[This post was submitted by Addison Kimmel. Addison is a Miami University grad and earned a MasterÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s in anthropology from Northwestern. Raised as a Reds fan in Southwest Ohio, he currently lives in the Quad Cities and is a PhD student Ã‚Â at the University of Iowa. He is a Quad City River Bandits season-ticket holder.]
Cedric Benson, the three-time 1,000-yard rusher for the Bengals, might be the most recognizable name on the 2002 Gulf Coast League Dodgers to most Cincinnati fans. Or maybe itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s one-time RedsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ foe Russell Martin, one of only three Ã¢â‚¬â„¢02 GCL Dodgers alums who will wear a major league uniform next year. The second is current free agent Joakim Soria, a well-traveled reliever with over 200 saves to his name. But itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the thirdÃ¢â‚¬â€a veteran of 13 minor league seasons who has recorded 113 saves in five organizationsÃ¢â‚¬â€who is poised to make the biggest impact on the 2016 Reds.
Jumbo DiazÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s inspirational story has been told many times. After losing nearly 100 pounds over the last few years, Diaz was finally able to shake the perception that he was too big for the bigs and got his first call-up with the Reds in 2014 as a 30-year-old rookie. Last year he locked down a full-time major league gig and found some success in the seventh and eighth innings, pitching in high-leverage situations.
With Aroldis ChapmanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s imminent departure, DiazÃ¢â‚¬â€who is three years ChapmanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s seniorÃ¢â‚¬â€is my choice to succeed Chapman as Reds closer. I acknowledge that this, given the current state of the Reds, may be a largely ceremonial role. And it certainly will not be preordained, with substantial competition to come from Michael Lorenzen and J.J. Hoover. However, making Diaz the closer next year is a key step in maximizing the effectiveness of a rather shallow bullpen in Cincinnati and squeezing the most wins as possible out of a team with major issues.
First and foremost, Jumbo as closer allows for greater flexibility in bullpen usage. For a team that (barring any major moves) will be cobbling together a bullpen of prospects and spare parts, the flexibility to play matchups and strategically deploy the best pitchers at the most important moments is paramount. Hoover might be the best pitcher, reliever or otherwise, currently on the Reds roster. By placing Diaz in a semi-rigid closing role, Bryan Price will free up Hoover to fill a Wade Davis role, albeit with more fluidity.
A former starter like Davis, Hoover can then be used when he is most needed and will help bridge the often substantial gap between the starter and closer. Ideally this results in a situation similar toÃ¢â‚¬â€though hopefully with a better win-loss recordÃ¢â‚¬â€the 2015 Mariners. Carson Smith, the MarinersÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ best reliever, spent much of the year in a bridging roleÃ¢â‚¬â€though Smith later finished games after the Fernando Rodney tradeÃ¢â‚¬â€leading the league in Average Leverage Index, a measure of the average pressure of the situations that a pitcher enters. Very talented but still-raw pitchers like Tony Cingrani can be utilized in situations that are best suited for their strengths and overall pressure on Jumbo will be reduced, putting him in a better position to succeed.
Beyond this, Diaz is simply a good choice to finish games for the Reds. He checks every box when it comes to the Ã¢â‚¬Å“traditionalÃ¢â‚¬Â measures by which closers are judged. Intimidating? HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s 6Ã¢â‚¬â„¢4Ã¢â‚¬Â and 250+. Power stuff? An average fastball velocity of 96.8 mph. Great nickname? Obviously. Diaz may not have epic facial hair, but thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s still plenty of time before pitchers and catchers report.
Statistically speaking, Diaz also makes a strong case. Over his last three minor league seasonsÃ¢â‚¬â€a total of 87 games at Triple-AAAÃ¢â‚¬â€Diaz sported a 1.38 ERA and a WHIP of 1.01Ã¢â‚¬â€comparable to HooverÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s minor league relief numbersÃ¢â‚¬â€and DiazÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s stats have been on a steady upward trend since he first arrived in Double-A full-time in 2010.
In the majors last year, Diaz continued to show improvement, posting a K/9 of 10.4, well above his last three year minor league average of 8.37 as well as HooverÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s 7.3. Diaz doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t limit hits as well as Hoover doesÃ¢â‚¬â€few do, as HooverÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s 6.2 H/9 last year was better than Greg Holland, Mark Melancon, and Jeurys Familia, among others. But Diaz does miss more bats, which is important for closing out games. He also induces weak contact at roughly similar rates as highly successful closers like Brad Boxberger and Craig Kimbrel.
One of the most surprising differences between Diaz and Hoover, and perhaps the most promising for DiazÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s closing prospects, is the big gap in FIP. Jumbo boasted a 3.80 mark, not incredible but on par with longtime Twins closer Glen Perkins. Hoover, on the other hand, put up a 4.47 in 2015, a full run higher than his 2013 number. (IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m choosing to disregard HooverÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s mostly aberrant 2014 debacle in this debate.) While I still think that Hoover is likely the better pitcher overall, Jumbo has all the makings of a legitimate major league closerÃ¢â‚¬â€maybe not among the top tier, but capable nonetheless.
WeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re all sad to see Aroldis Chapman (likely) go. Whenever you lose a pitcher in the top five in relief ERA and FIP, who ranks in the top 7 in LOB% and tops the league in K/9, a stat in which Chapman is one of the all-time leaders, your bullpen takes a big-time hit.
2016 is going to be a season of struggle in Cincinnati, but with some creative bullpen management the Reds can at the least play some competitive, compelling baseball. At 30, Diaz is not the long-term answer for the Reds at closer. However, his experience and his record of competence are more than enough to help the Reds compete in the short-term and serve as a bridge between this era of Reds baseball and hopefully brighter timesÃ¢â‚¬â€and brighter prospects like Lorenzen or ultimately Nick HowardÃ¢â‚¬â€ahead.