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The options in the Cincinnati Reds bullpen, or lack thereof

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How a unique scenario may help mold the Opening Day roster.

Pittsburgh Pirates v Cincinnati Reds - Game Two Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

While we can vent endlessly about the lack of spending done by the Cincinnati Reds in any effort to upgrade their shortstop position over the winter (we will again, I’m sure), there’s another distinct area on their roster that saw a large exodus with few imports, too:

The bullpen.

Gone are Raisel Iglesias and mid-season acquisition Archie Bradley, two arms that have long been anchors in their respective roles. Add in that Michael Lorenzen seems poised to earn a spot in the starting rotation, and there are a trio of high leverage roles that have been left up for grabs heading into camp in Goodyear, Arizona. Sean Doolittle was added to help fill some of that void, but the pool of other arms projected to help round out those spots consists of a few in-house relievers from last season’s pen and an army of unproven arms brought in from the depths of other franchises.

That latter group is far from nameless, of course. In Jeff Hoffman and Jose De Leon, there are a pair of former top prospects from other franchises who, through various travails, have ended up with the Reds for one more shot at big league regularity. The former group is fronted by Amir Garrett and Lucas Sims, former top prospects in their own rights who have since settled in nicely as the new wave of Reds relief arms. There’s still Sal Romano, too, the burly righty again on the 40-man roster and in the mix for some hard-throwing relief work this season, too.

It’s a talented group despite how unproven it is. But one of the biggest defining aspects of that group listed above is that not a single one of them can be optioned to the minors again without facing waivers. Doolittle’s at the veteranny point of his career where he can refuse to be assigned back to the minors while on a guaranteed deal, while every other name listed above has simply had their minor league options used up over the course of their respective careers. Even two of the other prominent additions to the bullpen mix over the winter - Noe Ramirez and Cam Bedrosian from the Los Angeles Angels (in separate transactions) - you’ll find that neither of them can be swiftly stashed back in AAA Louisville without the waiver process being worked in.

(Hat tip to FanGraphs’ Roster Resource for tracking this, by the way.)

Is that an insurmountable problem? No, not really.

Is it something that will likely become more highlighted given how unproven the guys in that mix are? Almost certainly.

In guys like Hoffman and De Leon, specifically, you have a pair of arms who on talent alone make pitching coaches around the globe salivate. Big velocity, biting secondary offerings, elevated spin rates, and the like have made them coveted by many franchises already in their careers, but between injury and the inability to put it all together, they’ve not yet taken off. The Reds have banked heavily on them being able to do just that this year - not in a financial sense, but in a ‘lack of other choices on the roster’ sense - but the fact that they can’t just work with the new coaches in AAA until things click means they’re on a timeline much shorter than, say, a prospect with options remaining like Tony Santillan.

If they stumble out of the gate, there’s no longer a chance of getting to try to fix them any longer, at least not without putting them on waivers for someone else to opt to do the same. They’re going to have to hit the ground running, or the Reds are going to have to grant them longer leashes to figure it out in big league action if things aren’t going best-case scenario when the season begins.

These are not foreign scenarios for clubs, obviously. It’s something the Reds, and every other club in the league deals with in some form or fashion every year. Garrett and Sims were both out of options last year and managed to have it not be a nuisance, though each of Robert Stephenson, Romano, and Cody Reed were, too, and we saw how that impacted their positions on the roster in several instances.

Still, the 2021 season might have its own curveball baked into this dilemma with an aspect that hasn’t been much of an issue in any other season decades, and that’s the ramp-up back to a 162 game regular season after playing just 60 in the pandemic year of 2020.

There is perpetually the issue of ‘building up’ arms to be able to pitch as many innings as possible, spurred annually by the double-faceted premise that MLB seasons have more games/innings than the minors and pitching prospects are brought along slowly with kid gloves to make sure they’re as healthy as can be when they reach the big league level. That’s what has made veteran ‘innings-eaters’ a valuable portion of pitching staffs even in normal years, as they take the pressure off other arms to have to grind out that much work in a single year. But with no pitchers having had the opportunity to put big innings on during a 2020 season that was barely there, even the ‘innings eaters’ are going to be tasked with stretching back out for a lot more work than they’ve seen in quite awhile.

In other words, in a season that will task every single pitcher out there with more work than they got last year, the odds are that teams are going to need more pitchers to complete those innings than just asking a small number of arms to double, triple their loads. And to do that, there’s going to need to be a pretty steady stream of roster moves to account for them.

If Luis Castillo and Tyler Mahle are only going 5 innings to begin the year instead of the 6 or 7 they’d ideally get, that’s more IP that fall to the bullpen. The more IP that fall to the bullpen, the greater the need for an occasional 3-4 IP outing from a long man to help mop up here and there. Usually when those outings happen, a fresh arm is bussed up from AAA to the big league bullpen while the reliever who just went long gets a few days off, thereby keeping the most fresh arms as possible at the manager’s service. But if making routine moves like that risks putting De Leon, or Hoffman, or Romano on waivers to leave the franchise altogether, that makes the already unproven group of arms the Reds will be leaning on potentially that much thinner.

It’s something the Reds will have to manage on a tightrope, but it also pretty well spells out which arms will get the first shot at Opening Day roster spots. There are several other arms the Reds brought in this winter that do have options remaining - guys like Shane Carle, Edgar Diaz, Art Warren, Josh Osich, and Cionel Perez - and it’s likely the mere nature of their roster flexibility will render them stashed in the minors to begin the year, even if they put in performances on the same level as their out-of-options peers in camp. It’s the most basic way to keep them most arms around for the longest amount of time, kicking the roster spot can as far down the road as possible before risking the loss of any of them.

Of all the strings Nick Krall will get to pull himself for the first time as the head of the Reds front office this year, this will be the one that will likely take the most precise tinkering.