The Reds entered this winter determined to boost their club’s performance at the MLB level, even if an anticipated new core hasn’t quite fully come together. On the heels of four-straight campaigns with less than seventy wins and last-place division finishes, it was and is an understandable goal — albeit one that called for careful handling to avoid denting the long-term outlook.
At the top of the docket, without question, was the improvement of a rotation that has been the game’s worst over that approximate span. While the team has ended up adding two outfielders with major name recognition — Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig — they don’t really change the overall complexion of the position-player unit. The Reds had a middle-of-the-pack lineup and bullpen in 2018. Perhaps there’s some hope that either or both of those groups (the former, particularly) will improve in the season to come. But the rotation was the major impediment, and there’s little doubting that the quality of the newly rebuilt pitching staff will have a huge say in the club’s outlook in a division that promises to feature quite a bit of competition.
When GM Nick Krall said recently that this’ll be the “best rotation we’ve had in five years,” he wasn’t exactly staking out a bold position. The standard isn’t terribly lofty. If the Cincy outfit wishes to compete, though, it’ll need to do more than just top its abysmal recent starting rotation work.
Let’s take a quick snapshot of where things stand now in the starting five, beginning with the newly hired guns:
- Sonny Gray: The most recently-acquired of the team’s three new hurlers is also the one who received the biggest commitment. In addition to his preexisting $7.5MM salary for 2019, the Reds are taking on $30.5MM in new money over three years (while also gaining another season of control via option). Though his upside is perhaps easy to exaggerate, as he handily overperformed his peripherals in his best campaigns with the Athletics, Gray seems largely to have the physical skills intact that made him a high-quality, 200+-inning starter in 2014 and 2015.
- Alex Wood: Long known as a talented but injury-prone pitcher, Wood has mostly provided a good quantity of innings. He showed quite a bit of ceiling upon landing with the Dodgers, but wasn’t quite as sharp last year and exhibited a 2 mph year-over-year velocity decline. Though his salary isn’t yet decided, Wood will check in with a salary between $8.7MM (the team’s filing figure) and $9.65MM (his own) in his final season of arbitration eligibility.
- Tanner Roark: As with Wood, the former Nationals hurler arrived via trade in advance of his last season of control. Slated to earn an even $10MM, Roark has been longer on innings than results over the past two seasons. But he did spin two outstanding campaigns before that, even if those results weren’t fully supported by the peripherals, and has been an exceptionally durable pitcher since emerging in D.C. Roark seems a good bet to provide a steady volume of at-least good-enough frames for the Cincinnati organization.
The trio joins the following holdovers:
- Luis Castillo: The sophomore slump that Castillo experienced didn’t turn out to be all that bad, as he finished with a 4.30 ERA and 8.8 K/9 against 2.6 BB/9 over 169 2/3 innings after turning on the afterburners down the stretch. In his final 11 starts, Castillo spun 66 1/3 frames of 2.44 ERA ball with a 69:14 K/BB ratio. He’s still just 26 years of age and still thrws gas. There’s certainly an argument to be made that Castillo is the likeliest member of the new-look Reds outfit to turn in top-of-the-rotation numbers, and his track record to date suggests he ought to be good at least for a nice volume of solid frmes.
- Anthony DeSclafani: Maybe we’ll look back at the end of the 2019 season and wonder why we had questions. After all, DeSclafani did show some signs of returning to his prior form in 2018 — it’s just that they were obfuscated by a barrage of long balls (1.88 per nine; 19.8% HR/FB rate) that left him with a 4.93 ERA. Still, he managed to tally 115 innings after missing all of the prior season, sported a career-high 94+ average fastball, and matched his career average with a 9.4% swinging-strike rate. True, DeSclafani did surrender loads of hard contact (41.9%), but it seems he has regained much of his physical ability.
- Tyler Mahle: Long considered a talented hurler, the 24-year-old sputtered in his first full effort at the game’s highest level. With 22 balls leaving the yard in his 112 frames, and a less-than-trim tally of 4.3 BB/9, it’s hardly surprising to see a 4.98 ERA on the final-season ledger. That said, Mahle also ran up 8.8 K/9 on the basis of a 9.9% swinging-strike rate. If any of the above-listed pitchers falters in camp or during the year, whether due to performance or injury issues, Mahle looks to be a nice piece to have on hand.
- Other depth arms: The remaining potential rotation candidates seem to have little hope of competing for a starting job in camp — barring injury, of course. Still, there are some plausible pieces to work with in Sal Romano, Cody Reed, Matt Wisler, Lucas Sims, Keury Mella, and non-roster veteran Odrisamer Despaigne.
Looking at the overall picture, if you focus on established MLB ceiling, there’s a clear path to a quality unit. True, none of the five most accomplished pitchers — Gray, Wood, Roark, Castillo, and DeSclafani — has really ever been a dominant ace. But at their best, every one of these hurlers has had an extended run as at least a high-quality, mid-rotation starter. On the other hand, all five (to say nothing of the other players listed above) have shown their warts in the not-so-distant past. Only Wood finished the 2018 season with a sub-4.00 ERA.
So, how do you view the offseason efforts of the Cincinnati baseball operations unit to cobble together a pitching staff?