The Future of the Reds’ Starting Rotation

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What if I told you the Reds were just two or three players away from being a contender? You’d scoff, right? And who could blame you, given the recent unpleasantness of the west coast swing.

But this team can hit. And the bullpen is good—I know, I’m still shocked about this, too. Now, imagine if the team had merely an average starting rotation instead of the dinosaur-extincting disaster of a meteor strike they’ve generally run out there.

By now you’ve seen or heard of most of the crop of young pitchers. There’s Brandon Finnegan, still only 24 and with a solid 2016 season under his belt. Word is he should return from injury soon. There’s Amir Garrett, 25 years old with low mileage on his arm thanks to college basketball. He’s had some rough starts this year and some injury issues as well, but unlike everyone except Finnegan, he’s also had some fabulous starts that make you understand that he could be REALLY good. Or at least a solid rotational pitcher. There’s Cody Reed, he of enormous potential, but sporadic control and perhaps limited secondary pitches. There’s Robert Stephenson, the supposed ace whose results keep failing to match his potential.

Then there are the new kids: Sal Romano and Tyler Mahle and Rookie Davis and Luis Castillo. Mahle stands out from that group, though he hasn’t made it past Double-A yet. He has high strikeouts and a low walk rate and he hasn’t even turned 23 yet.

But we need to pay attention to all of these guys because, let’s be real, the Bronson Arroyo experiment needs to end soon. Scott Feldman, solid as he’s been, is trade bait. Tim Adleman will stick around, but he’s a fifth starter. Given their recent histories, I have a hard time believing Homer or Disco are going to be healthy for a full season, so the Reds need some of these players to pan out. How do we place our bets?

The first number I like to look at is BB/9. Strikeout rates can decrease as a player ascends, but if he’s shown the ability to avoid walking hitters, it’s a good sign. This is where Stephenson and Reed run into problems. No one doubts their stuff, but they can’t always control it.

Next is age. Despite what you may hear, the Reds aren’t a particularly conservative organization when it comes to promoting players. Few teams give players real shots before they’re around 24 years old, unless there’s a Mike Trout or Clayton Kershaw hanging out down there. While these players all have potential, there are no Kershaws here.

But it matters, for instance, if a player is blowing away Double-A batters at 22 when the average age for the league is about two-and-a-half years older than that. So, please step forward Tyler Mahle. Castillo is right around the league average for Double-A. Romano has been similarly young rising through the system, though without results that are quite as sparkling as Mahle’s.

What matters about all of this, however, is that each of these players is still on the young side. Once a guy is about 26, you more or less assume he is who he is. There are exceptions of course, but guys making a leap in their late 20s are rare, overall. (Or potentially, uh, “supplementing.”) And, of course, I can’t tell you for certain who’s going to do what, but we can at least take a guess at the starting pitching depth chart for next season, when the Reds are supposed to be (more?) competitive:

  1. Homer/Disco
  2. Brandon Finnegan
  3. Amir Garrett
  4. Tyler Mahle
  5. Cody Reed/Sal Romano
  6. Luis Castillo/Robert Stephenson/Rookie Davis
  7. Tim Adleman

That is a list brimming with both potential and uncertainty. But it is still a big list with 11 pitchers on it in total. The rotation has been so disastrous this year because the Reds are currently at about number 13 on the depth chart, which doesn’t yet include Mahle or Castillo. While we must certainly remember that There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect, it’s also hard to imagine that the Reds’ rotation will continue to be this snake-bit. In recent years, we’ve seen both extremes: a rotation that held at five pitchers all year, and one where it feels like the team might start pulling people out of the stands. Most years, we should expect something in between. If the Reds can soon reach a point of getting consistent, quality innings from three or four of the top half-dozen pitchers on this list, it will go a long way toward making them a legitimate contender, instead of a team struggling for mediocrity.

Jason Linden is a contributor to Nuxhall Way, Redleg Nation, and The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @JasonLinden.

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