In a moment of transparency, Reds manager Bryan Price handicapped the battle for the starting rotation at the onset of Spring Training. Not surprisingly, the top of the rotation was pretty much set in stone, but the way Price laid out the remaining plan let fans know who had a leg up over who for the back end of the rotation.

Price laid out the following ‘tiers’:

Tier One – Locks

Homer Bailey

Anthony DeSclafani

Luis Castillo

Tier Two – Probably a lock

Brandon Finnegan

Tier Three – Battling for 5

Sal Romano

Robert Stephenson

Tier Four – On the outside looking in

Tyler Mahle

Michael Lorenzen

Price let it be known that this was far from the final philosophy that would be used to make the Opening Day rotation, but gave the sense that based off of previous experience and successes, this would be the pecking order headed into Spring. While not making decisions based solely on Spring Training statistics, it’s likely that some of these tiebreakers, and even some movement between tiers, could be caused by outstanding or lackluster performances in Spring.

Left off the list were left-handers (and, as recently as a year ago, top pitching prospects) Amir Garrett and Cody Reed. Both pitchers struggled mightily in 2017, and therefore were either written off or forgotten to be included in the initial set of tiers.

So, now that we’ve played through a few weeks of spring training let’s take a look at where things stand. I’ll be listing these players in order of how I see Bryan Price stacking his rotation heading into the season.

Tier One – Locks

#1 & Opening Day Starter – Homer Bailey

Reasons for being this high: Money; 2 No-Hitters; Finally came back from the DL last season
Reasons he shouldn’t be this high: He (probably) isn’t the best Reds pitcher
Spring Stats: 8.0 IP, 9.00 ERA, 5:1 K/BB, 11 hits, 8 ER, 4HRs

Bailey has looked healthy this spring, which is exactly what all Reds fans should be hoping for. He fired 2.0 shutout innings against the Indians in his spring debut, striking out three and not allowing a walk. He followed it up with a 2 hit (but 2 HR) performance against the Giants. His outing yesterday started off what turned out to be a slugfest between the Reds and the White Sox, and roughed up his bottom line quite a bit. He’ll look to bounce back in a few days. 

If Bailey is healthy, and short of an outright dominant spring from either DeSclafani or (less likely) Castillo, I think Price names Bailey the Opening Day starter. He’s the longest tenured Reds pitcher, and going out there on Opening Day should boost his confidence a little bit. Although I don’t think he’s the best option when you’re looking at purely who the best pitcher on the staff is, I’d be fine with Homer starting Opening Day.

#2 – Anthony DeSclafani

Reasons for being this high: Has more experience than Castillo; maybe best pitcher if healthy
Reasons for not being higher: If he isn’t 100%, Castillo is better; Can he be 100%?
Spring Stats: 4.0 IP, 6.75 ERA, 3:1 K/BB, 7 hits, 3 ER, 0 HR

Disco looked like his old self in his spring debut, where he went 2 scoreless innings, striking out two and walking no one. Things didn’t go as well the second time around, when he gave up 4 runs in the first inning against the Royals. Let’s just chalk that last outing up to Spring Training weirdness, right?

DeSclafani is in the same boat as Bailey in 2018, coming off a seemingly endless string of injuries that have prevented him from stepping on the mound. If a 1-2 punch of Bailey and Disco can stay healthy for the majority of the season, this rotation will be much better than it has been over the past few years. You could make an argument that if both are healthy, Disco should get the nod for Opening Day. I would rather see DeSclafani in that spot, but if given the choice between the two of them, I don’t think Bryan Price could possibly choose Disco over Homer.

#3 – Luis Castillo

Reasons for being this high: He’s filthy.
Reasons for not being higher: outside of age and experience, there really isn’t one
Spring Stats: 4.2 IP, 1.93 ERA, 5:0 K/BB, 6 hits, 1 ER, 0 HR

Castillo has come out of the gates strongly in spring, having not walked anyone in 4.2 innings, while racking up five strikeouts. Although you’d like to see less than 6 hits, he’s been able to mitigate that damage into only one earned run.

If I’m managing the 2018 Reds, Luis Castillo is my Opening Day starter, and we’re opening up the season by punching the Washington Nationals in the mouth. Castillo is a rare talent, is probably already the best pitcher on this staff, and is absolutely the most exciting pitcher on this staff. What’s not to love here?

Tier Two – Near Locks

#4 – Amir Garrett

Reasons for being this high: He’s shown he can do it; Insane start to spring
Reasons for not being higher: either hid or lied about being hurt last year, wasn’t included in initial group
Spring Stats: 7.0 IP, 2.57 ERA, 11:2 K/BB, 3 hits, 2 ER, 1HR

Yep, I think Amir Garrett has already done enough this spring to catapult himself above Brandon Finnegan for fourth starter dibs. The southpaw has been lights out in Spring, eliminating any hitter who dare step into the box against him in his first two outings. He “struggled” a bit in his third outing, but the bottom line still is the best of the young Reds pitchers. Amir looks every bit the pitcher who was arguably the organization’s top pitching prospect only a year ago, and he’s hungry for what he believe he’s owed.

But, as we stated above, these decisions shouldn’t be made solely on spring training stats, and this one hasn’t been. This scenario is mostly a mix of A) Amir being healthy and throwing well, B) A few absolutely stunning starts last year from Amir, and C) Brandon Finnegan not being up to speed with the rest of the group. I could definitely see Bryan Price letting Finnegan get up to speed with a mini rehab assignment in AAA to start the season, or potentially in the major league bullpen. If Amir continues to pitch the way he is, he’s the no brainer option for this spot in my opinion.

#5 – Brandon Finnegan

Reasons for being this high: He’s shown he can do it; High upside
Reasons for not being higher: He’s behind in spring; walks too many guys; was hurt most of last year
Spring Stats: 2.0 IP, 4.50 ERA, 1:1 K/BB, 2 hits, 1 ER, 1 HR

Finnegan’s spring got a later start than his counterparts on this list, having made his debut this past Tuesday. He looked alright, outside of a leadoff mistake pitch that Francisco Lindor hit well over the fence.

It’s likely that Finnegan will need to outpitch Garrett, Sal Romano and Robert Stephenson through the rest of spring in order to prove that he’s ‘caught up’ with these guys. We saw the dominance Finnegan is capable of in his first start of 2017, when he pitched 7 innings of 1 hit, 9Ks, 1 BB baseball. Unfortunately, it was his only start of the year in which he was able to pitch more than 3 innings. Reds fans are certainly hoping Finnegan can provide more of that dominance in 2018, but he’s got a little bit to prove before he’s considered a lock for the rotation.

Tier Three – On the outside looking in

#6 – Sal Romano

Reasons for being this high: Throws strikes; Gets guys out
Reasons for not being higher: Not moving the needle in spring
Spring Stats: 8.0 innings, 4.50 ERA, 8:1 K/BB, 11 hits, 5 ER, 1 HR

Big Sal has gotten hit around a little bit early on in spring. His defense certainly hasn’t helped him, as anyone who has watched/listened to the games knows. But, to be a solid major league starter, you can’t always rely on the defense to bail you out. Romano hasn’t been able to do much more than to tread water so far this spring, but that mostly goes for everyone in this competition not named Amir Garrett.

Due to service time issues with Garrett, I think Romano slates in after him for sure. If Romano wants to make the big leagues out of camp, he’ll need to hope Brandon Finnegan isn’t quite ready when the season starts. He’ll also need to outpitch the other guy in this tier.

#7 – Robert Stephenson

Reasons for being this high: Former top-of-the-top prospect; showed a lot of corrections late last year
Reasons for not being higher: Still struggles to throw strikes
Spring Stats: 3.0 IP, 15.00 ERA, 5:4 K/BB, 7 hits, 5 ER, 2 HR

In my opinion, Robert Stephenson and Sal Romano entered the year neck-and-neck for the fifth starter spot. Although Stephenson’s numbers look worse, I think they’re probably still just as equal in the eyes of Bryan Price as they were at the start of spring. Stephenson hasn’t been hit around quite as badly as Romano has been, but he’s given up just as many earned runs. If you look at the stat lines, it’s easy to see why: 4 walks in 3 innings is not the way to convince your manager that you should be starting baseball games at the big league level.

Like Finnegan, Stephenson started the spring slightly behind the rest of the pitching staff with some neck soreness. It’s because of this – and because he still hasn’t shown he can throw enough strikes – that he’s slightly lower on the depth chart than Romano.

Tier Four – Probably not gonna happen (yet)

#8 – Tyler Mahle

Reasons for being this high: Has had a strong spring; throws strikes; gets guys out
Reasons for not being higher: service time; struggled with command during his call up last year
Spring Stats: 6.2 IP, 4.05 ERA, 7:2 K/BB, 4 hits, 3 ER, 0 HR

Mahle’s spring stats alone would place him above both Romano and Stephenson in the rotation battle if the season were to start today. He’s continued to show a great ability to throw strikes and get outs, changing angles and speeds on his fastballs to induce ground balls and whiffs alike.

The system, similarly to fellow top prospect Nick Senzel, is probably what is placing Mahle in this grouping. The Reds can ensure that Mahle will be under team control for an extra year if they keep him in the minor leagues for a few months to start the season. Whether or not this is a good idea is a different topic for a different article, but if Bryan Price were true to his word, Mahle would likely be starting the season in the rotation. I doubt that happens, and you’ll likely see him starting in Louisville for the first portion of the year.

Tier Five – Likely out of the conversation

#9 – Michael Lorenzen

Reasons for being this high: Electric stuff; Fan favorite
Reasons for not being higher: Stuff plays down when not in the bullpen; Awful spring outing
Spring Stats: 4.2 IP, 14.73 ERA, 6:2 K/BB, 7 hits, 6 ER, 0 HR

Lorenzen really had to prove that he was a better option to start games than Sal Romano and Robert Stephenson in order to really be taken seriously as a starting pitcher. Unfortunately for him, he’s done the opposite. He started out strong, allowing only one run on two hits in 2 innings with three strikeouts in his first appearance. But his second start – which saw him give up 5 runs on 5 hits and two walks through only 1.2 innings – was exactly the kind of start someone in his position needed to avoid.

I never really understood the hooplah over Michael Lorenzen starting in the first place. Sure, maybe last year it wouldn’t have hurt to get him a few starts in lieu of the worse pitchers the team trotted out there instead, but in the long term vision, it’s obvious that Lorenzen isn’t one of the top options. He works best to me as a late inning reliever who can go multiple innings and give the team a good chance at limiting runs for a chunk of the game. That’s just as important to the team as a fifth starter to me anyway.

#10 – Cody Reed

Reasons for being this high: Awesome stuff; Former top prospect; Goggles
Reasons for not being higher: Struggles with mental aspect; Is he still tipping pitches?; Hasn’t proven it in spring
Spring Stats: 5.1 IP, 8.44 ERA, 4:2 K/BB, 12 hits, 5 ER, 1 HR

Spring has gotten off to a rough start for Reed, who might be blowing his last chance to prove he’s a starter at the big league level. He’s got nasty stuff, as shown in his time in AAA and a few spurts at the major league level, but he gets hit around a lot. The tune has stayed the same this spring, already having given up 12 hits in only 5.1 innings.

Whether or not he’s still tipping his pitches is a question that will need answering, and if it’s still an issue, it will need to be fixed if he ever wants to pitch at the big league level. If a hitter knows what you’re about to throw, not even the best stuff in the world would fool big league hitters for long, even coming out of the bullpen. I’m hoping something clicks for Cody Reed, because I’m a big fan.


So, here’s how I see the rotation taking shape on Opening Day:

  1. Homer Bailey
  2. Anthony DeSclafani
  3. Luis Castillo
  4. Amir Garrett

Brandon Finnegan will either start the season on the DL, in the bullpen, or AAA for a start or two. Romano, Stephenson and Mahle will start the season in AAA. If Finnegan isn’t ready to make the first start required by the fifth starter (potentially as late as April 12), one of either Romano or Stephenson will be called up to make that start, and slot into the fifth spot until Finnegan is either deemed ready, or is banished to the pen for life.

After the season get some steam behind it, the rotation should be constantly monitored for lapses in performance. As soon as someone is decidedly not cutting it at the big league level, they get replaced with the next man on the list, at least for a little while. Same goes for injuries – just plug in the next guy up.

What do you guys think? Has Amir Garrett done enough to establish himself as a no brainer? Will Brandon Finnegan be Aroldis Champan’d? Should Luis Castillo be starting on Opening Day? Discuss below!

30 Responses

  1. big5ed

    That is pretty much how I see it, as well, although I wouldn’t put it past Stephenson to get it together over his next 3 spring outings.

    The Louisville rotation will be excellent – Romano, Stephenson, Mahle, Reed, and at some point Rookie Davis, which in turn will allow the younger guys to develop at their own pace. We should be able to expect at least one or two of the AAA rotation to take a major step forward. The Reds suddenly have good depth at starting position.

    • Chad Dotson

      Tyler Mahle is going to be better than Greg Maddux. There, I said it.

  2. JR

    I agree that Castillo should be the Opening Day starter. That’s nothing against Homer but I go with my best, always. It also sends a message which is why I’m confident Price won’t do it.

    • big5ed

      I’d rather Castillo start against the Cubs in the 4th game than against Scherzer in the opener.

      The Reds, beginning April 5, are scheduled to play 40 games in 42 days. Their only days off are on April 19 and May 3. It could be brutal, but if the rotation is hot, it may work out well.

    • JB WV

      I don’t think it’s that big of a deal who pitches the opener; one out of 161 more. If Homer is ready that’s fine. A nod to his seniority and former brilliance that hopefully will reemerge.

      • Jordan Barhorst

        Yeah, it’s a big reason why I don’t mind if Homer starts Opening Day or not. There’s something to be said for challenging one of the best teams in the NL right out of the gate, though. Traditionally, how the Reds fare on Opening Day has a pretty big effect on morale in the fanbase.

  3. Jeff Reed

    Luis Castillo should be the opening day starter. He’s a building block of the Red’s present and future. I’m pulling for Amir Garrett to be a part of the starting staff. He has the required determination but Garrett must be honest with management if he’s not in top physical condition. Starting pitching gives me optimism for the coming season.

  4. wkuchad

    My biggest hope is that only the top 8 pitchers (from Jordan’s list above) throw a pitch for the Reds as a starter in 2018. If that happens, I think it will be a good year.

  5. cfd3000

    At this point I just want to see 10 healthy starters. If Bailey, Castillo, DeSclafani, Finnegan and Garrett are in Cincy with Stephenson, Romano, Mahle, Reed and Davis pitching every fifth day in Louisville then the rotation will be fine. Someone will struggle in the big league rotation, and one or two will be lights out in AAA. Swap them out. Pitch. Repeat. At this point health and reps are the key. I do think Lorenzen needs to become the Andrew Miller type flex reliever for the Reds, and I’m very skeptical about Robert Stephenson in the Reds rotation. Otherwise it’s starting to shake out well. And thank goodness there’s no Feldman or Arroyo or Bonilla in the mix. This will be a better year on the mound for the Reds.

  6. Jordan Barhorst

    I just don’t think there’s any need to rush Finnegan to be ready for the Opening Day rotation. If he’s healthy, he’s probably a better option to start than either Garrett or Romano, at least at this point in time. But we haven’t seen much of him post-injury. The Reds should take their time, make sure he’s not rushed back a la Bailey and Disco, and let some of the young players fill in the gap for the time being. If they beat him out and stake claim to the spot permanently, Finnegan would be a really good reliever.

  7. koverman

    homer and finnigan should start the season in the pen

    • Jordan Barhorst

      I wouldn’t hold your breath on Homer ever coming out of the pen, unless it’s a rehab type thing. Too much money, too much ego, not enough proven options to replace him.

      • Big56dog

        Seemed like I heard at some point Homer would not make a good reliever because he takes so long to warm up, not sure any merit to that. The only way Homer goes to bullpen is if he is a disaster – which cannot believe he would be of any help

  8. abado

    Garrett seems to be going after it this spring. I’d love to see that rewarded, but you can’t ignore last year’s performance and injury-hiding.

    I’d lump him in with Finnegan, Romano, and Mahle as the group with the best chance for 4/5, which really is a great, young group. Right now, I’d go with Garrett and Mahle (he’s just so steady) with Finnegan in the pen if he’s healthy.

    I’m worried about how Reed and Stephenson will mentally handle being passed over and again being sent down to AAA. But that’s a part of the game and a big one for young pitchers especially. They’ll need to figure out how to manage the disappointment and still perform.

  9. sultanofswaff

    Health shouldn’t be the only thing Reds fans are hoping for with Homer Bailey. That’s setting the bar too low. He has given up the HR waaaay too much since returning from injury, and that has continued into the spring. He’s #4 on my list, and I’m holding my nose while saying it.

    • Jordan Barhorst

      You can’t expect him to come back from missing almost two full years and be his old self. You also can’t expect him to work out all of the kinks in the minors, because that’s barely competition for him.

      Limiting the long ball has never been part of Homer’s game. His HR/FB ratio has always been elevated. Pitching in GABP has something to do with that, but it also has something to do with the perception of him giving up too many home runs since returning from injury.

      The fact is, there are little to no proven starting pitchers to replace him with currently. There’s also the fact that, when healthy and in a groove, Homer Bailey is a very good major league pitcher. We just have to hope for health, and the rest should follow.

      • Streamer88

        Yeah I would say recent history suggests Homer has a better chance of being a successful pitcher again after TJ than someone like Bob Steve or even Amir as a promising but thus far underperforming prospect.

    • Dewey Roberts

      I agree with you. I am concerned that Homer is just never going to really come back. He might have a good game or two but his arm injuries have ruined his career in my opinion. Robert Stephenson still cannot control his fast ball. Reed seems lost. I saw his first game as a Red in Pensacola and I thought then that control would be his undoing. I really like Garrett. He has a bulldog attitude. Mahle is a great young prospect. For the future (hopefully sooner than later), I see the Reds rotation as:

      Castillo, Mahle, Garrett, Desclafani, and take your pick.

      I think the Reds relying on three pitchers coming off arm injuries is a huge mistake. All three might wash out as a result of their injuries. I am hoping for one to return to form and my best hunch is that it will be Desclafani. I think Finnegan throws with too much effort and Bailey is too injured to ever to return to form.

  10. Nick Carrington

    I think the argument for Garrett is that his velocity is way up this spring. However, the command and homerun issues that plagued him last year showed up yesterday. I prefer him long term to Romano and Finnegan, but I dout the Reds view him as a near lock after he dominated minor leaguers and struggled in his lone appearance against MLB competition.

    Romano has look like the minor league version of himself. Solid. Gives up a lot of singles. He’s a safe bet with less upside than others. Right now, I bet he’s in the rotation, but that could change.

    Stephenson just needs to show any type of command. It could be below average even. But, it has been atrcious.

    Mahle has looked the part, but he has little hope because of service time issues and because the Reds have plenty of other options.

    Lorenzen pitched a B game Tuesday and did well: 2IP 2 Ks 1H 0BB 0 runs. It was probably against mostly minor leaguers, but we’ve also made a big hoopla over Garrett’s appearances against minor leaguers.

    So Lorenzen has had two really good starts and one awful one. We shouldn’t read too much into one bad appearance, but he had such an uphill battle to start that Jordan is probably right: without injuries, Lorenzen is probably out of the conversation. It’s a shame for him because he will likely never get a chance to start whIle possessing his cutter and sinker, his two best pitches.

    Finnegan’s max effort delivery will always concern me. I fear his body won’t hold up with that many innings. But he’s shown promise in the past when healthy.

    Still time for lots to change before the season begins.

    • Nick Carrington

      Lorenzen could certainly develop into a good starter, but after performing well in his short time as a starter in the minors (he was a top 100 prospect according to Fangraphs as a starter), he never got a real chance to develop as one. Now, the Reds have so much starting pitching depth that he likely doesn’t get a chance.

      In an article last week by Mark Sheldon, Lorenzen revealed that he was really sore in the second half last year, more than normal soreness it appears. That seems to be why he was trying to change mechanics so much. We already knew that he was struggling with mechanics, but the soreness provides more helpful context.

      If he figures out the mechanics, he’ll dominate like he did from 2016-early 2017. If he shows the same command he did in 2016, he will succeed in any pitching role the Reds want him in.

  11. Jordan Barhorst

    Yeah, I love me some Jose Lopez. We’ll need to see if he’s got the talent to get big league hitters out in a starting role. Getting some time in AAA won’t hurt him.

  12. THNDRacket

    I also like Homer Bailey as the Opening Day starter. Let him and his experience go head to head with the scherzers and the kershaws, and let Castillo go against lesser starters and gain even more confidence. I can also see Desclafani Opening Day too. Id like two lefties in the rotation, but not back to back, and that is why I’d drop Castillo down to 4.

  13. citizen54

    Outside of Finnegan, who I think might be better suited as a reliever, I agree with Price’s designations and I like how he has already had a plan in mind rather just basing his decisions on ST performance like he did last year. I think people are putting way too much stock into Garrett’s first four innings of ST against weaker competition. It’s great that his his velocity has increased but I want to see more before saying he should be a lock for the rotation.

  14. Drew Nelson

    For me who starts opening day is meaningless, especially when we are facing a team like the Nationals and their SP. I am far more concerned that whomever the starting 5 are this season each can reach in the upper 20’s in games started and limit the number of days on the DL. Especially from Disco and Homer, both MUST stay healthy over almost everything else. I think it’s important to see how Castillo handles is sophomore season.

  15. Kevin

    I see absolutely no reason Homer should be the openning day starter. The fans deserve a special pitcher on openning day after being forced to watch Scott Feldman last year. The Reds need to think of the fan base, who doesn’t want to see Homer Bailey, and put the best, most exciting arm out there. Castillo all the way.

    BTW, Finnegan hasn’t earned a thing. I don’t get RLN’s thinking that he should get the benefit of the doubt. He was simply OK when he was healthy, and after being out all last year and being below average this spring puts him somewhere between Bob Steve Lorenzen.

  16. Kevin

    Castillo, Disco, Bailey, Garret, Bob

  17. Jordan Barhorst

    Thanks for the kind words! I’m focusing on quality over quantity this year, so hopefully there will be more of this coming soon 🙂

  18. bouwills

    If he remains healthy, DeSclafani is my opening day sp. For Reds success, his 2018 performance is crucial. Bailey goes game #2 (for no good reason), followed by Garrett, Castillo, & then Finnegan (when the #5 sp is needed). I like splitting the lefties in the rotation, plus there’ll be plenty of time to make Castillo the ace of the staff in the 2nd half (when he’s earned it). Lorenzen is my long-reliever, & he gets a spot start or 2 the first half. By the ASB, I want his future role determined, once & for all.