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The most quietly excellent pitcher in the Reds’ minor leagues in 2018

Examining a left-hander who could be more important than you think

Minor League Baseball: Florida Fire Frogs at Port St. Lucie Mets Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s note: It’s been brought to my attention that Kevin Canelon elected free agency in November, and is no longer in the Reds’ organization. The story below reflects his progress in 2018, but was written without his free agency in mind.

The depths of winter mean prospect lists get churned out by various publications seemingly every week, and when it comes to the Cincinnati Reds, most of those lists tend to share the same information: Nick Senzel is great, Taylor Trammell and Hunter Greene might be great, Jonathan India and Tony Santillan also might be great, but they are a greater distance away from being great than the first three — better put, they simply have more to prove. The fun of those lists is following how the numbering and ranking changes from one to the next, but for the most part, the information within hardly varies. Wash, rinse, repeat.

To better glean new information about your favorite farm system, you might consult the stat page of a specific minor league team. You find the players you expect to perform well, and look for players of a similar age who may have done better. You scour the tops of various league leaderboards searching for names you don’t recognize, but whose numbers say you probably should.

Kevin Canelon, I have to admit, was a name I didn’t recognize. And yet, there he is, sitting at the top of the Florida State League. Over. And over again.

Among pitchers who threw at least 60 innings in Daytona in 2018, Canelon had the second-lowest FIP, the second-lowest K-BB%, and the third-lowest xFIP. In under 20 fewer innings, Canelon had a better strikeout rate, a better walk rate, a lower home run rate, and a better WHIP than Santillan, who is a near-consensus top 100 prospect. It was, by virtually any measure, one of the very best seasons by any pitcher in the Reds’ organization, and it went largely unnoticed.

There are a few good reasons Canelon didn’t attract much attention, but first, let’s discuss how he got here in the first place. There isn’t a whole lot of information about him out there, but what little there is says the Caracas, Venezuela native signed an international free agent contract with the New York Mets as a 16-year-old in 2010. He pitched three seasons in the Dominican Summer League before beginning his stateside career in 2014, when he began another methodical four-year ascent through the Mets’ minor leagues that ended in Advanced-A St. Louis.

To that point in his career, he owned a 3.39 ERA in 474.2 professional innings, including a 2017 season in which he pitched 78.2 innings with a tidy 2.97 ERA in the Florida State League. But for one reason or another, the Mets allowed him to pursue minor league free agency after the season was over. It might have been the fact that he was already 23 years old. It might have been a fastball that, according to Minor League Ball, only sat around 87 miles per hour. It might have been the fact that he was a lefty who was struggling to get other lefties out.

But regardless of why New York dumped him, Cincinnati thought it wise to bring him aboard. According to a brief note by Doug Gray, the Reds brought him in with the intention of helping him develop a better slider, which could in turn help him correct the issue he had with reverse splits. After a year with Daytona, it appears something clicked.

The 2015 season was Canelon’s first above rookie ball, and it was also the first time his reverse splits became apparent. That continued until he joined the Reds’ organization, and while one year is hardly enough to definitively call him a changed pitcher, that sharp of a drop in left-handed production is quite encouraging.

Now, Canelon is still not without his warts. He is entering his age-25 season having thrown just 3.1 innings of AA ball. His velocity could still be a question, and while his total of three home runs allowed in 70.2 total innings this season is impressive on the surface, he is distinctly a fly ball pitcher, carrying a rate of 45.6 percent fly balls in Daytona that stood as the seventh-highest in the league. As the ancient Chinese proverb foretold, foolish is the man who expects Florida State League fly ball rates to hold up in Great American Ball Park. Canelon is not going to show up on any lists of the top 10, or 20, or 30 prospects in the Reds’ system, and you don’t need to squint to see why.

At this point, you’d be justified in wondering why we’ve devoted hundreds of words to a left-handed swingman a year older than the average of his competition in Advanced-A ball. There’s a reason, after all, that I slapped a cliffhanger of a title on top of this thing. If I’d called this blog “A closer look at the reverse splits of Kevin Canelon,” not even his father would click on it.

But as strange as it sounds, Canelon is exactly the kind of pitcher who could become very important to the Reds’ big league team very soon. For all the talk about Cincinnati’s rather significant holes in both its rotation and center field, the team also has an alarming dearth of left-handed pitching talent out of its bullpen. Amir Garrett and Cody Reed have combined for -2.7 bWAR over their careers, and they are far and away the most likely players to contribute positively to the Reds in 2019. Behind that duo, there is Wandy Peralta, who completely forgot how to throw strikes last season, and Brandon Finnegan, who completely forgot how to do anything resembling baseball last season.

Beyond that, you have to dig into the low levels of the minors for left-handers who could add any kind of depth — pitchers like Scott Moss, newly-acquired Reiver Sanmartin and Canelon. Maybe you didn’t know that third name when you started reading this blog, but you do now. And maybe that’s only the beginning.