With the Reds playing better baseball over the last two months (the weekend series against the Pirates notwithstanding), there’s been more talk of seriously competing in 2019. The team, of course, still has a few missing pieces to the puzzle to find before that can happen, though — primarily finding a rotation of reliable starting pitchers they can roll with in the coming years.

Homer Bailey is not a part of that equation. Neither is Matt Harvey. Even if the Reds go out this offseason and sign a top-of-the rotation arm, figuring out which young pitchers can be relied on for the next three, four, or five years is imperative. Tyler Mahle and Luis Castillo, assuming they progress as expected, are safely penciled into the future rotation. Anthony DeSclafani should be there, too, assuming his right elbow and oblique problems are behind him.

But beyond that, there are question marks. Sal Romano’s first full season as a major-leaguer has been a roller coaster. He’s looked the part of a top-10 prospect at times and been knocked around during others. The biggest concern is he essentially only throws a fastball and slider and rarely strikes anybody out. Ultimately, the bullpen could still be his final landing spot.

Cody Reed is still struggling in Triple-A, though he has cut down on his walks at the very least. Rookie Davis is still coming back from injury. Jackson Stephens and Jose Lopez have had so-so seasons. The Reds can be excused for not giving them serious shots in the rotation this season. Whether or not those pitchers contribute as big-league starters in the coming years is up in the air. When looking at all pitchers in the upper levels of the Reds’ farm system, Tony Santillan appears to be the closest thing to a sure bet to be a future big-league starter, but he’s unlikely to get to Cincinnati until late 2019 at the earliest.

That leaves Robert Stephenson as the top internal candidate to earn a spot right now. Castillo aside, Stephenson may have the best raw stuff of any starting pitcher on the team’s 40-man roster. His career trajectory hasn’t gone as planned due to control problems, but he showed signs of breaking through last year. In 84 2/3 innings with the Reds, he posted a 4.68 ERA and 22.5 K%. In his last eight starts of the year, he posted a 2.74 ERA and 24.3 K%. Walks were still problematic (13.8 BB%), but he was punching hitters out at an above-average rate and finding a way to work through those self-induced jams. That provided at least some reason for encouragement heading into 2018.

Then, he laid an egg in spring training, was optioned back to the minors, and hasn’t sniffed Cincinnati since. It’s time for that to change.

Aside from periodic blow-ups, Stephenson’s season has been easily his best at the Triple-A level. He’s allowed five or more runs in three of his 17 starts. In all others, he’s allowed three or fewer, including two or fewer in 13 outings. His 3.29 ERA ranks eighth among qualified pitchers in the International League, and his 114 strikeouts are third-best. The right-hander currently holds a dominant 28.7 K%, which is his highest output since his stop in Low-A Dayton in 2013.

The question has never been about his ability to strike people out, though the increase to this level is a fun development. Control has plagued him since the end of the 2013 season, as he hasn’t posted a walk rate below 10% in any full season since that time. Realistically, Stephenson can probably survive with an average to slightly above-average mark because of his stuff, but routinely sitting in the double digits is playing with fire.

At a glance, his 11.8 BB% this season is the same old story. However, since his hideous eight-walk showing on April 25 and subsequent two-inning, six-run outburst in the following outing, here are Stephenson’s numbers since May 6:

69.1 IP, 2.73 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 3.60 FIP, 31.2 K%, 9.5 BB%.

That strikeout rate is enough to make you drool. He’s registered double-digit punch-outs in two of his last four starts, including a career-high 12 on July 5. As a bonus, he’s made noteworthy progress in his biggest problem area, with only four walks in his last 18 innings.

Could he simply be a late-bloomer at age 25? It’s a real possibility with his talent. Yet, there’s seemingly no plan to get him to the big leagues anytime soon, despite the lingering uncertainty in the starting rotation and the fact that Stephenson will be out of options next year. Getting an extended look at the right-hander isn’t just important but a necessity because the club can’t send him down without exposing him to waivers next year. It’s time to figure out what his future will be on this team. If he can convert his progress over the last two months into major-league success, imagine what a huge development that would be for the Reds moving forward. Yet, on July 24, 2018, he still sits in the minor leagues and it’s unclear when a call-up will come.

The organization has even decided to go with a six-man rotation coming out of the all-star break. But their choice wasn’t to bring Stephenson back into the fold; it was to get Bailey — owner of the single worst ERA and FIP, fourth-worst xFIP and strikeout rate, and 13th-worst swinging-strike rate among starting pitchers with 60 innings — back in the rotation. Presumably, that spot won’t reopen when Harvey is traded, either, as the six-man staff is temporary based on all indications Jim Riggleman has given.

Even by squinting, it’s difficult to see any reason for this decision other than cold-hard cash. Bailey is still owed a little less than half of his $23 million salary this year and $25 million next year, and Bob Castellini probably doesn’t want to cut bait on a player still owed so much. The team was at one point going to move Bailey to the bullpen to see if he could revitalize his career and still provide some use to the organization. He wasn’t so thrilled about it, telling the media, “Probably not,” when asked if he could succeed in a bullpen role.

The Reds flip-flopped on their decision several times, originally sending Bailey on a rehab assignment as a starter before suddenly putting him in the bullpen for one game. Ultimately, the team decided to let Bailey have his way and return to the rotation. If we’re being frank, it’s hard to classify it as anything other than a gutless move that reeks of meddling from the owner. Rather than moving the rebuild forward by seeing what another young pitcher can bring to the table, they’re choosing to remain stuck in neutral by sending Bailey to the mound every five (or six) days and lacking the fortitude to stick with the original bullpen move. Maybe Homer will become a productive pitcher again, but there’s little to get excited about regarding his performance in 2018.

Barring injury, Stephenson will find his way back to Cincinnati at some point this season, even if it’s not until September. But the Reds have a perfect opportunity to give him another shot right now and figure out where he stands moving into 2019. At best, he earns his way into the rotation — maybe even as a No. 2 starter if he can continue to make strides with his control and reaches his ceiling. At worst, he’s probably a bullpen arm. But shouldn’t the Reds figure out if he can reach that potential? If the organization is gearing to compete, they need to figure out where Stephenson figures into their plans, and that’s not going to happen the longer he stays in Louisville.

22 Responses

  1. wizeman

    To me this is the most perplexing decision they have made this year. This guy has done what you ask and might possibly have the highest ceiling. We are supposed to be sorting.

    • JoshG

      but he hasn’t done what he was asked to do, cut down the walks.
      I’m not saying he shouldn’t get a shot, just that your statement was not true

  2. roger garrett

    I don’t know what it is but it goes beyond the walks that is keeping him in the minors.Keep in mind the Reds never make decisions based just based on performance or common sense.Like the reasoning behind Dixon over Herrera in last nights game.Bizarre explanation wasn’t it.As stated Bob may have the best pure stuff and his hits allowed vs inning pitched is great.Minor league guys can’t hit him period.I realize that all players are human and can’t always be treated the same but if the performance is there then some of the personal stuff has to be overlooked.On the flip side don’t you think with Bailey returning his performance isn’t being considered at all and it has become personal to somebody.I like Homer but this is not going to end well at all for him or the team.To me if you perform you play and if you don’t you set but at least give everybody the same chance or chances.The perception around the league about this ownership is justified and earned every day by the way they run their business.

  3. cfd3000

    I like the first part of that Indy. Trade Harvey, replace Romano with Stephenson. It’s screwy, but it’s real that the Reds have consistently run failing starters out way too many times just in case they find some lost glory. Everyone else can see that Arroyo is done way before the Reds front office. The same is likely to happen with Bailey. I predict he’ll get 6-8 starts, struggle in all of them, then finally be released or retire or shuttled to the permanent DL. Then Romano can return (or Reed or the new pitcher they’ve acquired in the Gennett trade or…). But I agree with the basic premise. Free Robert Stephenson.

    • cfd3000

      And one more thought along the same lines. If the Reds success in 2019 is dependent on the quality of their rotation (we all know it is, right?) then while they’re assessing Stephenson in the rotation, shouldn’t the same thing be done with Lorenzen and Garrett? Find the best five or six starters in your organization and, I don’t know, let them start? Crazy, huh?

      • roger garrett

        Its crazy only to the people that are in charge.To me its like they are trying to reinvent the wheel all the time.There is a way to do everything just pick out a plan and do it.So many teams go through the rebuilding phase in all sports every year.Just do what the teams do that have been successful and move forward please.

    • Ghettotrout1

      Gennett is not going to bring back a quality big league pitcher. If you trade him you will be lucky to get a low A high ceiling guy. I don’t know why everyone thinks Scooter is going to bring back a kings ransom. No teams want to give up prospects anymore unless you are trading them someone like Degrom or another sweet Ace.

      • roger garrett

        I agee but to me its not about what you can get as much as what you don’t have to pay to keep him.Is he part of the core group going forward and at what cost is the question?If he is pay him and move on if not market him while his value is at the highest and see what you can get for him.

  4. Ghettotrout1

    I wouldn’t be surprised if they are keeping him in AAA to try to protect him from looking terrible in the big leagues and trying to market him as a center piece for a trade this winter. I mean don’t get me wrong that doesn’t seem likely that he would bring back a ton but I would have to imagine that is the only reason they are keeping him down.

    I would bring him up though if I was running the show.

  5. Jack

    I know Bobsteve has been hard to work with and such but so has been Homer. If they are keeping him down because of that then they are idiots. There are a lot of Bobsteves and Homer’s in the league. Hell Trevor Bauer is a good candidate. Where would the Indians be without him. Yeah Bobsteve walks a lot of batters and yada yada yada. But he isn’t getting any younger and the time to look at him is now in the big leagues. If they call him up and he produces like last September and The Reds want to extend him someday, I expect Bobsteve to give them the big ol’ number 1 sign.

  6. Scott C

    Yes we all know “Bob Steve should be in the Majors pitching to Major League Hitters” that is except the Reds Front Office or decision makers, whoever they may be. The prison is being run by the inmates. This is just one more folly in a long list over the past few years, Winker being brought up last year to rot on the bench. This year it has been Ervin, Blandino and now Herrera. Then there is the puzzling decisions not to see if Garrett, Lorenzon or Iglesias can start. (I understand Iglesias to a degree but the other two ought to be given the opportunity.) There is the Dodger way, the Yankee way, the Cardinal way and then there is the Reds way. Last night was a good example, the veterans all go 0 for and in the end it is the youngsters Ervin, Suarez (one good decision), Winker and Herrera that come through. (Yes and Barnhart but he is still a youngster really) Maybe that’s the plan, I don’t know.

  7. JR

    If Homer gets shelled tonight, Riggleman should put him in long relief in the bullpen. That’s what you do with starters who are struggling. The Reds made a mistake with his signing but other teams do too— the Cardinals are regretting their deal with Dexter Fowler. I was hoping Homer would be the veteran leader of a young pitching staff but instead he’s become a cancer. Someone– the manager, the GM, somebody– needs to draw the line, resolve this problem and give Bob-Steve a chance.

  8. Kap

    Maybe the Reds haven’t called Stephenson up yet to limit his last option, thus making him more appealing in a trade

    • Matt Wilkes

      They already optioned him during spring training, so the final one is already burned I believe.

  9. big5ed

    I don’t think the decision is all that difficult to understand. Bailey’s rehab time had run out, and Harvey had not yet been traded. So, in the one-week interim, they opted to give Homer a start and call it a 6-man rotation.. Harvey is only going to pitch one more game, anyway, if that.

    When Harvey is traded, I figure that they will call up Stephenson and continue the 6-man rotation. The 6-man rotation works for now, because they generally have starters who will sooner or later bump up against innings limits for the year, and this is one way to address it. Now, they could just go with a five-man once Harvey is traded, but Stephenson is clearly the next to be called up.

    They simply have to give Bailey one more chance. It almost certainly won’t work, but he’s owed way too much money to DFA without giving it one more shot. It would be different if they were 1.5 games out in the wild card, but they are not within 1.5 games of the wild card. Also, given that they seem to have relented on Bailey-to-the-bullpen, maybe he has agreed to give the Reds some relief – not much – on the buyout after next year, if the Reds agree not to relegate him to the long-man role. It seems to me that the Reds are bending over backwards not to embarrass Bailey (he can do that for himself on the mound).

    We need to assume that the Reds are not stupid, and that they know full well that Homer will not be on the next Reds contender, but that Stephenson may be a key player.

    • Scott C

      I’m not sure we can assume that the Reds Front Office is not stupid, at least in regards t baseball decisions. The list is too long to even talk about but try Winker, Ervin, Blandino, Herrera, Garrett (What a fiasco last year and even though he pitched well enough in ST to deserve a rotation spot, he is still in the bullpen), Lorenson, and now Stephenson. Doesn’t sound to me like they know what they are doing.

  10. Nick Carrington

    A thousand times yes to getting Stephenson starts the final two months. I’d like to see 2-3 guys get opportunities so the Reds have more data before acquiring starting pitching in the offseason, but Stephenson is at the top of that list. If he’s a 9% walk guy, he’s probably a starter in the big leagues.

    • roger garrett

      Agreed you have to give young pitchers a legit chance and well its too late for that this year for Bob and others.

  11. big5ed

    Well, Cossack, we are all speculating, including me. But how on earth does it make sense for BC to put Stephenson in his doghouse “when things didn’t go quite as planned,” yet Bailey be his Golden Boy when things sure as [expletive deleted] “didn’t go quite as planned” with Bailey?

    My own speculation is that Castellini and everybody else upstairs has had there fill of Homer Bailey, but they feel that they gotta give him one more crack before they finally flush $35 million irretrievably down the drain.

    And there could be a tax angle to this. If I’m Bailey, and know I’m finished, I want them to pay me to sit home in Texas, with no state income tax, as opposed to getting traded to a California team with a 13% income tax, especially with the new tax law on SALT deductions. That is close to $4 million after tax difference. If he is traded, he would have to show up and try for the new team, so the Reds do have a little leverage on him.

  12. Joel

    Is it not true the most professional athletes begin peaking at around 26, 27 and 28 years old? Sure, some are break out players earlier than that, but I believe that on the whole, the mid to late 20s is when players are typically about as good as they’ll ever be. In light of that, doesn’t it make it quite likely that Stephenson’s most recent figures (“69.1 IP, 2.73 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 3.60 FIP, 31.2 K%, 9.5 BB%”) are about the best he could look like in the majors? Most players don’t put up numbers in the majors as good as they do in AAA. So, sure, call him up, but I fear he’s not any more of a solution to our pitching problems than Homer is. I’ll be thrilled if he proves otherwise.