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Does Brandon Finnegan still have a role with the Cincinnati Reds?

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In ten months time, the lefty has gone from expected rotation cog to the most tenuous spot on the 40-man roster.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

On paper - which, mind you, doesn’t exactly hold water - the Cincinnati Reds starting rotation largely appears to be set. Barring another major addition or some serious spring training shenanigans, new acquisitions Sonny Gray, Tanner Roark, and Alex Wood should occupy 3/5ths of the rotation come Opening Day, with resident flamethrower Luis Castillo and former would-be Opening Day starter (2x) Anthony DeSclafani expected to round out the group.

Similarly, the bullpen largely appears to have its core defined. Raisel Iglesias put pen to paper on a new, modified contract that will keep him as the anchor, while veterans Jared Hughes and David Hernandez will both be back to flank him in late-inning roles. Michael Lorenzen and his biceps will be there, too, as will lefty Amir Garrett. The Reds picked up Matthew Bowman off waivers from the St. Louis Cardinals, and now that he’s healthy, his 149.1 career big league innings of 3.66 FIP production might well have an inside track, and if Wandy Peralta can produce more like his 2017 self than the one that showed up in 2018, he, too, will have quite a good chance to break camp on the active roster. Righties Matt Wisler and Robert Stephenson are both out of options - and who knows if that means they’ll be more likely to earn mop-up relief roles to keep them around - and Jesus Reyes remains an option after holding on to a 40-man roster spot for the second year running.

A fairly quality list of arms, all told, and one that looks infinitely more promising than any the Reds have rolled out in recent memory on Opening Day. What’s funny, though, is that a name I didn’t even mention not only has had enough success at the big league level to probably deserve an automatic mention, he’s still younger than all 15 names listed above.

That’s just how quickly, and how far, Brandon Finnegan has fallen down the Reds pitching pecking order. Just 25 years old - mere hours older than Cody Reed, for the record, who was conveniently left out of the above group of arms selfishly so that I could make the ‘Finnegan is younger than them all’ point - Finnegan’s disastrous 2018 on the heels of his injury-riddled 2017 has more or less punted him to the back of the pitching line, and that’s despite just eleven months ago (!) being listed by almost every talking head out there as a virtual lock to be a cog in the Reds rotation.

We waited until March 22, 2018 to make our Opening Day roster prediction for last year, which meant Finnegan had already picked up a forearm injury that was expected to cost him a spot on the roster come day one, but we still penciled him as a rotation stalwart upon a quick return. Woops.

Some six weeks before that, MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon had Finnegan as the #3 starter in his projections, which nobody really questioned at the time.

Even while noting that then-manager Bryan Price had backed off Finnegan as being a lock for the rotation, The Enquirer’s John Fay still had Finnegan in his Opening Day rotation, too.

Bleacher Report - gross - had Finny as the Reds #3 starter to begin the season, Athlon Sports had him as the team’s #4 starter, and our friends at Redleg Nation even noted just a handful of days before the season began that the Reds seemed intent on giving ‘every opportunity’ to Finnegan to claim a rotation spot in early April when back and healthy.

All this, of course, came one year after Eno Sarris proclaimed at FanGraphs in his Ten Bold Predictions for the 2017 season that the Reds ‘will find their ace in Brandon Finnegan,’ based in large part on his then-excellent change up that was on display during the second half of his breakout 2016 season. I mentioned a few paragraphs ago that this had all changed in just eleven months. Really, though, you could make the claim it’s only been ten. And so, with pitchers and catchers set to report to Goodyear in just over two weeks, Brandon Finnegan’s fall from obvious rotation piece to afterthought has been every bit as meteoric as was his rise.

It’s easy to forget that Finnegan’s 2014 was one of the crazier in baseball history, as he anchored the rotation for TCU en route to an appearance in the College World Series, was selected in the 1st round of the MLB Draft by the Kansas City Royals, and later was a regular reliever in the MLB Playoffs that October - picking up his first career win in the ALDS over the Los Angeles Angels and later pitching in the actual World Series against San Francisco. That pedigree and performance led to him being the featured piece in the deal that sent Johnny Cueto to the Royals at the 2015 trade deadline, and now - despite the fact he’ll still be 25 years old on Opening Day 2019 - he’s already entering what will be his fifth season in the Cincinnati organization.

An incredibly odd journey, to say the least. It’s not wholly uncommon to see players signed at early ages internationally experience such an early career exodus, given how quickly the rules require them to advance and make their big-league debuts before being able to become free agents. Dilson Herrera, for instance, has had such a journey already, and is still just 24 years old. For a US-based college product, though, Finnegan’s is quite the incredible ride already, especially when you consider that, say, Todd Frazier - a college product from Rutgers - only made his MLB debut at 25 years and 100 days old.

As is so often the case in these scenarios, injuries have been the defining factor in the Finnegan’s current fall from grace. Multiple shoulder injuries limited him to just 13 IP in 2017, one a ding to his pitching arm he picked up while throwing and the other a result of a freak fall on a boat while away from the team on rehab. The recovery from the latter - which included surgery - clearly had him behind entering spring training one year ago, which might well have been behind the forearm tightness that led to him opening last season on the 10-day DL with a ‘biceps strain.’ When he returned, things clearly weren’t right either, as his fastball velocity was down 2 full mph (from 93.0 in 2017 to 91.0), and his control (15 BB against 14 K in just 20.2 IP) had completely evaporated.

After 5 starts with the Reds, Finnegan’s big league season was done. He was optioned to AAA Louisville to initially work as a starter, but that fizzled out spectacularly, too - he allowed 32 runs in 36 IP while yielding a .911 OPS to opposing hitters. That prompted a move to the Bats bullpen, where things similarly failed in epic fashion - 29 runs in 26.2 IP, a 25/20 K/BB, and a .905 OPS allowed over the final two months of his season.

That leaves the Reds with two important questions that need answering regarding Finnegan as the 2019 season approaches. The first, obviously, is whether or not he’s 100% healthy, which will certainly be the hope as he’s had a full offseason sans surgery to potentially regain his form. The second, though, is in which capacity they’d like to see him perform if his health is no longer an issue - as a starter, still, or as a reliever. Considering how quick the Reds were to move the likes of Iglesias, Lorenzen, and Tony Cingrani to full-time relief roles after injury issues in recent years, there’s certainly reason to expect to see Finnegan given a shot to show his mettle as a lefty relief option when camp opens in Goodyear, especially given the relative inconsistency with the other lefty relief options that currently project to be in camp (Peralta, Garrett, and even Reed).

And that, in a nutshell, is just how quickly injuries and the grind of baseball can humble players. In ten months, Brandon Finnegan has gone from immediately assumed rotation member to a darkhorse lefty relief candidate, one whose chances of making the big league roster come Opening Day look worse than guys with career big-league bWARs of -1.4 (Garrett), -0.2 (Peralta), and -1.3 (Reed).