The Reds have a pitching development problem.
This statement is not news. In fact, it’s an axiom that can be traced back to the Carter administration.
Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, and Tom Browning are the only pitchers to be drafted or signed by the Reds since 1980 to log at least 450 career innings and multiple seasons of at least 175 innings pitched with an ERA+ of 100 or better with the Reds. That formula is a long-winded way of saying these pitchers enjoyed multiple seasons in which they were league average or better and ate major innings in the process. Browning recorded five such seasons. Cueto notched three, Bailey two.
That’s the list. That’s it. Ten individual seasons of strong starting pitching by homegrown arms in almost 40 years.
So maybe it should not have come as a surprise when longtime scouting director Chris Buckley, player development director Jeff Graupe, and international scouting director Tony Arias were all reassigned recently—despite the organization boasting four of baseball’s top 55 prospects. Of course, these three men do not bear total culpability for the Reds’ pitching woes; this is an institutional failure from the top down.
This season’s showings from Cincinnati’s touted young arms have not engendered much optimism either. Luis Castillo has dominated since the All-Star Break (2.70 ERA in five starts), but his sophomore season (4.86 ERA in 133.1 innings) must still be considered a step back. Sal Romano made his 40th start as a major leaguer earlier this week and now owns a career ERA over 5. Tyler Mahle’s ERA over 26 career starts is 4.60. Robert Stephenson remains a human walk machine. Brandon Finnegan was demoted to Triple-A Louisville early in the season; 60-plus innings later his ERA is over 7. Amir Garrett’s strong first half in the bullpen is now a distant memory; his 2018 ERA sits at 4.20, pushing his career ERA to nearly 6 in almost 130 MLB innings. Cody Reed remains unproven.
Now the Reds will pay this offseason—if not with their wallets, then from their depth of quality prospects, and perhaps both—to ensure the front of their rotation isn’t compiled of unproven youngers, Anthony DeSclafani (a solid starter, but injuries have essentially robbed him of two recent seasons), and (gasp) Homer Bailey as the team moves out of the rebuild and into probable contention. I’ve already detailed at length the bounty the Reds would be forced to surrender to acquire a frontline starter.
As for free agency, the Reds could target arms like Patrick Corbin, Dallas Keuchel, and Charlie Morton this winter. But, even though the Reds will have money to spend after mostly reserving the coin for in-house raises over the past few offseasons, free agency can be a very expensive proposition—it’s unlikely Corbin, Keuchel, or Morton will settle for anything less than around $15 million per season. Further, the next prominent free agent starter to ink with the Reds will buck a major trend; the last “marquee” free agent starter to sign with the Reds was Eric Milton in December 2004. He went on to notch a 5.83 ERA in a tad over 370 innings for the Reds.
On a broader scale, in spite of real progress achieved at many levels of the minor leagues by the organization’s best prospects in 2018, injuries to the franchise’s top two prospects has cast an uneasy cloud over the year. Infielder Nick Senzel, the No. 4 prospect in baseball according to MLB.com, was destroying Triple-A before a finger injury cut his season short. He also missed time with vertigo earlier in the season. Starting pitcher Hunter Greene, the No. 2 overall selection in the 2017 draft, flashed his immense potential with Low-A Dayton before an elbow injury ended his campaign.
Perhaps the recruitment of outside help on and off the field to aid the Reds’ pitching woes will alter the trajectory of the franchise’s development issues. If not, Cincinnati may be forced into expensive alternatives.