The saying, “you can never have too much pitching” is as cliche as it gets in baseball, but it has proven true time and time again. Depth is vital to the success of any baseball team. Although the 2012 regular-season Reds may have tried to prove differently, injuries are inevitable for a pitching staff. The best teams can plug those holes without a significant drop-off.

Each of the last two World Series winners had at least seven pitchers who made 10 or more starts. Last season, the Dodgers lost Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Rich Hill to injuries early in the season. For many teams, it would’ve been a death blow to lose three-fifths of a starting rotation. But Los Angeles plugged in Kenta Maeda, Ross Stripling, and Walker Buehler and didn’t miss a beat.

Depth was a foreign concept to the Cincinnati Reds in recent years. Getting strong performances from the regular five members of the rotation was challenging enough; add in a litany of injuries and you get an unsurprising 4.97 ERA, 4.93 FIP, and 4.49 xFIP over the last four seasons. You get Tim Adleman leading the team in innings pitched and Scott Feldman starting on Opening Day. A future Reds Hall of Famer in Bronson Arroyo scuffling through the tail-end of his career. Prospects promoted to the majors before they’re ready. Such is life as a rebuilding team, but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch.

Those days are seemingly — and mercifully — over.

Getting the pitching was the mantra of the offseason, and the front office delivered. Only two starters from last year’s rotation are returning in Luis Castillo and Anthony DeSclafani. Alex Wood, Sonny Gray, and Tanner Roark, all proven veterans, will round out the rotation, barring the health of their respective right arms.

Health, of course, is far from a given for pitchers. When was the last time the Reds broke camp with all five projected starters healthy? Minus a small scare from Gray’s elbow, the staff is in good shape thus far in spring. But when an injury does occur, it — for the first time in recent memory — won’t be a death blow.

Next in Line

Tyler Mahle, Sal Romano, and Cody Reed are the next in line for a spot. They’ve had varying levels of success in the big leagues, but all three are still young and last year showed flashes of the pitchers they can become. However, the Reds are no longer forced to put them in the starting rotation from the get-go based on potential alone.

Still, if Mahle — the next in line for a place in the group of five — gets the call, that’s a lot better than turning to a veteran brought into spring camp on a minor-league deal. The right-hander got off to a promising start last year before the league figured him out and shoulder fatigue slowed him down. At times, he looked as dominant as he was in the minor leagues, where he has a perfect game and a no-hitter to his name. He flirted with a no-hitter against the Braves in April and fanned 12 Brewers batters in a late June performance. With a plus fastball and control to build off of, Mahle’s future is bright if he can establish better secondary pitches, which he’s already doing. You’ll take that over the Asher Wojciechowskis of the world any day.

Romano and Reed have gone through their struggles as well, but the book is far from written for either pitcher.

Like Mahle, Romano is still working on establishing consistent secondary offerings. His fastball can touch 98 with nice sinking action, and his slider has a sharp bite. He has struggled to develop a consistent third pitch, relying heavily on the sinker and slider. Even with those shortcomings, he has found success at times in his one-and-a-half years in the big leagues. With a better third pitch in the mix to help him miss more bats, he could certainly hold down a spot in the rotation.

The road has been bumpier for Reed, but he seemingly turned a corner last year. He had his first extended run of success in the major leagues, posting a 4.13 ERA, 3.48 FIP, and 3.20 xFIP in six starts to close out the year while featuring his biting slider as his primary pitch instead of the four-seamer. Most importantly, he started to solve his control problems. He dropped his walk rate from 14.3% across all levels in 2017 to 7.2% in 2018, a number much more in line with his early minor league days.

While the Reds would certainly miss any members of the starting rotation if they were out for a significant period, the organization has to feel better about the next-in-line options than it has in previous years. Mahle, Romano, and Reed should be capable of holding their own if forced into action.

But Wait, There’s More!

Behind them, the team has even more options with big-league experience and room to grow. Michael Lorenzen made three starts at the end of 2018 and will get stretched out this spring for possible long relief or swing-man roles. Lucas Sims is a former top prospect of the Braves who has dominated the minor leagues. He has a solid fastball-curveball combination when he can control it.

Brandon Finnegan and Robert Stephenson, despite their horrific showings last year, have seen success in the majors before. Now they’re, at best, the ninth- and 10th-best options for the rotation instead of getting a rotation spot by default. That shows just how far the Reds have come this offseason in building their depth.

Further down the line, the team also has prospects knocking on the big leagues. Keury Mella has already seen some time in Cincinnati. Tony Santillan and Vladimir Gutierrez are top-10 prospects who both pitched in Double-A last season.

Even if Santillan and Gutierrez are still a year away from the big leagues, the Reds have up to eight pitchers they could conceivably plug in the starting rotation if the need presents itself. When the team got down to its 13th starting pitcher in the organizational depth chart two years ago, we were talking about names like Deck McGuire and Lisalverto Bonilla who had bounced around the minor leagues for team after team.

Conclusions

The Reds certainly hope their current starting rotation stays healthy all year. But it’s refreshing to have a viable backup plan to weather any storms along the way. Rather than feeling like the sky is falling every time a starter goes down, the team and fans can take some solace in knowing there’s big-league talent waiting in the wings. That doesn’t mean the Reds will win the NL Central — although it certainly doesn’t hurt their prospects. But it does bring an element of competition to the pitching staff that hasn’t existed during the rebuild. And it means they won’t have to slog through starts from journeyman minor leaguers again. It won’t feel like they’re out of it before the game’s first pitch.

That’s a thrilling development after four straight 90-loss seasons.

22 Responses

  1. CFD3000

    It’s almost too obvious to warrant repeating, but this is a huge upgrade over Reds teams of the last four years. I’ll be really pleased if Finnegan and Stephenson never toe the rubber in the first inning all year. And I really hope that Mahle, Romano, Reed, Santillan and Gutierrez make a season’s worth of starts – at AAA. Success in 2020’and beyond will depend in large part in whether or not two or three of those five emerge as above average major league starters. And though I’m a little skeptical on Romano, I do think that all five have that potential. There are modest question marks this year of course, but it’s pretty exciting that by far the biggest unknown will simply be the health of key players over a long season. Can’t wait for opening day!

  2. Gary Clements

    Finnegan hasn’t gotten anybody out in 2 years. He even got abused at AAA over a big sample size. Stephenson is never going to make it. Reed is very close to that time in the career trajectory where he starts bouncing around as a bullpen guy. Ramano the same. Mahle, I believe is a future MLB Starting Pitcher. Realistically, the next I’m line after Mahle is Santillan. Ramano had a career WHIP in the minors if approaching 1.5. He was never a starter prospect. Stephenson is a bust. It’s time we stop trying to force a return on the Cueto trade, Reed is a starter bust as well.

    • HomersReturn

      I actually agree with this 100% with the exception of the misspelling of Romano. 🙂 I personally am not as convinced that there is much in the way of depth this season in regards to pitching.

      • Matt Wilkes

        Depth pieces are, by definition, usually worse than the starters—that’s why they’re depth pieces. But the depth the Reds have now is far better than it’s been in years past. They aren’t relying on minor league retreads with no future on the team, but on young pitchers (Mahle and Reed) who can continue to get better and contribute down the line. And they still have room to grow in the minor leagues or bullpen. I feel far more comfortable about the pitching depth than I have in a long time.

  3. SultanofSwaff

    While I would choose different players to represent the depth options, I agree with the premise of the post.

    In the modern analytics driven game, accumulating as many quality pitchers regardless of labels (starter/reliever) is what makes successful staffs. On the front end, the Reds now have a healthy stable of pitchers who can get you thru a lineup TWICE. I’ll happily take that when it’s paired with a quality bullpen. I thought Riggleman did a nice job of yanking starters sooner than later (not necessarily by choice lol), and I liked even more that he didn’t whine to the press about saving his bullpen like Price and Dusty would do ad nauseum. The new regime seems poised to be even more progressive.

  4. CFD3000

    I’m not high on Finnegan, Stephenson, or even Romano, as I mentioned above. But I don’t understand the consistent negativity on Reed. He cut his walk rate in half over nearly a full season at AAA last year, and had FIP and xFIP around 3.50 over six starts for the Reds late last year. That’s very good. Yes, it’s a small sample size, but shows clear improvement and development. And he’s not just beating his head against the same wall over and over like BobSteve seems to do. He’s actually addressing his weaknesses and making positive change. Is it just that he had an awful inning in Goodyear a couple days ago? So did Castillo as I recall but this is early spring training, and no one is throwing Luis under the bus.

    Also, I don’t understand why anyone is hung up on how the Reds acquired him, or any of their players. How does it matter that he came over in the Cueto deal? If he walked in off the street or signed from the Cape Cod league or was traded for Babe Ruth, how does that matter? Why are so many already writing Cody Reed off? I for one am encouraged by his recent improvements and am optimistic he’ll be a valuable starter.

    • Big Ed

      I co-sign as well. Plenty of pitchers turn the corner at his age; Kluber and DeGrom are excellent examples.

      Reed got roughed up a bit the other night, but anybody who’s watched a week’s worth of the Cactus League knows that games can go haywire out there pretty quickly.

      There is no reason not to be patient with live arms, and especially tall lefties with live arms.

      • Earmbrister

        Chrissy Carpenter is another example that easily comes to mind.

    • scottya

      I’m also still fairly high on Reed as well, especially with how he finished last season. With the adjustments that Mahle has made, I’m also quite excited to see how his season develops.

  5. andybado

    Sims hasn’t shown more potential than Reed or even Stephenson. He’s just newer to the Reds.

    I’m more excited about Reed than any of the other depth. I think what he showed at the end of 2018 is who he can be on the regular.

    Mahle was not good last year. He showed well in games here and there. But overall I feel more concern than hope. Looking at his splits from last year, he had a poor OPS+ against in every month but June (when it was just average and walked 17 batters). I have often seen people talk about his good start to the year, but he allowed .492 SLG% in 6 March/April starts. I’d love to see Mahle turn it around, but let’s not get confused. He has to turn it around because he doesn’t have much to build off of from last year.

    He is also scrapping 2 of his 3 pitches and learning 2 new pitches this year. That is also concerning!

    I really do hope that Mahle figures this out, but the talk of Mahle this year reminds of the talk about Finnegan after his marginally decent 2016 — lots of highlighting the positives of his game while ignoring or dismissing the negatives and red flags.

    • Indy Red Man

      Mahle was a rookie. Professional baseball is difficult! Zack Greinke was 5-17 with a 5.80 era early on. Cueto was 9-14 with a 4.81. Mahle is in shape, works hard, and doesn’t fall off piers on his shoulder. Finnegan is 0-3 in those 3 categories and still throws the same pitches in the same way…only with less velocity then he used to. A guy that’s a professional like Mahle will get stronger and find a way to get people out! No comparison between those 2 whatsoever

  6. Brandon Stevens

    Hard to believe Finnegan, Stephenson or Reed will be big contributors. Their time is about up. Stephenson literally if he doesn’t make the team out spring training which seems like a long shot at this point. Mahle is a great plug and play option as the starter in waiting. Romano needs to focus on the pen. He’s not starter material. I am excited about Vlad and Sant who should be knocking at the door by the end of this season. Will be curious to see where Greene starts the season and if he can stay healthy. The future is bright! I would say what’s even more exciting is the payroll flexibility entering next off season. Should be just as exciting as this past off season!

    • Matt Wilkes

      Disagree on Reed. Even if it’s not as a starter, I think he contributes to the Reds this year in a relief capacity. Too many people are looking at what happened two or three years ago instead of his clear improvements last season.

      • Indy Red Man

        I agree on Reed. I wouldn’t give up on him, but at the same time he’ll be 26 next month. This is his year to sink or swim.

        Just looking at him…I think he could really use a change in his delivery. If that’s possible? He doesn’t get on top of the slider so its not darting towards a righty hitters back foot like its supposed to? Instead it flattens out over the plate and ends up getting hammered!

        I think I’d keep Garrett in the pen and let Reed start at AAA. I’m hoping Mahle/Sims are the first 2 to step up when/if the rotation breaks down in some way.

    • Eric

      …so we can all look and say, “Well well…whaddyaknow…hindsight IS 20/20, after all! *chuckle*

  7. Matt Wilkes

    I’m not implying that the Reds have depth similar to the Dodgers in any way. That was simply to illustrate the importance of depth.

  8. Mason Red

    I agree. I’m hoping for the best but I still think the lack of consistency from the pitching staff will be a problem. Depth doesn’t matter if most are mediocre.

  9. Nate

    2019 (No Particular Order)
    Gray
    Roark
    Castillo
    DeScafani
    Wood
    Mahle
    Reed
    Romano
    Lorenzen
    Finnegan
    Mella
    Stephenson

    2018
    Castillo
    Harvey
    DeScalfani
    Romano
    Baily
    Mahle
    Lorenzen
    Reed
    Finnegan
    Stephenson
    Gallardo

    Is the Reds SP Depth in 2019 > than 2018? Yes.
    Is it the best SP depth in the MLB? No.
    Did the article state that? No.

    That was the point of the article. Not the future of Romano/Mahle/Reed et. all, the 2020 rotation and beyond. The depth NOW compared to where it’s been. You can add in Stephens and Garrett with previous MLB starts too for both years. It’s still much better then where it’s been. If one guy go goes down for a little bit, we might be ok, if two guys go down, we still might come out ok. Depth, especially pitching depth is something this organization has been lacking.

  10. Joey

    Anyone know if the Reds made an offer to Dallas Keuchel? Or did they just check and the asking price was too high? Guy is still on the market, 3 years 50-55mill? Would you all still want him at this point if he turned the Reds down earlier this off-season?

  11. Earmbrister

    Gotta disagree Sli.

    The difference between this year and the past few years is that your grab bag of pitchers are not being counted on to hold down 3 or more spots in the rotation.

    I would not be surprised to see a couple of pitchers in the Lorenzen, Garrett, Mahle, Reed, etal group take big steps forward this year. If any don’t, they won’t be relied upon to make extended appearances.

    Future’s so bright … ?

  12. Frank

    I like Reed, He was brought up too early and struggled. I am rooting for him to get it together. He has the stuff.