After all of the angst spent on the Cincinnati Reds’ bullpen in the opening weeks of the 2020 season, the group’s performance for the year wound up finishing right in the middle of the pack. They were 15th in the majors in relief WAR, according to FanGraphs, 17th in ERA, and 18th in FIP. That’s more or less where they were always expected to end up — the year before, they finished 13th in ERA and 12th in FIP, and there were no major additions or subtractions from that group from one year to the next. The Reds had a deep, talented, but often flawed group of relief arms coming into the year, and the group can be described the same way now that the season is a month expired.
Of course, possessing only a middle-of-the-pack bullpen gives you substantial room to improve as an organization. From where Cincinnati stands, the task should be especially easy. No key contributors are expected to leave this group, with the possible exceptions of Michael Lorenzen and/or Tejay Antone, either of whom have a chance of breaking spring training in the starting rotation. That means, when it comes to the Reds’ bullpen, this winter ought to be all about talent acquisition, and the team has a couple of different avenues for achieving that — the free agent market, and its own minor leagues.
Before we get to either of those options, let’s refresh ourselves on who has already been a part of the major league bullpen. Here are the relief numbers for every Reds pitcher who made at least one bullpen appearance in 2020 and is still a member of the organization today:
Reds RP numbers, 2020
|Jose De Leon
We can say with a good deal of confidence that Iglesias, Sims, Garrett and Bradley will all be in the Reds’ bullpen in 2020, and will be joined by whomever of Lorenzen, Antone, Mahle and Miley don’t end up in the rotation. Depending upon the spring trainings of the latter four, along with whatever moves the team makes to address the starting five this winter, that leaves us with anywhere from four to eight relief slots that might already be spoken for, and that’s before adding newly acquired Jeff Hoffman’s name to the bunch. That doesn’t sound like it gives us much room to add, but we also know not all of these players are going to make it to Opening Day healthy. Additions will be made, and when they are, it would serve the Reds well to opt for late-inning talent instead of merely depth.
That kind of high leverage arm talent can be found most easily on the free agent market, which is flush with excellent relievers, and could very well add more to the list when the non-tender deadline arrives on Wednesday. When looking at the Top Free Agents at FanGraphs and MLB Trade Rumors, both include five straightforward relievers in their top 30 available players, and nine in their top 50, with plenty of attractive names just missing both lists.
What it might cost to obtain one of the elite relievers available is difficult to pin down. You may remember Cleveland, at the beginning of the offseason, chose to decline a $10 million option for Brad Hand, a 31-year-old left-hander who has been one of the very best relievers in baseball for half a decade and may have just authored his best season to date, instead placing him on waivers for any team in baseball to scoop him up for little more than cash. No one did. The fact that not even the wealthiest teams were willing to pay $10 million for someone as valuable as Hand makes it tough to predict not only his market as a free agent, but the market of all relievers (and really, all available players). Both MLBTR and FanGraphs predicted a 3-year, $30-million contract for Liam Hendriks — the top reliever on both lists — which would almost certainly be a steal, even for cash-strapped organizations. But this winter is going to be incredibly uncertain as long as fans’ ability to attend games in 2021 remains a mystery, and the top of the relief market has already been subject to a lot of variance in recent seasons. It’s within the realm of possibility that Hendriks might land double the guarantee predicted for him above. He also might only get half.
Hendriks and Hand would be enormous additions to the Reds’ bullpen, and they aren’t the only ones. They could pursue a high-risk, high-reward pitcher like Blake Treinen or Trevor Rosenthal. They could go for time-tested consistency and sign Mark Melancon or Joakim Soria. They could try and lock up Kirby Yates on a one-year “show me” deal as he tries to bounce back from a lost 2020 season, or buy into the eye-popping strikeout show that has recently emerged from Trevor May. They could pick up Alex Colome, or Greg Holland, or Shane Greene, or any of the other available relievers who have shown significant promise recently, could likely be had in the low-to-mid-seven-figures range, and might prove to be a transformative presence in the back of the bullpen.
The cheaper way to add a key late-inning bullpen arm to your staff is to simply develop and promote one. It’s also much harder to that, but because of the impressive pitching infrastructure building in Cincinnati, it isn’t a far-out concept. After all, at this time last year, no one expected Antone to be an impact arm. Then he showed up to spring training having added a few ticks of velocity, threw 35.1 sparkling innings in the majors while moving switching between the pen and the rotation, and now appears to have a bright future.
It’s perfectly reasonable to hope that there will be another Antone-like surprise on the 2021 Reds, it’s just hard to say who that might be. The biggest name among the team’s 40-man roster additions was right-hander Vladimir Gutierrez, who still faces an 80-game suspension for testing positive for the performance-enhancing drug Stanozolol back in June. Riley O’Brien, a 26-year-old right-hander acquired from the Rays in the Cody Reed deal back in August, was also added to the 40-man roster and has some of the interesting tools one could see translating to a breakout when moved to the pen. There are other relief arms such as Kuhnel, Jared Solomon, and Ryan Hendrix who have spent time in the lower reaches of Reds prospect rankings with the hope they may harness their impressive stuff, but have yet to do so.
Those are the kinds of pitchers who could surprise by becoming valuable impact arms in 2021, while others could arrive with a bit more name recognition. Nick Lodolo, the team’s first round pick in 2019, could be tapped to help shore up the considerable dearth of left-handed pitching that exists in the bullpen outside of Garrett. Then there is Hunter Greene, the No. 2 overall pick in 2017 who hasn’t thrown in a game in more than two years, but who possesses the kind of live arm the team might be willing to turn loose sooner than expected if his bullpen sessions prove too impressive to ignore.
There is a chance that choosing the cheap route and staying in-house when trying to improve the bullpen could work for this team — the pitching development system on its own might be good enough. But that doesn’t make it the right call. The Reds have a major opportunity in front of them to inject their bullpen with talent from all angles — free agency, trades, and promotions from their own system — without having any of those gains mitigated by losing existing players to free agency at the major league level. Relievers throw more innings now than at any point in baseball history, which makes the arms throwing out of your bullpen more important than ever. Being league average in that area just isn’t going to be good enough to get a team like the Reds to make the next step.