hoover should certainly be in the mix. Aside from Hoover, there are no other viable in-house candidates to close. After dishing out major money to sign Francisco Cordero and Jonathan Broxton on the free agent closer market within the last decade, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s unlikely the Reds shell out that kind of money for a ninth inning-only reliever once again.
LetÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s say the Reds settle on a closer. This is where Tony Cingrani enters the equation. If the young lefty can show in spring training and early next season that heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s ready to settle into what will likely be a hybrid role of lefty specialist and late-inning stopper, the temptation to ask Finnegan to fill that role will lessen.
ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s unlikely that Finnegan makes the Reds’ rotation out of spring training next year. Barring something unforeseen, Anthony DeSclafani and Raisel Iglesias are locks for next yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s rotation. Once Homer Bailey is ready to return — likely around mid-May — he will be in the rotation. Given their experience starting in the majors, John Lamb, Michael Lorenzen, and Jon Moscot are presumably ahead of Finnegan in the pecking order. Top prospect Robert Stephenson likely has a leg-up too, despite having no major league experience. Keyvius Sampson and David Holmberg have posted woeful numbers with the Reds, but they at least have starting experience in the bigs. ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s also a chance the Reds could add a proven innings-eater over the offseason to ensure that the bullpen avoids overuseÃ‚Â early in the seasonÃ‚Â supporting what will again be a very young and inexperienced rotation.
So, willÃ‚Â prudence prevail with Brandon Finnegan, Starting Pitcher? LetÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s hope so, lest the Reds make the same mistake twice.