The Reds entered the 2023 season with a trio of young starters — Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo, Graham Ashcraft — headlining their rotation, as well as a rookie third baseman (Spencer Steer) and a closer entering just his second big league season (Alexis Diaz). None of that quintet had more than a year of Major League service time. Ashcraft and Steer both had less than one full year. The Reds might’ve spent a small amount on veteran free agents this offseason (e.g. Wil Myers, Luke Weaver, Curt Casali, Luke Maile), but one look at the roster left little doubt this was a rebuilding team.
Six weeks into the season, the youth movement has brokered mixed results. Greene and Ashcraft (Sunday’s meltdown notwithstanding) have both looked impressive in the rotation. Diaz is doing his best impression of his older brother, striking out a stunning 51.2% of his opponents through 11 innings. Steer has delivered roughly league-average offense and shown some versatility, beginning to take regular reps at first base with Myers and Joey Votto both on the injured list. Lodolo has been extraordinarily homer-prone, but his strikeout and walk rates are every bit as encouraging as they were during a strong rookie effort in 2022.
Cincinnati fans are getting a glimpse at the hopeful future core for the Reds, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that more youthful reinforcements are — or should be — on the horizon. The Reds have every reason to let Lodolo try to sort through his homer woes at the big league level, but the fourth and fifth spots of the rotation are another story entirely. Those have been occupied by veterans Weaver and the just minutes-ago-DFA’d Luis Cessa for the bulk of the season, and the results rather unsurprisingly haven’t been good.
Weaver has made just three starts to Cessa’s six, and while a 7.88 ERA doesn’t inspire any confidence, Weaver has at least posted a 26% strikeout rate against an 8.2% walk rate. They’re both better than average marks — the strikeout rate in particular. Like Lodolo (and many other Reds hurlers who have the challenge of pitching at Great American Ball Park), Weaver’s home run rate is through the roof (2.81 HR/9). The Reds spent a couple million dollars to sign him as a free agent, and Weaver’s only had three starts. Ugly as they’ve been, he’ll get another few turns, even if the leash is (or should be) short.
Cessa’s spot seemed far more vulnerable. (Hence the bulk of this piece already having been written just prior to his DFA… thanks for prompting some last-minute rewrites, Reds!) In six starts, he allowed an earned run per inning, walked more batters than he struck out, and was moved to the bullpen for his most recent appearance. He didn’t start a single game from 2019-21, making the Reds’ decision to move him into the rotation last year and then to guarantee him a 2023 rotation spot a rather peculiar one.
Cessa posted a pedestrian 4.30 ERA in ten starts last season with an even less-encouraging 5.02 FIP. That might’ve made him a fine sixth or seventh starting option, but the Reds opted to only sign Weaver this offseason and leave the rotation largely unaddressed. Veteran Chase Anderson was re-signed on a minor league deal, but he’s already been traded to the Rays after triggering an opt-out in his contract. Right-hander Ben Lively was re-signed to a minor league deal, and the Reds selected him to the roster today alongside fellow offseason journeyman pickup Kevin Herget.
It’s not clear whether the 31-year-old Lively and 32-year-old Herget are short-term stopgaps or will get an actual look on the roster in the coming weeks, but even before this afternoon’s slate of moves, the crux of this argument has been that the Reds have more interesting options than the veterans they’ve plugged into the fourth and fifth spots of the rotation thus far. The promotions of Lively and Herget don’t change that.
Lefty Brandon Williamson and right-hander Levi Stoudt both came to Cincinnati by way of trade with the Mariners, coming over in the Jesse Winker/Eugenio Suarez and Luis Castillo trades, respectively. Neither has dominated in Triple-A to begin the season, though Stoudt did make his MLB debut in a spot start last month. Williamson, currently sporting an ERA north of 7.00 in 28 1/3 Triple-A frames, has not yet pitched in the big leagues. It’s worth noting that nearly all the damage against him came in one start, where he did not escape the first inning against the Cubs’ top affiliate and was thrashed for eight runs. Stoudt needs to improve upon the poor command he’s shown in Louisville before getting a real look in the big leagues.
The Reds have one particular minor league powerhouse who looks on the cusp of MLB readiness, however: left-hander Andrew Abbott. The 2021 second-round pick has skyrocketed through the minor leagues, reaching Double-A last year as a 23-year-old in his first full professional season and then overpowering both Double-A and Triple-A opponents early in the 2023 season.
Abbott opened the current campaign with 15 2/3 innings in Double-A, allowing just two runs on six hits and three walks with an astonishing 36 strikeouts. That’s not a typo; Abbott fanned a comical 64.3% of his opponents in those three Double-A starts before the Reds rather naturally jumped him to Triple-A. He hasn’t continued on at that deity-like pace at the top minor league level … he’s “merely” posted a 3.00 ERA with a 38.7% strikeout rate in another 15 innings of work. All in all, Abbott has 30 2/3 innings of 2.05 ERA ball with an eye-popping 50.8% strikeout rate to go along with a 7.6% walk rate, 41.5% ground-ball rate and 0.88 HR/9 mark.
The 23-year-old Abbott’s most recent start just happened to fall on Sunday, which would line him up to be fully rested come Saturday, when the Reds’ listed starter is TBD. That had been Cessa’s spot in the rotation, but Cincinnati opted to start Ashcraft on four days’ rest instead of giving Cessa his usual turn. (Ashcraft was blasted for eight runs in 1 2/3 innings.) It’s always possible that they’ll look into alternatives for the time being, preferring to give Abbott more seasoning and hold off on adding him to the 40-man roster just yet. But each of Williamson (May 5), Stoudt (May 6) and Herget (May 4) saw their most recent starts fall on a date that would line them up to pitch between now and Saturday.
If the Reds are indeed going to tap into their farm to make a change, Abbott is not only the best option in terms of 2023 performance — he’s also the starter who’s likeliest to be on full rest and ready to make that start. Even if Cincinnati bypasses him in favor of Lively or Herget this coming weekend, he’s already made the clear case that he’s a better option for the big league rotation than either Weaver or Cessa. And assuming Williamson can continue to shake off the impact of that catastrophic outing against the Cubs’ Iowa club — he rebounded with a quality start in his next appearance — it might not be long before either he or Stoudt stakes a claim to the fifth spot.
Going with a youth-forward rotation obviously has its pitfalls, but the Reds’ lack of offseason activity on the starting pitching front — both in terms of established big league starters and even in terms of veteran depth on minor league deals — clearly set the stage for that to eventually be the case in 2023. It’s not hard to imagine the Reds rolling with five starters who have under two years of big league service by sometime next month, if not sooner. The next step in the process should come this weekend. It’s only six starts, but Abbott looks like one of the organization’s four best rotation options at this point. Today’s moves might have added some fresh arms in Lively and Herget, but plugging either into the rotation would only continue treading water as they were with Cessa.