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Profiling the Cincinnati Reds bullpen options

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A look at what should be one of the most interesting roster battles in Goodyear this spring.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

When the signing of Pedro Strop became official earlier this week, that effectively brought to a close what has been an absurdly active winter of signings by the Cincinnati Reds. GM Nick Krall intimated as much to The Athletic’s C. Trent Rosecrans on Wednesday, lending credence to the idea that there won’t be any more surprises between now and when pitchers and catchers report next Thursday.

The position-player side of the roster is deep and talented, with the shoulder injury to Eugenio Suarez and the glut of good outfield options the major storylines there with Goodyear on the horizon. Fortunately, the starting rotation looks as strong and set heading into camp as it may have ever been. If any spot on the roster looks as if it’s still a bit in flux, though, it’s the bullpen - a unit that’s got ample talent, but a few unique quirks that could make the competition in camp a good watch.

Let’s take a closer look at the options the Reds have for their Opening Day bullpen, assuming that with the new 26 man roster rules they’ll be carrying a predictable 8 relief arms.

The Locks

I’d say a solid half of the 8 bullpen spots are effectively locked up, assuming everything goes to plan in camp.

Raisel Iglesias, the top earner of the bunch with a $9 million salary for 2020 and some $18.125 still guaranteed on his deal, will likely still serve as the team’s ‘closer.’ That’s despite a career-worst 4.16 ERA in 2019 that saw again a proclivity to allow dingers and a spike in his H/9 to a career-worst 8.2. His .316 BABIP was a major spike from his career mark (.279), however, so perhaps there was just some bad luck there, especially given his velocity and health were both fine. He’ll again be asked to anchor this bullpen.

In Strop, the Reds landed another veteran arm coming off a down 2019, but unlike Iglesias there were injury-related issues sapping Strop last year. A hamstring injury sapped his velocity a bit and he endured stretch following his return from it mid-year, but he closed the season with an 11 game stretch allowing just 2 ER with 14 K in 9 IP. If he’s that Strop again, he’ll be a primary set-up guy.

Michael Lorenzen is a lock, and he’ll likely get a few cracks in the OF and at the plate, too. His 83.1 IP and 73 appearances were both tops among the relievers last year, and that also shows how he’s got the ability to pitch more than an inning at a time if need be. Factor in that he was also actually better against LH batters (.629 OPS) than RH batters (.655 OPS), and perhaps he’s the go-to guy in high leverage situations from this group, and it’s worth pointing out that 58 of his 83.1 IP last year came in either the 7th or 8th innings.

Amir Garrett will serve as the lefty complement to this trio of back-end righties, and rightfully so. His slider emerged as one of the absolute filthiest pitches in all of baseball in 2019, and Garrett was absolutely deserving of a 2019 All Star Game nod because of it. He slumped a bit in the season’s second half and struggled with walks (5.6 BB/9), but still managed a 142 ERA+ while showing the kind of top-end potential every team would love in their go-to lefty.

The Likelies

Robert Stephenson headlines this tier, as the former top prospect finally turned things on in the 2019 season in a full-time relief role. He posted a clear career-best 3.38 K/BB, in part because he found a way to lean on his elite slider, a pitch he threw some 56.6% of the time to great success. The stuff was always there, it was just hard for him to command it, and it appears Derek Johnson helped unleash Bob’s potential. Especially since he’s out of options, Stephenson is almost, almost a rock solid lock here, and almost certainly has a spot.

Lucas Sims is likely next up on the pecking order, and has a very similar career-arc as Stephenson, really. Former 1st round pick, former top prospect, couldn’t quite break through as a starter, but has the kind of elite breaking pitch that can make him a solid reliever. Sims served as something of a swing-man last year, but since he, too, is out of options, odds are he’ll be used exclusively as a reliever for now. With Sims, it’s his curveball that’s devastating, a pitch with elite spin rate that he uses as a put-away pitch. Odds are he breaks camp with an Opening Day roster spot.

The Hopefully

Cody Reed is here for a pair of reasons. One, he’s both on the roster and out of options, so him not making the club means a trip to the waiver wire, and it’d be hard to envision him not getting claimed if healthy. Health, though, is reason number two, as a knee injury wiped his 2019 after it had barely begun. Lefties with his type of stuff don’t grow on trees, and it would be a huge boon if the Reds had Reed as another southpaw with elite stuff as a bullpen option.

The Stash

There are a handful of capable relievers on the 40-man roster who will likely end up stashed in AAA Louisville due to a combination of factors. First, there’s a good pile of talent in front of them or comparable to them, and second, they’ve got options that others no longer have.

Joel Kuhnel is an in-house name you recognize, as he flashed talent in his 11 appearances as a rookie last year. He’s got 3 options left.

Both Justin Shafer and Josh D. Smith were roster adds this winter, Shafer via a trade for cash considerations and Smith on a waiver claim. Shafer has 48 IP at the big league level under his belt with a 3.75 ERA to show for it, though his high walk rate helps tank his peripherals. He’s got 2 options remaining, as does Smith, who’s an intriguing lefty with 12.2 career IP at the big league level under his belt. He’s fought a high walk rate, too, and both of these guys seem like prime stash/depth options.

Ryan Hendrix earned a roster spot prior to the Rule 5 Draft this winter, and rightfully so. The 24 year old dominated with a 2.33 ERA and 1.13 WHIP for AA Chattanooga before dazzling in limited work in the Arizona Fall League, but with no AAA experience from him to date, odds are he’ll begin in Louisville.

Matt Bowman and the Reds avoided arbitration and settled on a $865K salary for 2020, and he’s certainly shown the ability to get big league hitters out at a fairly respectable rate over his career. He’s fired 181.1 career big league innings with a 104 ERA+ in that time, and is an intriguing candidate to round out the bullpen, but he does still have an option remaining.

Jose De Leon is the wild card here, in part due to his past history as a top-tier pitching prospect. Injuries and surgeries have set him back repeatedly, limiting to just 23.2 IP at the big league level after his debut in 2016. If he’s back and healthy, he could force his hand onto the Opening Day roster, but with an option left and his role - starter, or reliever - still not defined, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Reds play it safe with him and bring him along slowly.

The Rostered Arms Destined for the AAA Rotation

The signing of Wade Miley likely ticketed Tyler Mahle for a return to AAA Louisville to begin the year, where he’ll be kept stretched out as the roster’s go-to 6th starter if and when needed. There’s a slight chance the Reds carry him - he’s one of their 13 best pitchers, I’d say - but given the lack of other proven depth options as starters, I’d guess he’ll open the season as a starter.

Tony Santillan is the top upper-minors pitching prospect the Reds have at the moment, and even after a bumpy 2019 season spent at AA Chattanooga, he’s got the kind of size and power that makes him an intriguing starting pitching option. His stuff would certainly play up as a reliever - who’s doesn’t, after all - but it’s almost assured that he’ll ply his starting chops at Louisville, too.

Tejay Antone lacks the kind of prospect pedigree of Mahle and Santillan, but has effectively logged a pile of outs as a starter over the last few seasons, and earned a 40-man roster spot this winter because of it. He’ll help round out the Louisville rotation, too.

The Scrum

Finally, there are the litany of arms currently not on the 40-man roster who’ve been brought in as invitees to spring training in Goodyear, an interesting mix of veterans who for whatever reasons - mostly injuries and lack of options - have fallen into the bargain bin.

Nate Jones headlines that list. The 34 year old Kentucky native owns a career 3.12 ERA in 291.1 big league innings, but injuries have ravaged him in his career. He threw 70.2 brilliant innings for the White Sox in 2016, but has only topped 19 appearances in a season twice in the last 6 years. A flexor-mass surgery ended his 2019 campaign early, so he’ll have to show he’s healthy in camp, but has always looked great when at full strength.

Similarly, Tyler Thornburg has been brilliant at times, his 2016 season standing out in particular (67 IP, 2.15 ERA, 2.83 FIP, 12.1 K/9). That came as a Milwaukee pitcher under the tutelage of one Derek Johnson, conveniently, though Thornburg has had a rough go since then. He was flipped to Boston in the Travis Shaw deal, though Tommy John surgery kept him from throwing a single big league inning in 2017, and since then he’s fired an ugly 6.54 ERA in 41 brutal appearances. He, too, will have to show he’s again healthy at 31, but if he is, the potential is obvious.

Jesse Biddle fired 63.2 innings of 3.11 ERA ball for the Atlanta Braves in the 2018 season, and that kind of production on a resume is usually enough to earn a good look in another team’s camp. That he’s a lefty just adds to that intrigue, too. Still, his 2019 was brutal, and Atlanta traded him to Seattle, who eventually lost him on waivers to Texas in part due to him being out of options. His BABIP spiked over .100 points from 2018 to 2019 despite his velocity staying mostly in-line, so perhaps there’s still something there for Derek Johnson to unlock.

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Beyond that trio, there are a few names who’ll be interesting stories, but who don’t necessarily appear in-line for realistic bullpen spots barring a major shake-up. Top prospect Nick Lodolo will be in camp, for instance, as will the formerly well regarded Vlad Gutierrez, who’s fresh off a brutal 2019 campaign. Lefty Brooks Raley is in camp after five years pitching in Korea as another potential lefty option, while David Carpenter will be around after having dipped as low as Indy ball prior to cracking the bigs again in 2019 with Texas.

The reality is that 7 of the 8 projected spots should be sewn up already, assuming good health and the expected performances of those parties while in camp. The fight for the final spot in the bullpen will be an intriguing one, as there are numerous qualified candidates with mixed backgrounds competing for the job(s), with a good mix of experience and upside in the pool.