The Cincinnati Reds marched into Wrigley Field over the weekend and held the first place Chicago Cubs to just 5 total runs in 3 games played. Sure, they lost the series, but that’s at least surface evidence that they got good enough pitching to not only be competitive, but to legitimately given the team every single chance they had to not just win the series, but to sweep a Cubs team that looks primed for a deep playoff run.
So, it’s a bit of an odd time to write about the state of the team’s starting rotation, at least in that regard. However, the tornado of news that led to the team announcing that Michael Lorenzen - who has not started a regular season game since 2015 - will be the team’s starter on Tuesday led me into a dive back through the team’s pitching staff this year that was scary enough to make seeing Halloween decorations out in grocery stores already not seem too farfetched.
Tyler Mahle and Lucas Sims have both effectively been shelved for the final dozen games of 2018 with shoulder issues, with Mahle’s reportedly just “fatigue” while Sims - the prize of the Adam Duvall trade with Atlanta - is apparently dealing with a teres major issue in his throwing shoulder that’s similar to the one that effectively canned Brandon Finnegan in 2017, as MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon relayed over the weekend. (That’s the same Lorenzen we wrote about just last month, detailing how he was actually having a down year relative to his peak 2016 production if you look beyond his ERA and into his slumping peripherals.)
Cranking out words and a firm opinion about who is starting the 151th game of a last-place team’s 162 game season is far from the point of this all, though. It is, though, a splash of cold water on your face that makes looking at the current state of the team’s starting rotation an ominous one, as the answers the team hoped to find during an exploratory 2018 season simply do not look to have been answered at all.
Let’s start with Luis Castillo, who is fresh of a 6.2 inning win over the Cubs in Sunday’s series finale. The breakout 2017 campaign that led to his 8th place finish in the NL Rookie of the Year Award hasn’t been replicated, but his outing yesterday did mark his 30th start of 2018, and he’s the team leader in IP at 161.1. And after an awful, awful first 6 starts of the year - mostly in cold, dank weather - he’s pitched to a rock solid 3.80 ERA over his last 24 starts, and is still flashing the elite stuff that makes him the one in-house piece around which we can dream for years going forward. His 2018 season has been far from a step forward, but there have at least been aspects of it that suggest he’s an arm around whom the Reds can build, confidently, for the next few years.
Starting with Castillo was the only fun part of this, however. A glance at the next four pitchers on the team’s IP leaderboard shows three names who are no longer in the team’s starting rotation for 2018 and one who is a free agent after the season and therefore no lock to be in the rotation for 2019. Sal Romano, Mahle, and Homer Bailey have all been pulled from 2018 starts, Romano and Bailey due to underperformance and Mahle due to that, initially, along with his current bout of shoulder ‘tenderness.’ Then there’s Matt Harvey, whose 22 starts with the Reds have produced an even, average 100 ERA+ and decent 4.23 FIP, but who will have agent Scott Boras spearheading his foray into free agency in another month. Of them all, Mahle obviously has flashed the greatest potential to impact the team’s rotation in 2019 and beyond, but the 23 year old showed several times in 2018 that he’s far from a finished product, and the shoulder issue - even while minor - is at least a minor red flag.
18 starts and 99.1 IP into his 2018 season, and Anthony DeSclafani still remains a tantalizing enigma for the Reds, both now and as he prepares to go through his second trip in the arbitration process this winter. His injury issues are perhaps more well known than his pitching prowess at this point, as he lost at least a third of a third consecutive season in 2018 with yet another oblique strain. He’s flashed some bits of excellence this year - his 7 game stretch of 3.32 ERA and 35/9 K/BB ball from early July to mid-August, in particular - but has faded down the stretch. I’m still convinced he’s plenty talented to be a big part of the team’s rotation for the next two years - and beyond, at a reasonable risk - but it’s hard to put his name in pen at all at this point, and is probably better served being someone the Reds hope will be around - albeit one that they insure with a back-up plan, too.
Cody Reed, he of the token spot in the team’s Opening Day rotation/roster and subsequent demotion back to AAA, is both next up on the list of IP by starters this year and is again the owner of a rotation spot, for now. His 5 IP, 10 K outing in Chicago over the weekend was certainly the high point of his season and brief big league career, and he has seemingly pitched his way from ‘top pitching prospect in the system’ to ‘afterthought’ back to ‘in the mix going forward’ so far in 2018. His status as a lefty might well give him a leg up on the totem pole at the moment, and he still has tantalizing stuff at just 25 years old, but he has certainly done nothing so far to lock up a rotation spot with any certainty going into 2019. He’ll deservedly be in the mix come spring training barring a multitude of additions, but there’s still a ton left for him to prove.
That leaves us with the group that showed us little to nothing in the rotation in 2018, whose respective statuses with the club going forward appear to be in complete flux. Amir Garrett headlines this list, and though he’s out of options and no longer seemingly in the mix for a rotation spot, he’s at least looked the part of a cromulent relief option, which is still something that adds value to the club. Beyond Garrett, though, come Brandon Finnegan and Robert Stephenson, who combined to allow 29 earned runs in 32.1 big league innings, and neither of whom appear ready to contribute to the 2019 rotation in any fashion - Finnegan due to injuries and underperformance, Stephenson due to underperformance and his out-of-options status after 2018.
If you squint a bit, you can probably see a scenario where DeSclafani fits in as a reasonable #4 starter in 2019, since counting on him to be better than that is just too much to ask at this point given his history. In Castillo, you see a pitcher now with 250.2 innings of 105 ERA+ ball under his belt in his big league career who is still just 25 years old, and maintaining that with the hope of some legitimate upside and continued innings-eating profiles well as the penciled-in #3 starter for a team with decent aspirations.
Four years into the Reds rebuild, though, and that appears all the Reds can truly bank on at the moment, and even those two come with at least a number of question marks.
Chasing Harvey in free agency isn’t a terrible idea, and is actually one I can get behind - provided that he’s set to slot in somewhere in the middle of the rotation for a year or two and not expected to somehow morph back into his pre-injury ace-level status. Still, that leaves a pair of rotation openings up for grabs, with a handful of guys who have yet to emerge as legitimate options despite multiple chances to do just that.
For now, though, it would appear that all the 2018 season has shown the Cincinnati front office is that a full 3/5ths of their rotation is a question mark heading into year 5 of the rebuild, if not more. The answers for those spots could very well still be in-house, but the need for yet another year for them to figure that out now seems necessary should they stick to that plan. Mahle, Sims, Reed, Stephenson, Finnegan, Romano, or even Lorenzen could still certainly emerge. Frankly, though, I’m just not sure how much more patience the fans are going to have with hearing that’s the plan for yet another season.
*Homer Bailey’s name was deliberately left almost completely out of this article, purely for the sanity of the author.