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Expanded rosters highlight looming Cincinnati Reds roster crunch

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A veritable army of pitchers are set to be out of options at season’s end. Will any make their mark down the stretch?

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MLB: AUG 14 Reds at Nationals Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s not too hard to look at the current state of the Cincinnati Reds roster and see some very youthful promise. I know that a quick look at the team’s record of 11 games under .500 in year 4, 5, or whatever of this rebuild cycle pretty easily masks that in many eyes, but it’s a roster that just might have revealed a few gems in this season’s shakedown.

This time, it’s come in the form of position players, largely.

In Nick Senzel, you’ve got a consistently touted future star, one who has had ups and downs while learning a new position this year but still looks like a cog for years to come, wherever he eventually plays defensively. In Aristides Aquino, you’ve got a combination of elite raw talent finally blossoming after years of refining, and a player whose upside looks bright enough to make looking forward once again not too demoralizing. In Josh VanMeter, the Reds seem to have discovered a versatile on-base machine, a player in the mold the best teams in baseball have moving all over their diamond.

Add-in the promise Jesse Winker has shown when healthy, a Jose Peraza that’s anything like 2018 instead of this year, and what Phil Ervin has turned himself into, and it’s a handful of promise, high draft picks, and toolsy former top prospects who look to have a bright upside together as a core, perhaps.

To be clear, this is not an article about them. It’s also an article I hope nobody has to write about them in two, three years.

I highlight that potential position-player core because in many ways it’s eerily reminiscent of what the Cincinnati Reds boasted with their pitching staff just two, three years ago, when the full-fledged rebuild was in high gear. Now, with just 23 games remaining in the 2019 season, a veritable army of those pitchers are now, in essence, pitching for their Cincinnati Reds careers - if they’re even pitching at all.

We saw the tip of the iceberg of this on display down the stretch last year, and again in spring training, with former top prospect and 1st round pick Robert Stephenson. He earned the final spot in the Reds bullpen this spring in what was, in essence, a two-man battle with Matt Wisler, largely because both were out of options heading into the 2019 season - meaning that the Reds couldn’t simply stash one (or both) back in AAA to use as depth anymore. Both those two had exhausted those chances, and the roster crunch meant Wisler was lost on a waiver claim.

It’s a scenario we’re about to see the Reds have to deal with once again this winter, albeit on a much, much deeper scale.

Sal Romano looked quite good in his IP yesterday from the bullpen. He’s out of options after this year.

Lucas Sims pitched pretty well in spot-start duty for the Reds yesterday, too. He’s out of options after this year.

Keury Mella, former top prospect in the San Francisco Giants system and one-time prize of the Mike Leake deal, was just called up from AAA as September rosters expanded. He’s out of options after this year.

Remember Jackson Stephens? He’s not yet been recalled this September, but he’s still the owner of a 40-man roster spot, and is out of options after this year.

Two guys who aren’t even part of the mix at the moment due to injuries are the lefty tandem of Cody Reed and Brandon Finnegan, the crux of the trade with the Kansas City Royals back in 2015 that sent Johnny Cueto on to a World Series title. Reed, as C. Trent Rosecrans of the The Athletic reported earlier this week, had a knee setback and will be shut down for the rest of the season. Finnegan, meanwhile, worked his way back to 15 IP in AA this year after two shoulder surgeries derailed his career (and cost him a 40-man roster spot altogether). Though in slightly different situations roster-wise, both are out of options after this year.

Stephenson, it’s worth reiterating, is out of options already, and will be again next year.

Even Amir Garrett, whose first half performance this season would have the idea of him ever needing time in AAA again seem nuts, has seen his walk rate spike to nearly 6 per 9 IP for the year, with a 6.75 ERA over his last 14 appearances. He, too, is out of options.

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Optimism is the fuel behind all fandom, really, and in baseball there’s a particular brew that separates itself from other sports because it’s one of the very few with a dedicated farm system in place. The future, really, is already part of the Cincinnati Reds franchise, since those players take years to develop as they come through the minors, giving us not just the idea of what to dream on, but who, specifically.

Each of Garrett, Stephenson, Sims, Reed, and Finnegan were on Top 100 overall prospect lists at points in their careers. Mella, at one point, was rated as the top overall prospect in the Giants system, albeit a weak system at that time. Yet here we are, with not a single one of them in the current revamped Reds starting rotation, in a position where most fans would suggest that the single biggest need to address this upcoming winter would be to bolster a bullpen that has been as shaky as can be when needed most in this, a season that at one point showed more promise than at any time during this arduous rebuild.

Well, revamping bullpens and rosters means 40-man roster spots will be needed. Tyler Stephenson, Tony Santillan, and Hendrick Clementina, among several other candidates, will need protection from the Rule 5 Draft. In other words, while a year ago both Stephenson and Wisler made it to Goodyear to duke it out for the final spot on the roster, odds are not all of the group of pitchers listed above are going to make it that far while still on the 40-man. (And for those of you who’ve said “Wandy Peralta” twelve times while reading this, he will have an option left for 2020, assuming he lasts on the roster that long.)

There are still 23 games remaining for the Reds this year, with their now outsized hopes of reaching the .500 mark seemingly a distant memory. That said, there are quite a number of arms who will be looking to do everything they can to impress the Reds coaches and front office down the stretch, as it looks to be the last chance for many to earn spots with this franchise going forward.