Sonny Gray is 29 years old, is fresh off a new contract extension, and while he has topped 3 fWAR in MLB seasons before, he’s never once topped 4. Alex Wood has a similar story, a 28 year old who just won his final arbitration hearing who has managed to successfully top 3 fWAR in a season, but not 4. Tanner Roark is the eldest of the new Cincinnati Reds starters at age 32, and he’ll take home $10 million in 2019 after having a pair of MLB seasons with more than 3 fWAR...but never more than 4. Those three paired with the fireballing Luis Castillo sure seem to have Reds fans in a furor that the club might finally, finally field a respectable starting rotation.
Of course, that conveniently disregards one Anthony DeSclafani who, if I’m reading my scribbled notes correctly, could well have been the Reds Opening Day starter for three years running had things gone his way. That despite he, too, is 29 years old with a 3 fWAR season already under his belt (but never more than 4).
An elbow issue shut him down for the entirety of the 2017 season, you’ll recall. Oblique issues in 2016 limited him to just 123.1 IP - though they were largely excellent - and also popped up again in 2018 to help delay his return from said elbow troubles. Those injury foibles have helped kick the memory of his excellent form from 2015 almost completely out of our minds, or precisely how excited we were that the Reds had landed a rotation cog for the future while flipping a broken Mat Latos to the Miami Marlins after the 2014 season.
Once again, though, Disco is healthy. He’s had a full, healthy offseason, one that even included a wedding. And while the track records of health from each of the other four projected starters certainly appear to me more rock solid entering spring training than Disco’s, the reality as that their upside performances when healthy are very much in the same ballpark.
What if the Reds do get a healthy DeSclafani in 2019, though?
Disco, even with the oblique issue back in 2016, entered camp in 2017 with a combined 109 ERA+ in 308.0 IP in his Reds career, his 3.78 FIP endorsing the 3.74 ERA he’d posted in that time as legitimate. While his overall numbers after returning in 2018 were far from good - his 4.93 ERA was nearly identical to the 4.90 ERA that got Sonny Gray run out of New York - there was that 5 start stretch of brilliance in August where he fired 34.1 innings of 2.62 ERA ball before stumbling in September under the ever-quickening hook of interim manager Jim Riggleman. He looked rusty and absolutely wore down, but there were certainly flashes of the pitcher who had emerged as the best of an otherwise busted Reds staff prior to his injury troubles.
There was plenty to suggest he’s rebounded well from that lost 2017 season, too. Last year, for instance, his fastball averaged 93.6 mph, which was 0.7 mph higher than he’d ever averaged before. It got hit harder than it had in previous years - he allowed a .354 average, 10 dingers, and a 1.129 OPS against him on fastballs in 2018 compared to a .260 average, 7 dingers (in almost twice as many offerings), and a .764 OPS against in his breakout 2015 - but his slider was once again consistently one of the better among all right-handed starters, as it has been throughout his career.
In other words, if his fastball returns to even close to what it was before his elbow troubles - and its velocity last year suggests that’s a decent possibility - the rest of what made Disco the Reds best starter in 2015 and 2016 sure seems to still be there. Perhaps limiting how often he throws fastballs might be a help, as it could well be with the entire pitching staff (as I looked at closer back in November). Not to mention that Disco will have Derek Johnson as his new pitching coach, who just so happened to help resurrect Jhoulys Chacin with a customized approach that included a 6% reduction in how often he threw his fastball in cahoots with a 10% jump in slider use.
I say ‘customized’ because that’s exactly how Johnson approaches each pitcher under his wings, as CBSSports.com’ Jonah Keri detailed in his discussions with Johnson earlier this month. In theory, that ‘customized’ approach will likely include a return to emphasizing the fastball of Sonny Gray, something that we also explored in depth in November back when Gray was merely a Yankees pitcher on the trade block.
In reality, the Reds traded for rotation stability in Alex Wood and Tanner Roark, bringing in a pair of guys who have made their name on their consistency. In Gray, they rolled the dice on a wild card, hoping that a bounce-back was in his 29 year old right arm, one big enough to help lead the new Reds rotation. In DeSclafani, they’ve got another wild card, but also one with a pretty solid pre-injury track record that might well be every bit the bounce-back candidate that Gray represents, too. And if the Reds can manage to get that best-case scenario out of the guy who is generously penciled-in as their #5 starter, their rotation might not just be good, it could be very, very good.