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Finding bullpen depth for the Cincinnati Reds

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In an age of fireballers, a pair of groundball experts are waiting out the free agent market.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds-Media Day Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

While the Cincinnati Reds have certainly swung and missed on a few of the higher-profile players they pursued this winter, the roster as currently constructed honestly doesn’t have too many holes. The addition of Mike Moustakas brings some much needed thump back to an infield that seriously missed the two-year Scooter Gennett breakout, while Shogo Akiyama and his on-base skills appear to have raised the floor on an otherwise unproven collection of outfielders. Add in that Wade Miley has been reunited with pitch-witch Derek Johnson, and the rotation and position player corps look about as solid as they have in years.

Of course, the bullpen is a wholly different animal, and is the one unit that hasn’t seen a notable addition yet this winter. The Reds have made some potentially savvy additions on minor league contracts - the likes of Tyler Thornburg, Jesse Biddle, and Nate Jones getting to show if they’re fully healthy again will be interesting - but there’s a reason all three were able to be had on such low-risk deals. Dependability, of late, has not exactly been their collective calling card, and considering how short the track records are of most of the projected members of the current Reds bullpen, augmenting that wouldn’t be the worst use of the financial resources remaining.

While there are no Aroldis Chapmans or Will Smiths remaining on the free agent ledger, there are still a few arms that, if signed, would jump to at least the middle of the pack of the 2020 Reds bullpen. Here are a pair that fit that mold (and that wouldn’t break the bank).

Brandon Kintzler, RHP (35)

Some 76 relievers have logged at least 110 IP combined over the last two seasons, and Kintzler is one of them. Of those 76, only 4 posted a lower K/9 than Kintzler’s 6.96 in that span.

Pointing out flaws in a pitcher that I’m suggesting might be a good signee is sure one way to go about business. There’s a larger point here though, I promise.

What Kintzler lacks in strikeouts is recouped in his ability to induce poor swings from his opponents, and that’s something he’s done quite well. In that 76 reliever sample I mentioned above, he ranks 12th in that time in soft-contact induced (21.4% of the time), while also checking in at 13th in groundball rate (52.0%). Considering he’s allowed a BABIP of .298 in that time, it’s not even as if those numbers have been fluky, either.

He features a low 90’s fastball that won’t blow anyone away, but again, that’s not his specialty, and if anything that lack of elite velocity actually works more in his favor. His 2019 season with the Chicago Cubs was one of his better ones, with all of his calling cards on full display - excellent ERA (2.68), an ERA that vastly outperformed his FIP (3.56) because of the balls-in-play aspect of his game, and very few dingers surrendered (5 in 57.0 IP).

That’s the kind of pitcher that would work well in any ballpark, let alone the tiny confines of GABP. And given that the newest evaluations of the Cincinnati infield defense are generally quite positive, finding a pitcher who leans on his defense to make outs might actually be a perfect addition to the Reds crop of bullpenners.

Jared Hughes, RHP (34)

Oh hey, it’s old friend Jared Hughes sprinting gangly in from the RF bullpen.

You’ll remember Hughes for his brilliant 3.3 bWAR campaign with the Reds in 2018, and you’ll also remember him from his slightly disappointing 2019 campaign with the Reds, one that led to him being let go to Philadelphia as a waiver claim in August. He backed up his 1.94 ERA from ‘18 with a 4.10 mark with the Reds prior to the trade, and despite the proliferation of strikeouts league-wide, he actually saw his K/9 dip year over year, too.

Here I am again citing his faults while being an advocate, though.

As you’re probably well aware, much of what I said about Kintzler holds true for Hughes, too. He’s one of the absolute best groundball machines around, and features prominently in that 76 pitcher sample I keep referencing, too. His 62.3% groundball rate is the 2nd best in that group, and that’s pretty much his one-trick calling card - it’s a huge reason why his career ERA (2.88) is so massively different than his career FIP (4.11).

While I know this isn’t exactly how this works, his ‘disappointing’ 2019 can also be statsplained in a pretty stark way. While still with the Reds, he entered a July 16th game in Coors Field with the Reds already trailing 6-1 to the Colorado Rockies, and was the owner of a tidy 2.88 ERA at that time. He was promptly wrecked for 6 ER in a lone IP, and went home with an ugly 4.10 ERA. Almost a month later with the Phillies, he was thumped for 4 ER (with 2 dingers allowed) in a brutal 19-11 slugfest in Miami, recording only 2 outs in the process. That’s 10 ER in just 1.2 IP, a pair of outings that basically destroyed his overall season numbers.

How bad, you ask? Without those outings, his 2019 featured a 2.85 ERA in 69.1 IP, almost dead-on is 2.88 career ERA. So, perhaps another cheap reunion isn’t too bad of an idea.