How Many Starting Pitchers Do the Reds Really Need?

The team’s “Big Three” look good so far, but unfortunately major league rotations have at least five starters.
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On Saturday, Reds starter Graham Ashcraft twirled six shutout innings, improving his record to 2-0 as Cincinnati clubbed Philadelphia 13-0. It was the third consecutive strong start to begin his sophomore campaign, and the future for the kid has never appeared brighter. The least-heralded of Cincinnati’s “Big Three” starters, Ashcraft has been brilliant, seemingly in a competition to outshine Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo for supremacy in the starting rotation.

Unfortunately for Reds fans, starting rotations in the year 2023 require at least five pitchers, not three. What happened before and after Ashcraft’s outing is illustrative of a problem that will face the Reds for the rest of the season.

Late in spring training, the Reds announced that Conner Overton and Luis Cessa would fill out the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation. No one expected much production from them, but there were hopes they’d at least be passable. It hasn’t worked out. On Friday night, Overton made his third start of the season, and it went pretty much like the first two. He gave up five earned runs in three innings, surrendering five hits, walking three, and striking out zero Philly hitters.

Things were even worse for Cessa on Sunday, if you can believe it. The Phillies scored nine runs in the first inning en route to a 14-3 rout. He actually worked three innings, mostly because manager David Bell didn’t want to overwork his bullpen in a game the Reds weren’t going to win. Cessa’s final line: three innings, 11 runs allowed on 14 hits and three walks, with zero strikeouts.

After the first three times through the Cincinnati rotation, Overton is 0-1 with an 11.45 ERA, and he’s been placed on the injured list, presumably with an inflamed ERA (or an elbow strain, whatever). Cessa is 0-2 with an ERA of 13.50. Together, they’ve walked 15 and struck out only 12 while surrendering 44 hits in 23 innings.

Meanwhile, Greene, Lodolo, and Ashcraft sport a collective 2.70 ERA and have allowed just 52 hits in more than twice as many innings (53). They’ve walked 20 and struck out 68. The difference is stark, no? The Reds are 2-4 in games started by Overton and Cessa; in games started by The Big ThreeTM Cincinnati is 5-5 but, notably, four of those five losses were by only one run and two were walkoff losses after bullpen meltdowns.

Is it possible that General Manager Nick Krall just forgot that he needed five starting pitchers? Was it an innocent oversight? That would actually be worse in some ways, but, no, this was by design. The Castellini Reds weren’t going to spend a dime more than they had to during what was already going to be a lost year in their estimation.

Krall’s “strategy” was to go the cheap route and hope for the best. (Reminder: Hope is not a strategy.) He signed retreads Chase Anderson and Daniel Norris to minor league deals; after an unimpressive spring, the 35-year-old Anderson is in the rotation at Triple-A Louisville, while Norris was released and caught on with Cleveland. Krall inked Luke Weaver to a one-year/$2 million free agent deal over the winter, but he suffered a right forearm strain and started the campaign in the minors. The other names in the mix were all unproven youngsters: Justin Dunn, Brandon Williamson, Levi Stoudt. Dunn’s shoulder problems persist, while Williamson and Stoudt were ineffective this spring.

And that, my friends, is how Connor Overton and Luis Cessa “earned” spots in Cincinnati’s big league rotation. Yikes.

Can we briefly imagine a world in which the Castellinis cared about competing in 2023? Cincinnati’s payroll is the 26th highest in baseball this year. But from 2019 to 2021, the team’s payroll hovered around league average. If the Reds had decided to spend in the neighborhood of a league average payroll this year, they would have had an extra $73 million over current obligations.

For that amount of additional funds, the Reds could have afforded free agents Justin Verlander and Jacob deGrom. Or maybe deGrom and Carlos Rodon. That would have left $21 million to improve the bullpen and find another outfielder.

Alas, we’re fans of the Cincinnati Reds, and more often than not they don’t try to sign good players that will help the team win. So where do the Reds go from here? The short-term options don’t look great, but in the long-term there’s some hope. (There’s that word again.)

Weaver has already been called up, and he’ll start Wednesday’s home game against the Rays. In his two starts at Triple-A, he was reasonably effective, giving up three runs in nine innings. On the other hand, I encourage you to go look at Weaver’s career stats and let me know why you would expect him to be a good big league starter. As a Reds fan, I hope he’s great! But I’d recommend that you temper your expectations.

The only other options in the short term are Williamson and Stoudt. Both (along with Weaver) are already on the 40-man roster, so they will likely be the next men up. Both, of course, came over from Seattle (as did Dunn) in trades last year, and either could have made the Opening Day rotation if not for extremely poor results this spring. Williamson posted a 11.20 ERA in six spring outings, while Stoudt gave up seven runs in 4.2 innings.

Each have started three games in Louisville. Stoudt is 0-1 with a 4.09 ERA, but he’s walked nine batters in 11 innings. Williamson is 0-1 with a 6.57 ERA. Neither is inspiring much confidence that they’ll be able to help Cincinnati’s rotation soon.

The good news, if you can call it that, is that Cessa will return to the bullpen, where he’s been fairly effective. Other than that, I’m not sure what to tell you. Andrew Abbott is one of the top pitching prospects in the organization, and he’s been lights out at Double-A Chattanooga, having been just named the Southern League Pitcher of the Week. Other than Williamson, the Reds don’t really have any prospects who are close to the big leagues. Bringing Abbott up would provide some intrigue and at least give us a reason to watch. But he’s almost certainly not quite ready. This time next year, Abbott, Williamson, and Stoudt should all be serious contenders for the Cincinnati rotation, with Abbott having a real chance to develop into a star.

Back in 1948, the sports editor of The Boston Globe coined “Spahn and Sain, then pray for rain” in reference to a Boston Braves rotation that was pretty bad once you got past Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain. Perhaps we should be singing “Greene, Ashcraft, and Lodolo, then pray for a tornado.” No, that’s horrible. Forget that I just typed those words.

These Reds are so much fun three out of every five days. And you know, if the Reds could win 60 percent of their games the rest of the way they’d finish with 94 wins and a spot in the playoffs. Sign me up for that! Then again, I like Greene, Lodolo, and Ashcraft as much as the next guy, but expecting the Reds to go undefeated in their remaining starts smacks me as just a bit unrealistic. Last night’s leg injury to Greene is one more example that anything can happen any time.

This is who the 2023 Reds are, and it’s what the Castellinis intended. All we can do as fans is enjoy the days when the Big ThreeTM are on the mound, and then hope for the best for rest of the time.

Chad Dotson helms Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, The Riverfront. His newsletter about Cincinnati sports can be found at chaddotson.com. He’s @dotsonc on Twitter.

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