None of the Above

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Despite a rough weekend, the Redlegs are hanging in there, as they say. They’ve been treading water around the .500 mark most of the season, and they remain within shouting distance of the Wild Card race.

Ask most Reds fans what the biggest problem is with the current incarnation of the Cincinnati Reds, and you will likely get one of three answers: (a) the offense, (b) the bullpen, or (c) the manager. If you ask me—and no, you didn’t ask me, but I’m going to tell you anyway—to predict what will be the biggest headache for Reds fans over the next few months, I’m going to answer (d) None of the Above.

Focus your eyes, if you will, on the Cincinnati starting rotation. Yes, the offense looks bad occasionally, thanks to terrible starts by Jay Bruce and Billy Hamilton and a bench that is completely useless. But thanks mostly to Todd Frazier, Joey Votto, and Zack Cozart, the Reds offense is fourth in the National League in wins above replacement, and they rank in the middle of the pack in most other categories (wOBA and wRC+, for example).

The bullpen? Again, we’ve seen some horrific performances by the erstwhile Kevin Gregg (10.13 ERA in 11 appearances) and Burke Badenhop (9.95 ERA in 13 appearances), not to mention Jumbo Diaz (6.46) and Pedro Villareal (10.13). And yes, the Reds bullpen has the worst ERA in baseball (5.13), but they are actually 16th (out of 30 teams) in FIP. Plus, Aroldis Chapman, JJ Hoover, and Tony Cingrani have all been terrific. If healthy, Badenhop and Diaz are very good bets to improve over the rest of the season, and Gregg is no longer around to haunt our dreams. I think the bullpen will be fine.

Manager Bryan Price has become a convenient whipping boy lately, and in some respects, he has earned the criticism—he did keep running Gregg out there in high-leverage situations, after all. But he generally puts together good lineups, given the roster he has to work with, and heck, he’s going to the All-Star Game! He can’t be that bad, can he?

The starting rotation, on the other hand, provides little cause for optimism. By WAR, Reds starters rank 26th in the majors; among NL clubs, they are third from the bottom in FIP (4.65), ahead of only the Brewers and Rockies. Cincinnati starters rank in the bottom half of the league in strikeouts and walks allowed. Yet, despite the sub-par performance, only Mets starters have thrown more innings than the Reds.

Much of this isn’t Price’s fault, since 60% of last year’s rotation isn’t available to him. Walt Jocketty dealt two of last year’s starters away: Mat Latos is struggling a bit down in Miami and Alfredo Simon is thankfully someone else’s PR nightmare. Homer Bailey remains a Red, but he won’t be pitching in the Cincinnati rotation for at least a year following Tommy John surgery.

Price and GM Walt Jocketty each share the blame for the Jason Marquis disaster, however. Anyone should have been able to see this coming. Marquis didn’t pitch AT ALL last year, and the last time he put up above-average numbers was 2009. That’s a long time ago.

Yet Price named Marquis a starter early in spring training, and Cincinnati’s manager has gotten what he deserved: Marquis is 3-3 with a 6.63 ERA in 7 starts. Only Colorado’s Kyle Kendrick has posted a worse ERA among qualified major league starting pitchers. Marquis’ FIP of 5.67 is the fourth-worst in MLB, as is his WAR of -0.2. Opposing hitters are hitting .325/.373/.565 against him. Marquis seems like a good guy, and he’s clearly working hard, but it’s been a rough year. Frankly, we’re getting close to the point in the season where it will be managerial malpractice if Price keeps running him out there every five days.

The rest of the rotation—with one very notable exception—has been roughly average. Mike Leake (2-2, 3.62 ERA, 107 ERA+) looks slightly above average when you look from one angle, and he has certainly been a competent starter who is fun to watch. From another angle, it doesn’t look as pretty; Leake’s 4.91 FIP ranks 93rd out of 110 qualified starters in both leagues.

The contingent of young guys—Anthony DeSclafani, Michael Lorenzen, Raisel Iglesias—who have started this season have all looked exactly like you’d expect talented young pitchers to look: they’ve had their ups and downs. DeSclafani has gotten eight starts, and he’s been decent overall (2-4, 3.80 ERA, 4.26 FIP, 102 ERA+). Iglesias (1-0, 3.00 ERA, 2.69 FIP, 132 ERA+) and Lorenzen (1-1, 4.00 ERA, 6.65 FIP, 99 ERA+) have had their good moments too, though they’ve only started five games between them. Because, remember, the Reds have preferred to send Marquis to the mound instead. My head hurts.

Johnny Cueto, of course, has been his usual spectacular self, but he can’t do it all himself. So going forward, what should the club do? Given the current crop of pitchers available to him, Price should set his rotation like this: Cueto, Leake, DeSclafani, Iglesias, and Lorenzen. Or maybe Tony Cingrani can be an option. But regardless of one decides to split up this group, it just doesn’t resemble the rotation of a playoff contender. And I actually like all of these guys!

Barring a trade, Cueto-Leake-DeSclafani-Iglesias-Lorenzen seems to be the best bet. Is a rotation of Cueto, Leake, two 25-year-olds, and a 23-year old going to strike fear in the hearts of National League lineups? (And then there’s still Marquis…) Now comes the nightmare scenario: What happens to this rotation when Johnny Cueto gets traded to Kansas City or wherever?

I don’t want to think about that. I’m still hoping this club gets on a roll and we get to see Cueto start Game 1 of the World Series. Hey, I gave you the nightmare scenario in the last paragraph—you can let me dream, right?

Chad Dotson is a Nuxhall Way contributor. He is also the founder of Redleg Nation and a contributor to ESPN’s SweetSpot blog. You can follow him on Twitter at @dotsonc.

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