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The Cincinnati Reds will be juggling their AAA rotation alongside their bullpen

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So many arms, so few openings, so many fingers crossed.

Louisville Cityscapes And City Views
Who’s going to end up here come April?

The law of averages and the pain of inevitability have haunted Cincinnati Reds pitching since that glorious 2012 season - the one that saw the same five pitchers combine for 161 of 162 starts, felled only by a Todd Redmond spot-start in a day/night doubleheader. Injuries, ineffective outings, and an insistent reliance on rookies have been the dominant stories for the starting rotation for most of the time since then, with the previous two years specifically awful in that regard.

Last year, sixteen different pitchers started games for the Reds. In 2016, fifteen different starters were used. Tim Melville. Daniel Wright. Josh Smith. Deck McGuire. In other words, the concept of relying on just five arms to carry your rotation is nearly as impossible as is managing the roster to accommodate ten potential backups, which is why there’s a current glut of arms in the Cincinnati system with just a few (hopefully) spots available to them.

Manager Bryan Price has hinted that the front four of the Opening Day rotation will include Anthony DeSclafani, Brandon Finnegan, Homer Bailey, and Luis Castillo, barring catastrophe down in Goodyear in March. However, the molting of ligaments from Disco, Finny, and Homer over the last few years has been the single largest driver for the necessity of having other arms available, since they’ve largely been unable to consistently make starts, eat innings, and be the collective anchor of the rotation. So, the idea of matching those three with Castillo - who’d thrown only 14 innings above A-ball prior to last year - and calling it a day has the same odds of success as a donkey in the Kentucky Derby.

(I’m imagining a jockey riding a donkey to a last place finish in a horse race, but I hope to god at least one of you envisioned a donkey trying to jockey a horse to an incredibly comical conclusion. I digress.)

There has to be an on paper plan, though. For as much as it may be a waste of trees and ink, on paper the Reds will be mapping out the course for their arsenal of young arms while in Goodyear, under the premise that dammit, they’re going to be healthy and productive this season. How they’ll manage it becomes an increasingly tricky exercise.

Say, for a minute, that Robert Stephenson claims the fifth spot in the rotation out of Cactus League play, and Michael Lorenzen returns to his dominant 8th inning self to help anchor the bullpen. That’s a relatively likely outcome in this incredibly unlikely scenario. What, then becomes of the rest of the starting options? Y’know, all of these guys:

Tyler Mahle

Sal Romano

Amir Garrett

Cody Reed

Jackson Stephens

Keury Mella

Rookie Davis

Jose Lopez

That’s eight potential starting options that would be getting the squeeze from the big league rotation, seven of which have already spent time pitching in the big leagues. With Davis, though, there’s an injury issue that will likely keep him sidelined for the start of the season, so for now the list slices to just seven - except when you add back in the signing of Vance Worley to a minor league deal with an invite to Spring Training, which should count as at least a half an option in this here logjam.

If the Louisville Bats are to keep their conventional five-man starting rotation, and if the Reds don’t swing a roster-clearing trade while in Goodyear, it looks as if the potential starting days of at least two members of that talented young group might well be dwindling. Price has mentioned as much before, like in this conversation with MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon from December in which he mentions that “...I think we have at least two guys that have been primarily starters in our system that will compete for bullpen spots in Spring Training and bullpen spots only.”

Hmm. The promise that Mahle has shown (and his limited time at AAA and in the bigs) most certainly rules him out of being a bullpen arm at this point. Romano, too, given how strongly he performed as a starter for the Reds last year as the year wore on. Beyond those two on the list, though, the level of convincing argument for keeping them as starting options only drops significantly.

Cody Reed, I’d wager, is likely one of the two arms about whom Price was speaking, especially given that Reed failed to log any starts down the stretch with the Reds when other youngsters were being shut down around him and starts would’v seemingly been available. Reed, of course, has struggled mightily in his chances at the big league level, posting a 6.75 ERA in his 65.1 IP, with an even more unsightly 8.34 ERA in the 49.2 of those innings that have come as a starter. While he’s struggled incredibly with walks both with the Reds and in AAA, it’s worth noting that he has managed a 1.72 ERA in his 11 career relief appearances with the Reds, albeit with peripherals (read: WALKS) that still need a lot of work.

If Reed is one, that leaves Garrett, Stephens, Mella, and Davis, since I’m wagering Jose Lopez’s recent addition to the 40-man roster and lack of innings above AA Pensacola means he’s still a starter with more to prove at this point. And, honestly, the stories for each of those four under the microscope paint a pretty similar picture - solid if not spectacular work as starters in the lower minors, but serious, serious ball-breaking once they’ve stepped onto a big league mound.

From a prospect pedigree perspective, you’d perhaps expect Garrett to continue to get work as a starter, especially given his excellent beginning last year and the hip issue he was openly fighting for much of last year. That would seemingly make sense, and him starting the year in the Louisville rotation is more probable than not. However, it’s worth noting that due to his NCAA basketball days in his early time in the organization after being drafted, Garrett has been on the 40-man roster since November of 2014, meaning he’s just about out of options and will turn 26 years old in May. The Reds might see their window of opportunity to get anything more out of Garrett closing, in which case a fast-track to a bullpen role might well be in the cards.

For Mella and Stephens, well, I’d guess it will be one of them that’s destined for a bullpen role. Mella, of course, packs incredible stuff and came to the Reds after being the highest ranked prospect in the San Francisco Giants system, but despite his powerful arm he’s struggled with dwindling strikeouts, increased walk rates, and the inability to pitch deep enough into games to truly warrant being a starter. Stephens, on the other hand, might well fall victim to the glut itself, as he’s clearly the least prospect-y arm of the bunch. As for Rookie Davis, his offseason surgery and rehab might well keep him in the mix as a starter simply because he’ll be doing so separately while working his way back, and that might be the one thing working in his favor since he won’t be in direct competition with the others while these decisions play out.

It’s a glut, for sure, but it’s a good depth problem to be facing. Hopefully, your collectively crossed fingers, toes, nose hairs, and eyeballs will help the health of the rotation make these decisions tough for Dick Williams and Bryan Price, and we’ll see a Louisville rotation in April that’s still headlined by much of this young pitching talent.