With perhaps the lone exception of catcher, there is no place on the projected Opening Day roster of the Cincinnati Reds with as much promise and expectation as their starting rotation. At some point in the near future we’ll have the middle infield joining that discussion - keep on mashing, Elly! - but for now, the young trio of Nick Lodolo, Hunter Greene, and Graham Ashcraft provide the best combination of tantalizing upside and enough experience to have their socks wet.
I’m here making the argument that they need the most investment from the ownership and front office there, though, not the least. It’s precisely because that area has begun to look addressed that it needs fostering and protecting, with enough taken off their elbows and shoulders so that they’re in peak, prime form when the rest of the roster gets its act together down the road.
Finding arms that can take the mound 30 times and fire 5+ innings, regardless of quality, is not the easiest thing in the world, with the Mike Minor experiment last season as the most recent example. Even if the ERA isn’t otherworldly, the stuff isn’t overpowering, the fact that those innings get eaten in a rebuilding season so that the younger arms aren’t the ones having to labor through it themselves is precisely the kind of bridge that the Reds will need in 2023, since they’ve given no indication that they’ll be active suitors for the kinds of pitchers (or hitters to back them) that will actually provide game-winning acumen in 2023.
They could find an arm or two like that via free agency, as there certainly are some options there. They could choose to fill that role via trade, too - that’s how they landed Minor last offseason, after all.
Here are four arms who could provide just what the rebuilding Reds are shopping for, listed in no particular order.
Johnny Cueto - RHP (25 G (24 GS), 158.1 IP, 3.09 K/BB, 1.23 WHIP, 3.79 FIP, 3.35 ERA in ‘22 with Chicago White Sox)
I lied. This one’s my top priority, both for his run of form in 2022 and the Disney factor of his return to GABP. He’s the best pitcher the Reds have had in a generation, and he showed in 2022 that he still has the chops to get big league hitters out, even if it’s in a way vastly different than in his earlier days.
He’ll be 37 in February and his average fastball velocity last season (91.5 mph) was down over 2.5 mph from his peak with the Reds, but he also continued to hammer the strike zone - his BB% ranking in the 88th percentile. He’s still excellent at limiting hard contact, his instagram is legendary, and...well, he’s Johnny Cueto.
Kyle Gibson - RHP (31 G (31 GS), 167.2 IP, 3.00 K/BB, 1.34 WHIP, 4.28 FIP, 5.05 ERA in ‘22 with Philadelphia Phillies)
While landing Cueto would be buying into his ability to replicate his 2022 successes, an investmentin Gibson would be betting on a bounce-back. In 2021, he pitched to a 3.71 ERA (3.87 FIP) in 182 IP split between the Phillies and Texas Rangers, and perhaps more importantly has logged at least 147.1 IP in every single season since 2014 (save the strike-shortened 2020 campaign).
He eats innings, often in a pretty effective way. Getting excellent innings-eaters is for the teams trying to win in 2023, but getting decent innings-eating is exactly what the Reds need to buy time until they get around to competing. Gibson, perhaps more than any other, exemplifies this ability.
Noah Syndergaard - RHP (25 G (24 GS), 134.2 IP, 3.44 K/BB, 1.26 WHIP, 3.83 FIP, 3.94 ERA in ‘22 split between Los Angeles Angels & Philadelphia Phillies)
Thor’s average fastball velocity sat at a ridiculous 99.6 mph during the 2017 season, though sadly what constituted that electric right elbow no longer exists. After sitting out nearly two full seasons recovering from Tommy John surgery, Syndergaard found a home with the Angels on a lucrative one-year deal, eventually ending up with the Phillies for their stretch run.
In the process, he pitched at a 94.5 mph clip with his heater, and has been forced to transform every single thing about the way he pitches.
His name-brand probably puts him on the radar of higher-profile clubs, but I list him here because of the reputation of Derek Johnson, and what the resident pitching guru has often managed to do with starters who looked finished elsewhere - Sonny Gray, Wade Miley among them. Perhaps his tutelage on another one-year deal would give Syndergaard a better platform into a big free agency deal after 2023, one better than where he sits in this current market - MLBTR projects him to get 3 years and $36 million in a top-heavy starting pitching market.
While Thor’s probably too noteworthy to be the exact signing of this nature, it wouldn’t shock me if a slightly lower-tier name signs for precisely these reasons.
Drew Smyly - LHP (22 G (22 GS), 106.1 IP, 3.50 K/BB, 1.19 WHIP, 4.23 FIP, 3.47 ERA in ‘22 with Chicago Cubs)
Smyly threw a career-high 175.1 IP with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2016 and did not throw a single big-league pitch in either 2017 or 2018. Since the start of the 2019 season, he’s pitched for the Texas Rangers, Philadelphia Phillies, San Francisco Giants, Atlanta Braves, and Chicago Cubs, topping out at 126.1 IP as a season-high.
That’s a rocky trip, man. Still, it shows that there is enough on him among MLB front offices that, when he’s available, teams want him.
Counting on him for 36 starts and 200 innings is foolhardy, but his move to throwing his fastball less often and implementing a cutter/curve the majority of the time saw his overall velocity spike to career-bests in 2022, and - particularly as a lefty - Smyly might profile as a perfect ‘get a lot out of him early in 2023 and trade him at the deadline’ kind of addition.