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The Case for the Bullpen as the Reds Fifth Starter

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

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MLB: Cincinnati Reds at St. Louis Cardinals Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

As the 2017 season draws near, the Reds starting rotation is filled with question marks. Dan Straily, one of the team’s most reliable starters from last season, was shipped to Miami in January. In February, Homer Bailey underwent a third surgery on his elbow. The recovery will likely keep him out until June. Over the weekend, fans received news that Anthony DeSclafani would likely start the season on the disabled list due to recurring elbow soreness. Zach Buchanan reported that DeSclafani is set to undergo further tests on Monday morning that should bring more clarity to the situation.

What this means is that three spots have opened up in Cincinnati’s rotation, and there isn’t a clear answer to who should fill those spots. Brandon Finnegan and Scott Feldman are locked in to place, but beyond that what the rotation will look like in April is an unknown.

Zach Buchanan took some time to break down the most likely candidates for the open jobs. The team has a handful of young pitching prospects who could join the big league roster and pitch the majority of those innings. Robert Stephenson and Cody Reed are the most obvious candidates, but Buchanan also lists Amir Garrett, Sal Romano, Luis Castillo, and Rookie Davis as options. The team does have enough young starting pitchers in the system to fill in while Bailey and DeSclafani get healthy.

However, do you really want to put needless wear and tear on the arms of potential starters on the next competitive Reds team? Healthy and productive starting pitching is one of, if not the, most prized commodities in baseball. It would be a shame to see any pitchers from this group forced into major league action before they’re ready. The group listed above should have a major impact on Cincinnati’s success in 2018 and beyond, and there’s little to gain from wasting any pitches from them before they’re ready.

The second option Cincinnati could employ to fill at least one of these spots is to dip into the free agent market. Last season, the team had surprising success with the late (and cheap) addition of Dan Straily. However, Straily’s production is the exception more than the rule. The top starting pitcher options still available on the free agent market are probably Doug Fister and Colby Lewis. A look at their recent production doesn’t inspire much confidence. It’s also possible that Bronson Arroyo could make the major league roster in the short term to eat up some innings, but there are still serious questions about his ability to handle a major league workload.

Given the hand the team has been dealt, it would be understandable if they signed another starter to a cheap one-year deal. Regardless, it’s a difficult decision to make. Should the team roll out one of their young prospects in the rotation (maybe a little early), and risk racking up needless innings of work? The other option is to sign a starter who is likely to give the Reds below average production, simply for the sake of getting through the season.

Neither of those options is that enticing, but is it really the only two options the Reds have?

There is a third option for how the Reds could fill out at least one spot on the rotation in the short term. On the surface, Cincinnati looks to have a fairly deep and talented bullpen heading in to 2017 (I can’t believe I’m writing this after last season). Not only that, but a few of those relievers have experience starting games (Iglesias, Lorenzen, and Cingrani).

Is it possible that the best scenario available to Cincinnati is to use a “bullpen game” in one of the starting rotation spots while their other starters get healthy?

I want to make a few caveats before breaking down this scenario.

  1. This should not be the long term plan. This shouldn’t even be a season long plan. What I’m advocating for is the use of the bullpen in the rotation in the very short term.
  2. Obviously, the team would need to keep a close eye on the workload of the relievers leading up to such a game. If the bullpen had been worked hard during a given week, I would have no problem with the team calling up one of their prospects to make a spot start.

So what might a “bullpen game” look like for the Reds in 2017?

  • Michael Lorenzen (2-3 innings)
  • Tony Cingrani (1-2 innings)
  • Blake Wood (1 inning)
  • Drew Storen (1 inning)
  • Raisel Iglesias (2 innings)

Bryan Price mentioned early in the preseason that he was not averse to the idea of putting a pitcher like Cody Reed in the bullpen to start the season. If that actually happened, he could easily take one to two innings in this scenario. It might not be a bad idea to help get his confidence up after last season.

So what would be the benefits of this type of approach?

First, you’re leveraging your most effective pitchers as often as possible. The front office has discussed the possibility of giving Lorenzen and Iglesias fairly heavy workloads this season (around 100 IP). Why not use some of those innings in a way that could potentially keep the team in more games throughout the season? The advantage of using high quality relievers in situations other than the ninth inning was on full display in last year’s playoffs. This would simply be an (extreme) extension of that practice.

Second, you’re giving the team the best chance for success this season without risking the future success of your best young pitchers with wasted innings. The team isn’t expected to be competitive in 2017, but you’d still like to win as many games as possible after two rough seasons. The combination of pitchers listed above would likely have more success than any free agent starter you could acquire in mid-March who doesn’t necessitate a multi-year deal.

Second, you’re giving the team the best chance for success in the current situation. Even though the team isn’t expected to be competitive in 2017 you’d still like to win games. It’s possible to do that without overly taxing your pitching prospects in this scenario. I have no doubt that these pitchers could combine for better performances than a cheap free agent starter that the team could find right now.

We’ve long seen analysts make the case for team’s using bullpen games in the playoffs as opposed to relying on a sub-par back end of the rotation starter. Sure, games in April don’t mean nearly as much as games in October. However, for a short time, why not give your self the best chance to win?

Third, the Reds are in a position where they need to try new and different things to be successful. We’ve long heard about the constraints the team faces given the market that they play in. If that’s the case, shouldn’t they be willing to try things other teams aren’t willing to try? The Reds don’t have the payroll flexibility to sign as many starters as they want with the hopes that a few will pan out (the Dodgers strategy). Why not roll the dice and see if you’re on to something in a season that won’t mean much in the grand scheme of things?

What’s the worst that could happen? Oh yeah, I’m well aware this could bring elevated health risks to the bullpen arms. That is a major factor to take into consideration, and one that might end this conversation.

At the end of the day this isn’t a long term solution. For the team to be successful they need as many quality starting pitching options as possible. However, for this season, there’s no reason to rush the top prospects in the farm system simply to make it through a major league season. There’s also no reason to make fans endure a season of watching one to two below average starters stumble through the first-half of the season. Allow a handful of your team’s best pitchers, who are more than competent at the big league level, to carry a little bit more of the load. The team could end up with a few more wins along the way, and possibly stumble into a strategy that could pay dividends in high-leverage situations in the future.