2015 Reds Prep: The Rotation

Cincinnati has enjoyed some of the NL’s best starting pitching over the past few seasons but a couple of trades for payroll relief will cause some turnover in 2015. The top of their rotation appears to be solid once again but one of the high priority items on their agenda before opening day is determining who will man the back end.

Starting pitching has been the backbone of Cincinnati’s success over the past few years. However every facet of their roster was affected by injury in the disappointing 2014 campaign and this quintet was no exception. Johnny Cueto continued to maintain his status as one of the elite pitchers in the game when he became the first Reds pitcher since 1988 to win 20 games and finished runner up in the Cy Young Award balloting. He finished second to Clayton Kershaw and ironically it was another monumental season by a Dodger pitcher back in ‘88 when Orel Hershiser prevented Danny Jackson from bringing home the Cy Young, an award the franchise has yet to win.

The group held up behind Cueto to finish with the third lowest starter ERA in the National League at 3.37. That was more impressive considering that injuries reduced their “second ace”, Mat Latos to around a half season of action. Homer Bailey entered the season off a lucrative contract extension and overcame a sluggish start before going down to an elbow ailment in mid-August. Tony Cingrani, who was coming off a promising 2013 rookie season was limited to only 11 starts while five-man Mike Leake ate up over 200 innings and finished with an ernie under four.

A big story was the emergence of Alfredo Simon who was pulled out of the bullpen to fill in for an opening day injury and capitalized on the opportunity to earn a spot on the All Star team. He held the job for the entire season and finished with 15 wins and a mid-three ERA. He won’t be available to do that again in 2015 because he was traded to Detroit during the winter meetings. On that same day the Reds created another opening by swapping Latos to Florida. Both moves were speculated as payroll relief.

There may be more rotation turnover in Cincinnati than in recent seasons but one constant is that Cueto is expected to remain atop of it. He’s a good man for the job after logging the second-lowest ERA in the league, the most strikeouts, and his first All Star selection. The ERA accomplishment was a remarkable feat not only because his home venue is hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park, but it was also maintained after leading the league in inning pitched. One would have to go back to the preceding season to find a knock on him when back injuries limited him to eleven starts and an unimpressive outing the wild card playoff game. If durability is a long-term concern for Cueto it certainly did not rear its head at all in 2014.

Instead it was the “more durable-looking ace”, big Mat Latos who was unavailable for half his starts. He threw well when he did take the mound and Cincinnati would have preferred keeping his services longer. However, his age combined with his contract status made that unlikely so they dealt him one year before he was eligible for free agency. Instead it will be Bailey in the second spot after going 9-5/3.71 ERA. It wasn’t likely that he could finish under four in a truncated season when he was over six after the first month, but he finished by going 8-3/3.17 over his last eighteen appearances. The Reds have long felt that Bailey has top-rotation stuff and that was confirmed when he was awarded a 6 year/$105 million extension last February.

It’s easy to forget that the third holdover, Leake, is still only 27 years old because he’s been with Cincinnati since 2010. He’s a classic mid-rotation pitcher: a team is in good shape if he’s their five-man and in trouble if they run him out to the mound on opening day. Leake relies more on finesse than power and is a survivor in the Reds rotation. He debuted in 2010 with nary a single inning of minor league experience, returned the next year when injuries opened a spot, and survived a threat from converting Aroldis Chapman into a starter in 2012. He might have been designated as the “five-man” but the back end gets almost as many starts as the ace and his sub-four ERA’s in it the past couple of years have been a big boost to the team’s efforts. Reds’ pitching doesn’t figure to be as strong with him in the third spot as it was when he was in the fifth, but there’s still enough talent for a continued successful run.

Of course five are needed, so enter Cingrani. There was plenty of reason to be excited one year ago after he posted a sub-three ERA over his rookie season while filling in for the oft-injured Cueto. His big knock remains an overdependence on his fastball. It appeared to have caught up with him last season when opponents inflated his ernie to a mid-four when he was able to take the mound. Lack of secondary offerings and durability questions might make him better fit for the bullpen, a role to which he’s no stranger after a collegiate career as a lockdown closer for Rice. Cincinnati might have a need for the southpaw’s skills in that role too after injuries have reduced Sean Marshall to combined 31 appearances over the past two seasons. However, they likely envisioned Cingrani as a starter when he was picked in the third round in 2011. He was used exclusively in the rotation during a fast track through the minors, so a spot to remain there is his to lose right now.

It’s no big shame for a team to have uncertainty for their fifth rotation spot entering a season, especially in a small market like Cincinnati. Though the Reds have managed to avoid that recently, they’ll have to find a solution now. The top candidate for the spot is Anthony DeSclafani, who was returned in the Latos trade.

Last season he was knocked around heavily in thirteen appearances for the Marlins. However, he won’t turn 25 year old until opening day and he still has his rookie status intact. Though he had an MLB debut during his third professional season he lacks overpowering stuff and projects as a back-end rotation pitcher. That sounds okay since it’s the role the Reds need, however “top-end” projections that don’t turn out still can latch onto a back-end job, while “back-ends” that don’t are lucky to be a long-man in the bullpen. Bryan Price was a successful pitching coach before taking over as manager so hopefully that means the Reds see something in DeSclafani that made them want him in a market that had high demand for a pitcher of Latos’s caliber.

Another option might be David Holmberg who came to Cincinnati in a trade for Ryan Hanigan before last season. Though he struggled at first for Louisville, he was more effective in the second half of the season and it did not prevent him from seven appearances with the Reds. It was rough going for him against MLB hitters initially, but he did come around to finish with a 1.90 in almost 24 innings over his last four appearances. Holmberg is a big southpaw who is still only 23 years old, so there’s reason to believe there’s still some good upside.

Every team needs organizational depth in the rotation and though the Reds hope it isn’t called upon much next year there will be some starts going to pitchers not in the opening day quintet. Last year Cincinnati picked up Dylan Axelrod after the White Sox gave up on him and he made it up to the Reds in time to do a nice job in five late-season appearances. He’s still on their 40-man roster and they’d like to have him available in 2015.

Added to the Cincinnati system is Matt Magill who was traded for Chris Heisey. He was pounded in six MLB starts for the Dodgers last season when he made his MLB debut and didn’t fare much better in AAA. He’s now 24 years old and he’s paid his dues over seven minor league seasons after LA selected him with a late pick in 2008. He had a mid-three ERA in sixteen AAA starts in 2013.

Daniel Corcino was once one of the top-rated pitchers in the organization until he ran into some serious control issues in AAA a couple of years ago. He’s still around and though he’s no longer projected as another Johnny Cueto he could work his way into some more MLB action if he shows he can find the plate.

Last year the Reds signed Raisel Inglesias to a free agent contract, but visa delays prevented him from throwing a competitive inning since. There’s often some mystery with Cuban defectors, but Cincinnati though highly enough of his skills to lock him up with a 7 year/$27 million contract. Initial comments at the time of the signing suggested he might be MLB ready and capable of starting. However, his 185# physique hints that he might be better fit for the bullpen where he worked most of the time over three years for Isla de la Juventud in Cuba’s National Series.

Carlos Contreras is on the 40-man roster. He was a solid closer in the lower minor league levels before a successful conversion into a starter in 2013 when he earned a midseason promotion to AA. Last year all of his seventeen MLB appearances were in relief and overall his rookie season was very forgettable. The bullpen also appears to be the future of 27 year-old Pedro Villarreal who is also on the 40-man.

Ismael Guillon and Amir Garrett are both on the 40-man roster, but neither have pitched above the single A level and are on there for Rule 5 protection. Both are left-handed projects. Garrett is still on the Cal-Northridge basketball roster, but he’s yet to make an appearance for the Matadors so perhaps he’s ready to dedicate himself to baseball exclusively for the first time.

Of the pitchers not on the 40-man roster, Robert Stephenson remains the top-rated prospect in the organization. After fast-tracking up the lower levels of the system he stubbed his toe since arriving in AA, but he’s still only 21 years old and at least one year away from MLB ready. He still projects as a top-rotation pitcher and could possibly be ready for a call-up by the end of next season.

Michael Lorenzen has done a lot of bouncing around since Cincinnati selected him with a supplemental first-round pick in 2013. He donned four different uniforms for Reds affiliates during his first short season and played in the Arizona Fall League. He’s bounced around to different roles too, used exclusively as a pitcher after most of his action was in the outfield for Cal St. Fullerton. Last year he was converted into a starter at Pensacola and responded with a 3.13 ERA which means the soon-to-be 23 year old might be ready to make some noise in the upper levels of the organization next year.

There were a couple of others pitchers at Pensacola last year that will be 23 years old come opening day. Right-handers Ben Lively and Jon Moscot both appear to have bright futures and figure to see some action at Louisville. Should either impress it could force an MLB debut ahead of schedule should Cincinnati have a need to dig deep into the farm. Former Detroit first-rounder Jonathon Crawford will crash into the top of the Cincinnati prospect lists, but he’s yet to compete higher than single-A.

It appears the Cincinnati rotation should be good again in 2015, but there are some questions on the back end. None of the candidates figures to have the kind of stuff that Latos took to Miami and Simon is no longer around should they again look to the bullpen for help. Bryan Price is still around and there’s no doubt that Cincinnati has enjoyed improved pitching since his arrival in 2010. His handling of pitchers likely influenced the Reds decision to have him succeed Dusty Baker and that role now falls to Jeff Pico since Price assumed managerial duties.

It’s no secret that small market teams need to occasionally pull a rabbit out of their hats and cash in on overlooked diamonds in the rough and the ones that are able to do that frequently with pitchers are generally the ones that have more success at consistently fielding a competitive team. Reds GM Walt Jocketty knows this very well after working with the team of Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan in St. Louis. Most of Price’s success in Cincinnati has been with pitchers in the system before he joined the organization. The jury is still out on last year’s pickup Holmberg as he vies for regular MLB duty with DeSclafini, Magill, and others. It’s no easy feat extracting effective innings-eaters from other organizations in a league where capable pitching is valued at such a premium. For now Reds fans will have to practice a little “in Price we trust” and it should be interesting to see how the franchise addresses rotation turnover in 2015.

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