As the Reds plunge through yet another season of sorting out their starting pitching situation, I have found myself wondering: Precisely what are the criteria the club should use in evaluating candidates and assembling the pitching rotation that will lead the next contending Reds team?

Finding A Standard

Let’s begin by looking to the Reds most recent window of playoff contention. In 2012, the apex season of that Reds window, the Reds won the NL Central with 97 victories. The five members of the 2012 starting rotation started an incredible 161 of the team’s 162 regular season games completing 69.8% of the team’s cumulative innings pitched that season. Their ERA as a group was 3.62. There is no doubt this is a gold — or even platinum — standard.

Backing down the standard just a bit, in 2013, the Reds were a wildcard qualifier with 90 wins. In 2013, just eight Reds pitchers started games, compiling 68.8% of the team’s innings pitched during the season. The group ERA was 3.47. The only real difference between the 2012 and 2013 seasons was that it took a couple of more pitchers to get the same job done in 2013.

What do these numbers indicate about a contending starting rotation? A successful rotation requires stability. Ideally no more than six or seven pitchers should account for over 90% of the team starts throughout the season. The rotation members should regularly complete at least six innings per start and often pitch into or beyond the seventh inning to offset those days when they or another pitcher comes up short. As they complete these innings they need to have better than a league-average ERA.

Individual Performance

Each successful individual must find a way to consistently create at least 18-21 outs per game while allowing no more than 3 earned runs. Over time, it doesn’t matter how a pitcher achieves these hallmarks, only that he does. Thus, a pitcher who works more efficiently with less outstanding raw stuff may emerge as a better rotation candidate than a pitcher who dazzles with raw stuff but is pitch inefficient and out of games early due to a high pitch count. Conversely a pitcher with superior stuff who lives on the edge of trouble but consistently creates the requisite number of outs per game within the allowable runs limit should not be shunned.  The process of sorting over time should identify the best candidates.


A touchy issue that cannot be overlooked is durability. In the two years spotlighted above, 30+ start seasons were the norm. Thus short term durability is the ability to take the ball every 5th game throughout the season. Long term durability is the capability of a player to complete multiple seasons in the 30 games started range. Injuries happen and are nearly always not the player’s fault. However, the team must be aware of a player’s injury history as his career develops. Advances in sports medicine and science must be used to attempt to identify players at high risk for chronic or repetitive injury. The team must be willing to move on from candidates who are unable or reasonably indicated to be unable to maintain long term durability.


Finally, it is essential for a team to correctly sequence their starting rotation. The first role of sequencing is to assure that a starting rotation capable of contending is in place in concert with sufficient position player talent to provide necessary offensive and defensive support for the pitching.  Secondly, a team must balance player affordability and years of team control across the rotation. Additionally, a team’s long-term planning should always account for probable departures and include a contingency for unavoidable long term injuries.

Where Things Stand

And now the fun part. Where are the Reds currently in the process of building a starting rotation which will sequence with position talent sufficient  to contend and eventually succeed in the post season? The 2017 Reds position talent turned out to have been capable of contending for a wild card spot had it been paired with even league-average pitching; but, alas, it wasn’t. The 2018 position group currently appears to have regressed. But once Nick Senzel is added, this group is probably just an affordable tweak or two away from being in the same position or better than the 2017 team. Internally, additional substantial position help seems to be two to three seasons away.  However in the absence of a major infusion of talent from outside the organization, the rotation faces an uphill road to be ready on a similar time line.

The only current Reds starter who clearly projects as being in the rotation beyond 2019 is Luis Castillo. Homer Bailey, should he remain viable, is under control through 2020, but the 2020 season would cost the Reds $25M against a $5M buyout option. Count Homer gone no later than the end of 2019.  After three consecutive seasons being unable to make it through spring training healthy, Anthony DeSclafani should not be counted upon; additionally, his guaranteed team control ends with the 2020 season.  Brandon Finnegan made it through a full season in the rotation once upon a time (31 starts in 2016), but still poses both health and performance questions. So we are left to watch the sorting process continue for yet another season in the uneasy knowledge that to date it has yielded just one clear keeper, Luis Castillo, versus a cadre of question marks and washouts.

Go Reds?

36 Responses

  1. Tyler

    Mahle and Romano will be solid 4th or 5th starter. Stephenson is only 25 and still has loads of potential. Tony Santillian looks like a legit 1 or 2. The draft could offer an MLB ready SP much like Mike Leake. So that would leave Castillo, Santillian, Stephenson, , and Mahle or Romano. That seems to be a solid rotation. Not to mention Amir Garrett could easily be an option to start.

  2. Ernest

    Maybe Garrett could be added to the rotation. Other than that, guessing that DeSclafani is an option (when healthy). Likely just need to let Mahle and Ramano attempt to figure it out.

    5th starter

    This seems to be the Reds plan for now. If the Reds can get to 2 high level consistent starters, there is enough there to fill the 3-5 and go year to year adding a veteran pitcher as needed. Similar to the elite teams current process.

    • jveith1991

      I’m still not convinced Finnegan belongs in a major league rotation. I think he and Garrett should swap spots.

      • Ghettotrout1

        I agree one hundred percent with JVEITH… Garrett is much more suited for success in the rotation than Finnegan….. I don’t really understand why he was penciled in before spring training. Dude only had one single season of OK performance.

  3. jveith1991

    Obviously hindsight is 20/20, but look at Cueto’s numbers for the Giants this year. 4 starts, 26 innings, and a 0.35 ERA and a 0.65 WHIP. 23 strikeouts. Cueto had a poor season with the Giants last year, in large part due to blisters, but had an excellent season in 2016. He is signed through 2021, with an option for 2022, at roughly $22 million per year. Meanwhile, Homer Bailey is getting paid $21 million this year and $23 million next year, then yet another $5 million in 2020 to go away. The Reds in 2014 thought Bailey would be the better long term investment, especially after Cueto’s injury-filled 2013. Boy, did they get that one wrong!

    • lost11found

      Its the variable of pitchers. At the time Cueto had just spent alot of time on the DL for issues wiht a lat strain or similar while Bailey was just chugging along putting up solid numbers and taking the ball every 5 days. These things happen.

      The one they got right was Latos for Descalfani.

      When it comes to pitchers and their health. you cant win them all.

  4. Sliotar


    Excellent post.

    Related to this…Iglesias is a free agent after 2020. He makes $5 million in 2019 and 2020, which is far under-market given what even non-closer relievers got in free agency over the winter.

    If he can’t (or shouldn’t) be re-signed, the time to trade him is this year, either at the trade deadline or at the winter meetings. The multiple years of control, especially at his salary, would enhance the return, instead of waiting until he is almost gone.

    I did ask myself yesterday, as the loss snowballed into a blowout, how many of these 25 guys will still be with the Reds in 2020 or 2021? It still feels like a lot of sorting is ahead.

    (The question mark after Go Reds is awesome).

    • eric3287

      Iglesias absolutely needs to be traded before the Reds and their medical staff get him injured. It’s April 23 and he’s hardly pitched 8 innings. 100 loss teams don’t need elite closers like Iglesias.

  5. Daytonian

    Mahle and Garrett are possibilities for beyond 2020 and beyond–not guaranteed but worthy of consideration. Even if we add them to Castillo, and nothing here is guaranteed, the Reds are still missing two quality starters–maybe a Number One and a Number Two–and cannot possibly contend without acquiring them somehow.

    • scottya

      I agree the problem is any of the four, Castillo, Mahle, Romano and Garrett do not appear to be headed toward being a #1 or even a #2 at this point. But I think all four will be a vital part of our teams from 20′ and beyond.

      If we can develop from that group our #3, #4 and #5 starters. Then maybe we can make this group turn into a playoff team.

      • scottya

        I hope your right about the #1 or #2 starters developing from this group. I’m right with you about not making quick determinations about this foursome. Many starting pitchers take a few years to develop into their best.

      • jazzmanbbfan

        I’m still feeling good about Castillo long term being a #1, or #2 at worst, barring significant injury. Mahle for a #2 or #3.

  6. Wesley Jenkins

    Great analysis Jim!

    If we’re looking forward to the 2020 rotation (which I think we are), you gotta believe Hunter Greene will be in the mix at least by mid-season. Assuming he can get to AA this year and succeed, there’s no reason to not get him into AAA sometime in 2019. Obviously the Reds prefer to take it slow with guys, but if Greene posts the numbers we expect him to, I want his name at least in pencil in the rotation in 2020.

    So that’ll look more like:
    Garrett? / Desclafani? / Finnegan?
    Who the heck knows

    • Jim Walker

      2020 will be Hunter Greene’s age 20 season. I’d rather see them take an other year or even 2 to make sure he is physically mature before pushing him into a full time rotation role. Green might be an ideal guy to get into the MLB bullpen by then and bring along from incrementally from there

      2018 is Tony Santillan’s age 20 year. He seems to be the highest rated nearest inside candidate for help right now, He is currently at A+ Daytona.

      • big5ed

        Santillan just turned 21. He’s also a 6’3″, 240-pound Texas bruiser, so he might arrive early.

        I agree that they won’t bring Hunter Greene up at age 20, nor will he see AA this year. If Greene is as good as they hope he is, then he will NEVER resign with the Reds once he can elect free agency. The Reds’ interest, then, is to delay his entry into MLB until they are completely certain that he is ready, with the idea of getting the most out of his 6 to 6.9 years in Cincinnati. He can get his education on the minor league payroll.

        Then again, there is no such thing as a pitching prospect.

      • Wesley Jenkins

        I agree and disagree, I don’t think an extra year would be a bad thing, making 2021 the target date, but I believe should he excel at the levels he’s placed at, age is not the reason to leave him in the minors. While pitching is different than hitting, what we’ve seen from Mike Trout and Bryce Harper is that talent plays regardless of the player’s age. Obviously most youngsters need to physically mature and better hone their trade to be effective, but if Greene is effective by mid-2020, I don’t want his age to be a reason for waiting.

      • Jim Walker

        Check out Wayne Simpson 1970 on BBRef or Fangraphs. One of the greatest half season’s ever for a Reds starter. It was his age 20 season. Came up lame armed, was never the same again. I’d be glad to wait a year or two on Greene if it enhances the chances of getting the 6+ full years at full value.

    • Wesley Jenkins

      Just want to point out that he’s currently in A advance not A, so it’s much more incremental than you’re saying

      • Wesley Jenkins

        you’re so right, I was getting Dayton and Daytona confused, my apologies

  7. Chuck

    Johnny Cueto’s ERA is 0.35 for this year. We received Finnegan, Lamb, and Reed in return. Whoa boy did the FO gamble and lose miserably on that move.

    • Jim Walker

      Agree. If there was a guy they should have held onto in my opinion it was Mike Leake. As I recall Leake was all but offering to re-sign during the 2014-15 off season but the club rebuffed him because they wanted to make Cueto appear to be their priority. Leake was a bona fide middle of the rotation innings eater who would have provided stability at the top of the Reds reshaping rotation.

  8. eric3287

    At the end of 2015, the Reds had Cody Reed (22 years old, 2.24 FIP, 10.87 K/9) in AA, Robert Stephenson (22 years old, roughly 3.75 FIP, 9K/9) between AA and AAA. Amir Garrett (23 years old, 2.90 FIP, 9.12 K/9) in A+. In the bullpen, they had Zach Weiss (22 years old, 2.75 FIP, 11.75 K/9) in AA.

    Those four pitchers have 271 combined major league innings between 2016-today. So, what are the Reds searching for? Maybe a clue? How can anyone know when the organization itself doesn’t know? This is the first year the Reds have shown any inclination to giving younger pitchers a chance, and even then they’re screwing it up.

  9. Jeff Reed

    The core of the starting rotation going toward 2019 should be Castillo, Mahle, Garrett, Bailey and a proven starter acquired in the offseason. The rest of the pitchers, who make the cut in should be in the bullpen with no old guy pitchers gumming up the works. That means that ownership will have to spend some money in the offseason to get a proven starter.

  10. Jim Walker

    Either way is fine. My turn was up in the RLN rotation; and, this struck a chord with me and the bosses said run with it. 😉

  11. big5ed

    How about finding a way to develop a good Latin American hitter? Their last success was in the mid-1960s, with a young Cuban named Tony Perez.

    Maybe Concepcion, but he wasn’t really a top-flight hitter. Maybe Edwin Encarnacion, but the Reds gave up on him before he got good, and even the Jays released him only to resign him.

    This is really impossible, if you think about it, and it is the organization’s No. 1 weakness over the years. They still don’t have anybody on the horizon, although Jose Siri and Andy Sugilio are at least promising.

    Their other big weakness is some mediocre drafts from 2008-2014, excepting 2013 and 2009. Even in the year they got Winker (2012), they whiffed on earlier pick Nick Travieso, when Corey Seager, Marcus Stroman, Jose Berrios, Lance McCullers Jr., and Michael Wacha were on the board and taken in the first round.

    • Jim Walker

      They spent 2 first round picks, one each in 2013 and 2014 taking a flyer on turning a college position player/ relief pitcher into a starting pitcher at MLB (Michael Lorenzen #38 overall in 2013; Nick Howard #19 overall 2014). That did not work out; and both of those picks would probably count as busts today.

      Even if ML recovers his health enough to become an impact reliever, I’d still maintain that was a wasted choice compared to value teams are normally wanting to get out of top 50 picks.

      • big5ed

        They did get Ben Lively (uh, Marlin Byrd), Phil Ervin, Tyler Mahle and a 17-year-old Shed Long in the 2013 draft, and Lorenzen is worth something, so I don’t consider it a bad draft at all.

  12. Scott Carter

    I think you are right Jim, I don’t think we can count on Disco ever being healthy, there is always a possibility but that would be a pleasant surprise. We haven’t had very many of those, especially in the pitching department. Castillo yes I think we can. I’m not ready to give up on Romano and Mahle, I just think they are getting their education at the ML level rather than AAA. I’m not ready to give up on Stephenson, I think he is just a slow starter who gets better the more he pitches. Of course your point is the Reds haven’t done a good job of sorting. If they were then Garrett would be in the rotation. So you could have a rotation next year of Castillo, Bailey Garett, Stephenson, and either Mahle or Romano. With perhaps Lopez and Santillan in the wings waiting for his chance. I do however wish they would put a package with one of those younger pitchers together and get a proven young MLB arm to add into the rotation. Makes sense to me but its not my money. I’m just a fan.

  13. Jeffery Stroupe

    Our pitchers have to throw a shutout to have a chance. I enjoy watching the young pitchers. It is the hitting and defense that makes me cringe. Not going to improve with the current offense. Answer may be deep in minor leagues and several years away. No power just a bunch of singles hitters. Pitchers are trying to hard knowing they have to be perfect.

    • james garrett

      I agree 100%.I want to win because I love the Reds but right now I tune in just to see how the young starters are doing.I can and do talk about how woeful our offense is but I expected it when you have the holes in the line up that we have.For the past several years Walt has just rolled the dice and expected to get better.I mention Walt because his hands are all over this team still.Not one thing was done to improve this team offensively.Expecting Scooter to do it again or Billy to suddenly get it in year 5 or Peraza to suddenly stop swinging at everything is just foolish.

  14. SultanofSwaff

    What scares me is how much the Reds are hyping Hunter Greene on social media already. This is going to be Homer Bailey all over again. Totally not fair to Hunter to have the weight of the whole franchise on his shoulders when he finally arrives.

    I still believe a couple quality starting pitchers will emerge from this bunch to form a stable rotation. If the last couple weeks are any indication, we’re almost there already. It’s curious how quickly BobSteve has been forgotten around these parts, but I believe he will be one of the rotation anchors for a long time. Whether AAA or Cincinnati, Finnegan and Reed still need to be starting for most of this season. Upon return, I wonder if Disco gets put into the rotation immediately, who gets bumped, or if they want to bring him along slowly in middle relief.

    With so many mixed signals accompanying the losing, it’s sad that our intrepid beat writers aren’t willing to ask the tough questions about the rebuild.

    • Jim Walker

      We agree on Robert Stephenson. Might not be with the Reds but barring injury serious enough to end or sidetrack his career, he will have a decent major league career as a starter.

      I haven’t quite decided what’s going on with him and the Reds. Maybe he is being given the doghouse treatment for something we don’t even know about. Maybe they view him as an absolute last option at this point. Or maybe they saw enough of him at the end of the 2017 season to decide he is at the least a 4 or 5 starter and now they are looking at others to decide if they are better. Right now there is hardly a hair width of difference between RS’s 1/3 of a season as a MLB starter last year and Romano’s 2/3 a year from the middle of last year thru the present.

      Just a very interesting case.

      • David

        He was given every chance in Spring Training, and his control was crap. Having said that, the more he works, the better his control is. I think sometime in the next 6-8 weeks, he will again get an opportunity to start with the Reds. This is not that unusual. There have been some significant prospects with other teams that have labored in AAA to improve their control.
        I have not given up on Bob Stevenson.

      • Jim Walker

        You are correct this the narrative we were fed during spring training; and it may have held significant validity if Disco and Finnegan were actually ready to stand in and fill rotation slots. Of course they weren’t; and whether it was ever a realistic expectation they would be is a discussion for another time.

        Meanwhile Stephenson who completed the final third of the season as just short of a marginally league average starter is older than the other two right handed prospects and in his last option year. Thus it would seem to make sense to go ahead and see if he would continue to progress this season, especially once Disco went down long term.

  15. Redlegs64

    What is revealing (& frustrating) is the development of pitching (or the lack of consistent plan). There are arms with talent – Reed, Garrett & Stephenson have talent. Let’s step through the indecision;

    1. Last season’s bullpen fiasco (Stephenson & Reed) is being repeated this year on Garrett. Didn’t we learn anything from that failed experiment where we pitch Robert Stephenson sparingly, then bring him in to face Troy Tulowitzki with the bases loaded in Toronto? Either L-ville or Cincy – but pitch them every 5th day and let them work on their mechanics, pitch development, and 5th day regiment.

    2. We are so hung up on letting the former starters start. Brandon Finnegan has no business facing the Cardinals when he hasn’t pitched in over 10 months. We’ll rush Finnegan & Disco back into the starting 5 come hell-or-high-water. And we’ll watch them struggle too. It’s exactly opposite of what should be – give the injured veteran some spot work out of the pen for a month and let him regain his command.

    3. We really need a pitching guru to teach and develop these young guys. That was to be Bryan Price’s strength. In hindsight, he’s very good with seasoned veterans that know how to pitch, but I can’t see any proof that the Reds, as an organization, have a system in place to challenge/develop young arms. Are there metrics & timelines for developing additional pitches? Are there requirements for film & opposition study? Is there a relentless adherance to an approach – “get the first pitch over the plate”. Is pitching excellence pervasive from top to bottom of the organization?

    I believe the talent is present in the system, but that’s only half the challenge.