Last year, the Cincinnati Reds waited a full week into February before signing both Burke Badenhop and Kevin Gregg to contracts with invitations to Spring Training. I bring that up for two reasons. First, it's worth remembering since there's still ample time for the Reds to add another potential reliever to the mix that isn't currently on the 40-man roster or in the farm system, and that could alter everything I'm about to spell out. Beyond that, though, it's just vitally important that you never forget that the Kevin Gregg Reds era actually existed. That pain should absolutely leave a mark.
The fabric of the Reds bullpen in 2016 will be almost wholly overhauled from the core to whom we grew accustomed. Aroldis Chapman is gone, traded away to the New York Yankees back in December. Gone, too, are Manny Parra and Sean Marshall, the mainstay lefties the Reds have relied upon in varying capacities as far back as 2012. The Reds opted against picking up Badenhop's option, balking at the $4 million price it would've cost to bring back the pitcher who made the most appearances (68) of any on the squad last year. Nate Adcock blew out his elbow was granted free agency, Gregg's awful tenure mercifully ended after just 11 appearances, Dylan Axelrod signed a minor league deal with the Miami Marlins, and Collin Balester still sits as an unsigned free agent after the Reds let him go.
And, of course, Sam LeCure and the Reds finally parted ways, as the team's 4th round pick from the 2005 MLB Draft signed with the Arizona La Russas after posting a 112 ERA+ in 320.2 career innings with Cincinnati.
That group combined to make 237 appearances for Cincinnati in 2015, in the process eating 231.2 innings in relief of the young Reds' starting rotation. That's roughly 42% of the entire inning load thrown by the 2015 group that's out the door (whose 549.2 innings total was the 3rd most of any team in all of baseball), and given that no proven workhorse starter was brought in to buttress the rotation, odds are the bullpen may again be tasked with pitching such a gaudy number.
With that in mind, here's a look at who may end up as a Reds reliever in 2016.
The Returning Locks
J.J. Hoover tops this list, as the now 28 year old appears to be the anchor in the bullpen after throwing 64.1 innings of 2.94 ERA, 1.16 WHIP ball in a resurgent 2015 season. He may well have the inside track for the closer's role - something we speculated back in December after Chapman's departure - as he already has the most 8th inning experience as well as owning the highest salary of any presumed reliever ($1.4 million).
Jumbo Diaz will also be back, and the 32 year old fireballer will also likely be in the mix for late-inning prominence. His 60.1 innings ranked as the 4th most by a Reds reliever in 2015, his 70 strikeouts trailing only Chapman among relievers. He struggled early last year, but after a disaster of an April pitched to a 3.29 ERA over his final 52 innings of the season.
Next In Line
Carlos Contreras owns a 40-man roster spot and has made 39 appearances for the Reds over the last two seasons, though he's never truly impressed when on the big league mound. He's still just 25 years old, however, and will look to claim a spot despite a 2015 call-up in which he had more walks (20) than strikeouts (19).
Tony Cingrani will also have the inside track on a seat in the pen thanks to a 40-man roster spot, and the fact that he's one of very few lefties will also play in his favor. What won't, though, is the balky shoulder that has stripped him of his 'starting pitcher' label and prematurely ended his seasons in each of the last two years. If - and it's become an increasingly bigger if - he's healthy, he could well be the most electric arm in this bullpen, and the Reds will hope that's the case.
To date, Blake Wood remains the lone free agent the Reds have signed to an MLB contract this offseason, and I suppose that gives him a leg-up on much of the rest of this list. That said, the 30 year old hasn't pitched in the big leagues since 2014 and is still making roughly league minimum, which means cutting bait with him in favor of a non-roster pitcher with having a big spring is still within the realm of expectations. To his credit, Wood did have a solid 2015 season in AAA, fanning 10.7 per 9 IP and racking up 29 saves for the Pirates' Indianapolis affiliate.
Caleb Cotham falls in a similar slot as Wood, as he's both on the 40-man roster and brings MLB experience to the fold. Cotham came to the Reds as part of the Chapman trade after making his MLB debut with the Yankees in 2015 at age 27, a cup of coffee with a few odd statistics. He struck out 11 against just a single walk in his 9.2 big league innings, but allowed a staggering 14 hits in that time. His AAA numbers suggest the command is real, though he's far from an overpowering arm. He's a Vanderbilt product, too, so naturally I hope he sticks.
Ryan Mattheus threw 55 largely mediocre innings for Cincinnati in 2015 and was subsequently non-tendered after the end of the season. He was brought back on a minor league deal, however, and with so few durable arms around, he may well be back as a middle relief option when camp breaks. The same can be said of Pedro Villarreal, too, as the Reds' 7th round pick from the 2008 MLB Draft is back on a minor league deal as well.
The Wild Cards
Stephen Johnson can probably throw a pigskin a quarter-mile, and the 6'5" righty may well prove enough in Goodyear to earn a bullpen spot next month. Odds are, though, that the player the Reds received in exchange for Marlon Byrd last summer will start out in Louisville as he's never pitched above AA. He's had control issues in the past (albeit not in a tiny sample with Pensacola after the trade), but he can run his fastball up near 100 mph, and that'll get him plenty of eyes and chances - especially while he owns a 40-man roster spot.
Chris O'Grady was picked by the Reds in the most recent Rule 5 Draft, which means he's only a Red if they keep him on the 25-man roster, otherwise they have to return him to the Los Angeles Angels. He struck out 10.4 per 9 IP in AAA last year, but he's yet to make his big league debut, though a career 1.17 WHIP in the minors while in several hitter-friendly leagues is impressive.
Zack Weiss may be the most intriguing name on this list so far, as the Reds' 6th round pick from the 2013 MLB Draft destroyed AA hitters in a stellar campaign for Pensacola. He struck out 11.8 per 9 IP against walking just 2.4 per 9 IP, his 1.04 WHIP right in line with the 1.05 mark he's posted in three seasons in all minor league play. He's yet to throw in AAA and doesn't own a 40-man roster spot yet, though, which means he may not have an inside track to be on the Opening Day roster, but rest assured he figures prominently in the Reds' plans down the road.
Prior to having surgery on his back, I wouldn't have listed John Lamb anywhere near a bullpen role, but that obviously throws a wrench into his story. Another perhaps more important wrench is that Lamb is out of options, which means that aside from a short rehab stint, the Reds can't just park him in AAA if their rotation shows promise without him early in the season. That may pigeon-hole him into a bullpen role, especially if you'll notice how few lefties have been mentioned so far in this post, though our fingers are crossed that won't be the case.
Speaking of which, Jonathan Sanchez may get an extra long look-see in Goodyear because he's a lefty. He also has only thrown 13.2 big league innings since the end of the 2012 season, and 129 of his 134 MLB appearances since 2008 have come as a starter, not a reliever. Still, the 33 year old has a no-hitter to his name and apparently was throwing well in Winter Ball, and the lack of other proven lefties may seriously work in his favor.
It's not exactly the kind of group that strikes fear into established big league hitting, but it's a deep group, one that does at least possess power arms that may emerge and impress. It's incredibly unproven, though, and a lot will be asked of a group that had the 4th worst ERA among NL relief corps in 2015 even with Chapman's otherworldly stats included. How unproven? Put it this way: Hoover's the only one of those listed who's making more than roughly league minimum, and this comes on the heels of the Reds sinking over $40 million combined on bullpen payroll over the last two seasons.
If nothing else, it should be a group that's deep enough to prevent the team from feeling the need to pull the plug on one of their talented young potential starters. Keyvius Sampson may well end up a reliever at some point, but in an already lost 2016 it's worth giving him one more shot at being a starter, even if that's at AAA. The same goes for Brandon Finnegan, who the Reds traded for with conviction because they felt he could be a starter in the big leagues despite what the Kansas City Royals may have felt. The same can be said of Michael Lorenzen, as the express lane transition the team has had him on from college outfielder and one-pitch closer to big league starter shouldn't be cut short just to bolster the bullpen of what will already be a losing team.
All the Reds need from their bullpen in 2016 is time, not performance. Buy time for the young starters to show what they've got, and eat innings when those starts aren't as polished as they may be by 2017. Do that, and they'll have done what was asked of them - and for very, very cheap.