You are a baseball team. Congrats on the billions of dollars.
You have a ripe starting rotation, one of the absolute best units in your franchise’s lengthy history and the envy of all in the league. In fact you’ve got so much of a good thing, you don’t have enough spots on the roster for all qualified parties.
To add to your slate of decisions, there are no minor leagues in which to stash your excess anymore. There is no stage on which you can guarantee near replica scenarios for your reserves, no way to keep them similarly engaged.
And for some icing on your cake, your bullpen is more wrecked than Cher Horowitz’s jeep.
You are the Cincinnati Reds, a baseball club finally committed to winning baseball games, but one that’s having a very hard time doing so. And while there have been a few sinister subplots that have casually eaten away at the foundations of a club that, this winter, looked nearly impeccable, relief pitching has been the one fatal flaw so obvious it continues to slap you like you’re silly.
There have been injuries, for one. While big money was lobbed to both the offense and rotation throughout the offseason, hardly a blip was invested in the bullpen. Pedro Strop was the lone recipient of guaranteed money before spring camp, yet at just $1.83 million he was hardly secured with the kind of deal that suggests the Reds were beating back other suitors for his services. Strop, of course, is now injured and expected to be sidelined for a lengthy bit, putting him right next to Robert Stephenson, a young relief arm that finally looked to be coming into his own before injuries shelved him indefinitely.
Losing Strop and Stephenson has put a heavier burden on the rest of the arms still in the ‘pen, with much of that load landing on the broad shoulders of Michael Lorenzen, who finally appeared to put all things together in something of a breakout 2019 season. But despite the biceps flexing and an offseason dedicated to trying to throw balls through brick walls, Lorenzen’s start to the 2020 season has been an unmitigated disaster as he has repeatedly been tasked with, and unsuccessful in, the most leveraged scenarios the Reds have faced late in games.
Of the 549 pitchers who have thrown pitches this season, only two have been worse than Lorenzen’s -0.5 fWAR so far.
Raisel Iglesias has looked resurgent after his rocky start in the closer’s role, and Amir Garrett has continued to flash his dizzying slider from the left side, too. Beyond those two, though, there has been a turnstile of performances bad and worse. Brooks Raley showed some promise early before a disastrous string of innings saw him DFA’d and eventually traded. Jose De Leon backed a solid inning with one so bad it saw him optioned, while Cody Reed can’t go a batter without flipping up an unsolicited meatball. Nate Jones has shown some promise in between a bevy of walks and dingers surrendered, while Lucas Sims and his ridiculous curveball have been relatively solid aside from allowing inherited runners to score at a ridiculously high rate.
The success in the bullpen has been lacking, obviously, as the unit is collectively the worst in all MLB in HR/FB% and second worst in ERA. What’s equally as troubling is that there are precious few arms left to turn to right now in the 60-man player pool, at least among those deemed ‘MLB ready.’
A quick perusal of the Reds scheduled starters for the upcoming homestand does show that on Wednesday, lefty Wade Miley will be returning to the rotation after a stint on the 10-day IL with a groin problem. What said perusal does not show, though, is a single scheduled start for a pitcher who began the year throwing the ball about as well as anyone on the staff - which is a staff that has several people throwing the ball about as well as anyone in baseball.
That would be Tyler Mahle, and he might end up having to be the arm on which the Cincinnati Reds lean for the next month and a half of play.
Mahle, like many young arms who crack the majors, is a starting pitcher by trade who has taken his occasional lumps at the big league level while trying to find ways to retire professional hitters at the top of their respective games. At times he has been brilliant, including his pair of starts to begin this year, but since first being called up during the 2017 season he has carried one absolute with him at all times - he’s always, 54 out of 54 times, been a starting pitcher.
The 2020 season is, as we’ve already seen in countless ways, no average MLB season. It is hyperconcentrated and features numerous new rules. There is an imbalanced schedule, there are gargantuan rosters, and there is no minor league play. It’s the kind of one-year glitch that will have ramifications for years, and also one that will most likely reward the clubs most creative in their methods of navigation.
That brings me back to Mahle, who has again been nudged out of the Reds rotation with Miley’s return. There is certainly the traditional train of thought that acknowledges that he’s a starter by trade, and certainly the best ‘next man up’ starter the Reds have on-hand. In an average year, with the status quo in place, he’s exactly the kind of player you keep stretched out and ready to step back into the rotation at the drop of a hat. There is no denying he is one of the six best starting pitchers these Reds have.
This season is not normal, and is not traditional. Pair that with the bullpen’s shambolic status and no AAA starts against Indianapolis or Columbus on the schedule, and Tyler Mahle isn’t going anywhere from the Cincinnati clubhouse. And if he’s indeed going to be in the bullpen for the first time - something he was reportedly ready to do on Sunday, per The Enquirer’s Bobby Nightengale - he shouldn’t be restricted to a role that keeps him most ready for a potential return to the rotation.
Mahle, to his credit, has already seen a velocity spike this season, perhaps due to the change in philosophy (and personnel) the Reds implemented over the winter. Beyond that, he’s leaned hard into a new slider, abandoning the slurve he used as his second most frequent pitch last year and returning to the breaking ball he used when he first broke into the league, but this time around he’s throwing it almost 3 full mph harder than before - and doing so to much greater success. And while he still sports a cutter some ~14% of the time, he’s predominantly a two-pitch pitcher who has seen his success and velocity rise together as a starter.
Condense that to a one-inning role, and the Reds might have a fix to what ails their bullpen in this odd, shortened season. And while it’s a roll of the dice to change Mahle’s role completely this year, it’s an even larger role of the dice to keep him sidelined as a reserve while the rest of the club tries to pick up the pieces without him.
There’s a large probability that the Reds will need someone to step into a start at some point this year, someone beyond the five arms in the rotation right now. It’s already happened twice, in fact. But that’s the kind of problem you try to address when it happens, either with a bullpen game courtesy of expanded rosters or with the likes of Tejay Antone, who has shown promise as a long-man/starter already. With Mahle, though, you’ve already seen his promise as an out-getter, and not using him more often at this juncture with the tire-fires in the bullpen surrounding him would be neglecting perhaps the single biggest band-aid already in-house.
Maybe Michael Lorenzen can get right in a hurry. Maybe Strop and Stephenson return healthy sooner than expected. Maybe the Reds can even land an elite reliever via trade in this odd, pandemic-shortened season. But there’s reason to believe they’ve got a piece that can help them in an area of vital need right this minute, and it’s a piece that’s not currently disposed with other tasks.
If Tyler Mahle is going to be in the Cincinnati Reds bullpen, it’s time to see if Tyler Mahle can be that high-leverage bridge in the Reds bullpen.