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An early look at the 2019 Cincinnati Reds pitching staff

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Reading tea leaves while drinking coffee bean juice.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Chicago Cubs Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Despite none of it being either groundbreaking or of an especially positive note, there have been several pertinent moves on the Cincinnati Reds pitching staff lately that may well give us a bit more insight into the overall direction of things both for this year, and beyond.

Last week, it was announced that both Sal Romano and Robert Stephenson would pitch as relievers for the foreseeable future, removing a pair of young arms from what had been a six-man rotation. Backfilling that will be the chance for Cody Reed, as the lefty - who had pitched as a starter for AAA Louisville and just as a reliever for the Reds since being recalled - would join the rotation for at least a turn to show if his repertoire has matured. Of course, perhaps the biggest nugget came in the form of Matt Harvey being pulled back off waivers in lieu of being traded to the Milwaukee Brewers, with the affinity for the player by team owner Bob Castellini becoming of public note.

That cavalcade of rotation news paired with the team’s reluctance to trade any of their team-controlled bullpen options gives us a bit more insight into how they might value the arms on the current roster. More importantly, it might reveal just how many spots are open for the 2019 version of the pitching staff.

Assuming the team chooses to carry 13 arms again next year - which they’ve done for most of 2018 - and assuming the relative health of all participants is a given, here’s a closer look at just how few spots appear to be open on the 2019 pitching staff prior to any winter moves, and who that might leave on the outside looking in.

Locks

It’s probably easiest to work backwards through the bullpen to begin this list, since they’ve been infinitely more dependable in 2018 than the starting rotation - and are generally pretty obvious, at least to begin with.

At the back of the ‘pen sits Raisel Iglesias (1), who’s an obvious lock. Controlled through the 2021 season should the Reds choose, he’s on an affordable contract and is again pitching quite well, his 173 ERA+ in 57 IP in-line with his excellent previous seasons.

Backing Iglesias are both Jared Hughes (2) and David Hernandez (3), each of whom were brought in on similar 2-year contracts this past winter - with Hughes’ having an option for 2020. All they’ve done is combine for 4.3 bWAR as key options out of the bullpen, with 243 and 190 ERA+ marks, respectively.

Backing them is Michael Lorenzen (4), who’ll be in his second arbitration year in 2019, and will be due a raise off his current $1.3 million salary into the ~$2 million range where Hughes and Hernandez sit. I wrote a week ago about how his surface stats would make him seem a lock while his peripheral stats were quite concerning, but his combination of elite stuff when locked-in and his ability to pinch-hit to make the bench that much more versatile/potent make him likely a lock for at least one more year.

On the starting rotation side, things instantly get more murky. For the fourth consecutive winter, we’ll be hoping that Anthony DeSclafani (5) can maintain his health and above-average performance for a 30+ start season, as he has earned that opportunity with his performance while healthy over the years - especially since he’ll only be due a modest raise off his current $860K salary while entering his second year of arbitration eligibility. Next to him sits the electric Luis Castillo (6), whose 1.21 WHIP, 9.1 K/9, and manageable 2.9 BB/9 across 226 IP the last two years suggest that there’s still a candidate for a breakout, and that’s more than good enough to warrant lock consideration while still on a league-minimum pre-arbitration salary.

Out of options beginning in 2019

It’s this particular group of arms that actually prompted this entire exercise, as there are a handful of talented, wildly inconsistent arms that the Reds are running out of chances to learn about. Each of Robert Stephenson, Cody Reed, and Amir Garrett will be out of options after the 2018 season, meaning none of the trio can simply be stashed in AAA for another year to figure things out. All have featured prominently on Top 100 overall prospect lists for years, yet each has managed to fizzle out in starting roles the point of bullpen demotions, with varying degrees of success.

Garrett, obviously, was stellar early in 2018, but has struggled mightily since that point. Given the lack of an obvious lefty for late inning situations out of the bullpen and his existing experience as a reliever, he’s probably the best bet of this trio to land a spot, but it’s hardly a lock.

Reed and Stephenson, on the other hand, will have the final 30-some games of 2018 spring training 2019 to show what, if anything, they’ve been able to correct from previously faltering campaigns, albeit perhaps in different roles than they’ve been used to, as I mentioned earlier.

There’s a fourth member of this group, though, who we still haven’t had a great chance to see. Matt Wisler, acquired from the Atlanta Braves in the Adam Duvall trade, has 324.2 big league innings under his belt, which is nearly as many as the 341.0 IP DeSclafani had under his belt prior to this season. He’s spent his entire Reds career with AAA Louisville, however, working out of the bullpen almost exclusively with excellent results - 21/3 K/BB in 19.2 IP, with a 1.83 ERA, to boot. I can almost guarantee we’ll see him in September when rosters expand, and we’ll then get a better look at whether the former Top 50 overall prospect can carve out a spot going forward.

On the bubble, but with options

Here’s where we run square into a glut of arms, some of whom can marinate in AAA again, some who’ll earn active roster spots, and some who might just be AAAA fodder.

Obviously, it’s clear that both Sal Romano and Wandy Peralta are in this mix, as both are currently on the Reds active roster. Romano has been consistently sub-par as a starter over the last two years, owning an 83 ERA+ in 43 games (40 starts) across 217 IP. Peralta, on the other hand, backed up a solid 2017 with an ugly start to 2018, and were he not a lefty he’d likely still be stuck in AAA working on cutting his walk rate, but the lack of other solid lefty candidates has given him a bit more of a shot.

Backing those two as obviously promising candidates are both Tyler Mahle and Lucas Sims. Mahle, of course, flashed brilliance while with the Reds earlier in 2018, and at 23 years old, he’s going to continue to get shots at being a cog in the team’s starting rotation for as long as he needs. I’d consider him firmly in the mix for a starting spot for 2019, barring outside moves, but that’s still something he’ll have to show some improvement to fully claim. Sims, on the other hand, is a former 1st round pick and Top 100 overall prospect who was the centerpiece of the Duvall deal with Atlanta, and while he, too, has struggled in his early big league action - all while with the Braves - his AAA track record and age (still just 24) means we’ll a) see him in September and b) see him in the mix for a spot somewhere on the Cincinnati Reds staff in 2019.

Beyond those arms slot the likes of Austin Brice, Tanner Rainey, Zack Weiss, Keury Mella, Jose Lopez, Jesus Reyes, and Jackson Stephens. All but Lopez have seen at least a sniff of big league team, and all are currently on the active roster, but at this point they all have the feel of backup options should the other pieces around them not work out.

Wild Cards

My god, what a horrendous pair of years for Brandon Finnegan. After suffering a season-ending shoulder injury that cut short his 2017 season, Finnegan shredded his other shoulder in a boat-dock fail, and was forced to rehab both of them entering 2018. Then, his 2018 season went off the rails immediately, and since being optioned to AAA, things have somehow actually gotten worse. Currently the owner of a 7.21 ERA and 1.93 WHIP as both a starter and reliever with Louisville, it’s hard to get a feel for where, if ever, he’ll re-carve a role with the Reds, though he’s obviously shown plenty of ability when healthy for years as a top prospect, college ace, and effective early big league pitcher.

Then, there’s Jimmy Herget, who looks the part of the lone obvious addition to the 40-man roster the Reds will need to make this winter prior to the Rule 5 Draft. The lanky 24 year old has been a bit more hittable in 2018 than in 2017, but still owns a solid 9.9 K/9 in his 55.2 IP, and his throwing motion would certainly provide the big league bullpen with a different look.

A full 126 MLB pitchers have thrown at least 90 IP in the big leagues this year. Dead last among all of them in ERA is Homer Bailey, at 6.17. Almost dead last among all of them in FIP is Homer Bailey, at 5.61, sitting just 0.01 behind both Lucas Giolito and Francisco Liriano’s obscene 5.62 marks. Due $23 million for 2019 with a $5 million buyout on a $25 million 2020 option, the Reds have finally, finally reached the point where they might be willing to eat a big pile of money to get Homer as far from ruining a rotation as possible, though that’s still completely up in the air. Should they not move him - or cut him outright - he’ll still be around in the mix for a spot on the roster, likely as a starter given his disdain for working in a relief role. That, of course, will throw a huge wrench into how the staff shakes out, but there’s little to deny that the only reason he’d ‘earn’ a spot among the 13 staff arms next season would be financially driven.

Finally, there’s Harvey, who’s set to be a free agent at season’s end. If the rumblings around the Reds are true - that owner Bob Castellini is imminently interested in signing him to stick around beyond 2018, as both ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick and FanCred’s Jon Heyman alluded to when he was pulled off waivers last week - then a third ‘lock’ in the 2019 rotation might already be in-house, even if he’s not yet signed on the dotted line of a new contract next to the signature of agent Scott Boras. I’m not about to get into what that would entail, both financially and philosophically, but that would effectively add another ‘lock’ to this list, bringing that grand total to just 7.