Bullpen Help on the Way?

This offseason limited payroll flexibility prevented Cincinnati from going after bullpen help as aggressively as they would have liked. However, the Reds did pick up a few candidates for help from some lower profile signings. LHP Jose Mijares has been successful at the MLB level and RHP’s Keyvius Sampson and Wilmer Font have big-time fastballs.

The 2014 season had various disappointments for Cincinnati, not the least of which was in their bullpen. What made it more frustrating was that it was unexpected because the team was returning the entire cast that had provided reliability that they had enjoyed over previous seasons. It wasn’t to continue however, as the group struggled with a higher bullpen ERA than every other NL team not playing home games at Coors Field.

Things started to go badly in spring training when closer Aroldis Chapman took a line drive the face. He came back from injury sooner than expected and returned to his dominant form, but he is the only certainty of all the relievers on the Reds roster as they prepare for the upcoming season. Veteran Jonathan Broxton was solid, but his salary was dumped at the trading deadline. Sean Marshall had another season short-circuited by injury. Injuries to the rotation removed Alfredo Simon out of the pen. Manny Parra and J.J. Hoover weren’t able to duplicate their success of the previous season and even Sam LeCure struggled over the second half. The end result was that 30 year-old Jumbo Diaz, a pitcher not even on the opening day 40-man roster not only made a long awaited MLB debut, but managed to work his way into the role of primary set-up man.

The meltdown must have had the Cincinnati front office scratching their head more than a little during the offseason. Logan Ondrusek, once a rising star in the system was non-tendered along with journeyman farmhand Curtis Partch. The biggest question was how to address this need with a payroll already burdened with some heavy contracts and desiring to retain Johnny Cueto after the final year in his contract.

It’s not uncommon for small market teams to run out of money with depth lacking in the bullpen. That forces then to get creative and search for under-the-radar talent that can be obtained with low risk investment. Pitching is valuable so there’s always competition, but Cincinnati has had some past success and sometimes teams with bigger needs are attractive options for because they provide a better opportunity to showcase their skills at the MLB level like Diaz did last year. Cincinnati acquired a few pitchers this offseason with minor league contracts that are candidates to make in impact with the Reds next season.

The first question is where can they find a southpaw? Chapman is a very good one, but he’s closing which means he’s used in the same situations regardless which side of his body delivers the ball. Sean Marshall has been a workhorse in the past, but injuries have limited the 32 year-old to only 24 combined innings over the past two years. That’s a lot of time on the DL which hints that he may need to reconstruct his delivery to return to MLB duty.

If he is unavailable again in 2015 then look for Jose Mijares to get a call. The 30 year-old had success at the MLB level as recently as 2012 when he posted a mid-two ERA while making 78 appearances for Kansas City and world champion San Francisco. He was unable to sustain that the next year so the Giants let him walk before he signed a minor league contract with the Red Sox. He opted out of that before opening day which probably wasn’t a good move because he didn’t pitch at all last year. Mijares is a veteran of five full MLB seasons over which he’s managed a sub-three ernie twice. A big knock on him in the past has been lack of commitment to training and conditioning. Perhaps he developed a new attitude while out of action for an entire year. The Reds should be able to tell what condition he’s in soon after his arrival to spring training.

Keyvius Sampson is currently on the Reds 40-man roster after getting squeezed off of San Diego’s. He’d been on some lists of top Padres prospects for a while but was deemed expendable after getting lit up in AAA in 2014. Most of his action has been as a starter, but he did pitch out of the bullpen last season. When he arrives he’ll bring a mid-90’s fastball with a good changeup. Key to his success will be improving command and that could be helped by scrapping his curveball in favor of a slider.

Nothing can gain attention for a pitcher prospect faster than a high-90’s fastball and former Texas prospect Wilmer Font will bring one to the Cincinnati system this spring. He’d been with the Rangers since 2007 after he signed a free agent contract as a teenager out of Venezuela. With that kind of heat there’s no surprise he was a highly rated prospect and he even appeared in a handful of games with the Rangers. Command issues from an inconsistent delivery put a wall up for Font’s advancement along with lagging development on secondary offerings. He did not get a non-roster invitation to spring training but the big (6’4”/235#) right-hander is still only 24 years old there’s potential for a huge return if the Reds can successfully finish this project on which the Rangers gave up.

A few years ago Cincinnati got some nice late season bullpen help from former Pirate southpaw starter Zach Duke and this season they added another one in Paul Maholm. He’s had a long MLB career and probably doesn’t intend to hang around all season long to so some mop up duty after roster expansion. Actually, the biggest attraction with the Reds for him is giving them a veteran option for a spot in the rotation in case their prospects don’t pan out.

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