2015 Reds Prep: Bullpen

2014 was a disappointing season in Cincinnati and their previously reliable bullpen was one of the contributors. Injuries to some and ineffectiveness to others makes this the most difficult portion of the Reds roster this offseason as they prepare for another post season run in 2015.

As Cincinnati prepares for their 2015 season bullpen personnel is probably the most enigmatic facet on their roster. They had no turnover in the pen coming into last season and good reason to expect continued solid performance that the group had been providing over recent seasons. Instead they saw their bullpen ERA explode up over four, the worst of all NL teams that do not call Coors Field home.

Of course no group in Cincinnati was exempt from the DL in the past injury-riddled season and the bullpen started off on the wrong foot when closer Aroldis Chapman spent the first month recovering from a line drive to the face in spring training. Former top lefty reliever, Sean Marshall was limited to fewer than 20 appearances for the second season in a row. Other injuries took away long-man Alfredo Simon who spent the entire season in the rotation. Veteran Jonathan Broxton was having a splendid season before a salary dump at the trading deadline sent him to Milwaukee. The rest of the group suffered from ineffectiveness and overall they opened an unlikely path for Jose Diaz to work himself into high leverage situations late in the seasons. Prior to opening day he was a 30 year-old minor league journeyman without a major league debut and he wasn’t even on the 40-man roster.

Of course the bullpen is a particularly tricky area in a small market like Cincinnati. There just isn’t enough money to go around for manning an effective lineup, rotation, and still have enough left over for competitive pay for seven bullpen spots. Therefore teams often have to get creative and identify inexpensive free agents to fill in roles. In recent years the Reds made good calls on Simon and Manny Parra which is something they’ll be on the lookout for going into next season.

The good news is that Aroldis Chapman is still under contract and as of today will be back closing games for the team in 2015. After making a quicker-than-expected return from his injury he was simply magnificent. He earned a third consecutive all-star team despite not making his first appearance until May 11. After that he proceeded to strike out over half of the batters that stepped into the box to face him. Yes……HALF. The ones that put wood on the ball didn’t fare much better as they totaled 21 hits (only one homer) in 54 innings pitched. He did walk a few but his triple digit heat still inflated his K/BB ratio to 4.4. This biggest problem Chapman had last season was his team’s inability to hand him the ball with a lead to protect.

He’s in the last year of his original deal with the Reds and they’re not likely going to be able to afford to keep him around for 70 innings per season when he can pursue options on the open market. Because of that they’re probably listening to propositions from other teams, but he’s not going anywhere unless someone makes an offer that the front office can’t refuse. Should that happen, then pending his trade return it would remove the only certain bullpen spot this team has right now.

Some may wonder how much gas Marshall has left in the tank. His age (32 yrs.) normally isn’t anything to be alarmed about for a reliever, but he was a workhorse before shoulder injuries limited him to a combined 31 appearances over the past two seasons. After so much time missed there may be a need to reconstruct his delivery to continue pitching at the MLB level. Southpaw Tony Cingrani might have been a good candidate to call upon if Marshall is unavailable again, but after the departure of Simon and Mat Latos he’ll be needed in the rotation.

The Reds other lefty reliever, Manny Parra, was a nice pickup after the Brewers gave up on him as a starter. He was a bargain acquisition who turned in a solid 2013 season that was rewarded with a new contract. Unfortunately he returned to his Milwaukee form last year as his ERA ballooned up over four and a half. He’s now 32 years old and under contract for another season so Cincinnati will likely continue to run him out to the mound and hope he can return to 2013 form.

If Cincinnati could do something to guarantee one of their relievers return for their form of the previous season however, the first choice would probably be J.J. Hoover. A win/loss record often isn’t a good indicator on how effective a reliever has been, but there’s no way to sugar coat Hoover’s 1-10 mark of last year, especially when he put up a near-five ERA to go with it. That’s quite a change from the sub-three ernie in 2013 which might have had Cincinnati considering plans to make him a closer after Chapman’s departure. Hoover is still only 27 years old and now they’ll try to make him into a totally different pitcher that took the mound in 2014.

Another puzzler last year was Sam LeCure. The 30 year-old right-hander was coming off two solid seasons only to see his ERA (3.88) jump more than a full run higher than the previous year. What made that more surprising was that it came after a great start to 2014 when he was sitting on a 1.14 ERA after his first 22 appearances. He followed that up with a 0-3/5.73 over 40 games from June 6 until the end of the season.

The aforementioned Diaz was a nice story. During last year’s offseason the rotund reliever “slimmed down” to 315#, established himself as a lockdown closer at Louisville, and earned his first MLB action after pitching twelve seasons in the minors. After arrival he utilized his high-90’s heat to stay there and by the season’s end became manager Bryan Price’s top option to work eighth innings. He finished with a 3.38 ERA over 36 outings with the Reds and that was after allowing three of his thirteen total earned runs in his first appearance. Diaz has paid his dues and in a bullpen that looks like Chapman et al, he appears to have the inside track on the top “al” spot.

Big Logan Ondrusek probably once caused ideas of a future closing until late in the 2011 season, but his ERA has climbed year over year since to mid-five in 2014 causing Cincinnati to non-tender him. He was joined by Curtis Partch who was an example of how enough velocity on a fastball can keep a minor league career alive despite an absence of success on the field. He did make 20 career appearances with the Reds and will try his luck with San Francisco next year after eight seasons in the Cincinnati organization.

Other holdovers on the 40-man roster are Carlos Contreras and Ryan Dennick, both of whom made MLB debuts at the age of 23 last year. Contreras had been converted into a starter at Pensacola before making seventeen relief appearances with the Reds, the sum of which was overall forgettable. Dennick got the call after roster expansion and was hit hard in eight outings. He came to Cincinnati from Kansas City two years ago after the Reds selected him in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft.

Raisel Inglesias figures to get an American debut somewhere after signing with Cincinnati as a foreign free agent last year. Comments at the time were that he would be a starter, but his previous experience in Cuba had him working out of the bullpen. The luster has faded from Daniel Corcino’s project status, but working out of the pen might be an option for him to return to the MLB level if he continues to struggle with command. Hard throwing Pedro Villarreal is still around to provide organizational depth after making twelve appearances with the Reds last year at the age of 26.

Of course all teams will pick up a handful of journeyman pitchers to provide depth at AAA and Cincinnati has signed RHP Wilmer Font, RHP Marcus Walden RHP Jose Cisnero, RHP Michael Bowden, LHP Jose Mijares, RHP Nate Adcock, and RHP Jose Flores to minor league contracts. 30 year-old Mijares is a veteran MLB reliever with some impressive seasons for three different teams and will likely get the call the first time a southpaw is needed. Oddly enough no one picked him up after he opted out of a contract with Boston before last season. There are few memorable MLB credentials amongst the others, but then again there’s a reason they were available for minor league contracts. Actually, Cincinnati might be an attractive option for free agent relievers right now after seeing the success that Diaz had last year.

Overall it appears that significant work is still needed in the Reds bullpen before opening day. It won’t be easy as budget limitations have already caused Cincinnati to unload a couple of starting pitchers they would have preferred keeping and veteran Marlin Byrd and his $8 million contract was added to their payroll this week. Mijares appears to be a low-risk addition that could impact the team next year and they will probably continue to look for other low-profile signings to give additional options. However, they probably won’t be able to overhaul the entire bullpen and decisions will be made on when to continue on with a pitcher in hopes that he will return earlier form and when to punt like they’ve already done with Ondrusek. It won’t be easy, but then again that why the decision-makers are paid the big bucks.

The nature of a reliever’s work makes it easy for them to cause frustration when they cough up a lead after the rest of the team has succeeded in gaining an advantage. Reds GM Walt Jocketty previously had a reliable sounding board for such decisions when he was in St. Louis with Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan. Reds manager Bryan Price has proved he knows his way around an MLB pitching staff but there’s still a lot of work left to be done for the Cincinnati bullpen to return to the level of success it enjoyed before 2014.

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