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Cincinnati Reds: Spring Training pitching battle

The 2018 Cincinnati Reds spring training has an air of optimism surrounding the camp. The primary weakness of the Reds 2017 season was their starting pitching. Injuries depleted the rotation, with the top three starters in the Reds rotation combining for 20 starts the whole season.

Blue-chip prospects and career minor leaguers were given opportunities to succeed, with 16 different players each receiving the nod on the mound throughout the season. The most telling stat is that it was actually a reliever who led the team in wins last season (Michael Lorenzen with eight wins).

2018 portrays a different story for the Reds, especially in regards to their rotation. Anthony DeSclafani and Homer Bailey are both healthy (knock on wood) and have secure spots at the top of the Reds rotation. Luis Castillo impressed immensely in his 15 starts at the end of the season, being tabbed by baseball media as a future frontline starter.

That leaves two spots in the rotation for Brandon Finnegan, Vance Worley, Robert Stephenson, Sal Romano, Amir Garrett, Rookie Davis, Tyler Mahle, Jackson Stephens, Cody Reed and Michael Lorenzen. I outlined three candidates below who have the best shot at cracking the rotation to start the season with the Reds, followed by a longshot candidate that could creep in unexpectedly as well.

 

Candidate #1 Brandon Finnegan

Cincinnati Reds spring training

Brandon Finnegan hopes to cement his spot in the Reds rotation for the 2018 season and beyond. Photo courtesy of Sam Greene at Cincinnati.com

Brandon Finnegan just needs to show that he can throw the innings and the job is his to lose for the fourth spot in the rotation. In 2016, Finnegan went 10-11 with a 3.98 ERA to go along with a 2.3 WAR. What was most exciting, however, was Finnegan’s second half splits from 2016.

In the last 70 innings of 2016, Finnegan had an ERA of 2.93 and 72 strikeouts (he had 73 strikeouts in 101 innings in the first half of the season). The increase in strikeouts increased his K/9 from 6.48 (1st half) to 9.17, effectively becoming a pitcher who would strikeout a batter an inning per start. Couple that with reducing his walk rate from an ugly 4.71 BB/9 to a 3.95 BB/9 in the second half, and you can see that Finnegan had started to attack the strike zone more as the season wore on.

All signs are pointing to Finnegan being healthy after surgery on his right torn labrum last season. Finnegan just needs to prove that the shoulder can sustain a starter’s workload and pitch like it is 2016 again and the rotation spot is his to lose. If Finnegan struggles, however, there are other candidates waiting to take his spot.

 

 

Candidate #2 Robert Stephenson

Robert Stephenson was a highly lauded prospect with immense upside, but only if he could control it. Bob was in the same situation at spring training last year, but could not secure a consistent starting spot. He spent time in the Reds bullpen, which destroyed his confidence and led to a demotion. Stephenson regained a starting spot in the beginning of August and gave the Reds a strong finish.

He made 10 starts over August and September and looked like he truly belonged during that time. In his last ten starts, Bob had a 2.51 ERA (only had one start where he had more than 3 earned runs), 9.1 K/9, and managed an AVG against below .200 in 50 1/3 innings. The thing to watch with Bob this spring training is his walks, which has held him back in the minors. He overcame them the last two months of the season by increasing his K% to above average levels. If Bob lowers his BB% down below 10%, while maintaining a K%>20 (something he did both the first and second half of the season), Bob may live up to his early career hype.

 

 

Candidate #3 Sal Romano

Cincinnati Reds Spring Training

Sal Romano proved he could hold his own in the majors. Can he carry that over to the Reds’ rotation in 2018? Photo courtesy of Gene J Puskar of the AP.

Sal Romano was a 2011 high school draft pick gained helium on Reds’ prospect lists in the 2017 preseason. Romano pitched well in his 2016 stint in Double-A, seemingly just a year or two away from the majors. Romano was lower on the shortlist for rotation spots relative to the other pitching prospects early on. Sal received his crack at the rotation July 6th and ran with it the rest of the season.

Romano had an interesting first run in the majors. Sal had six starts in a row (August 18th to September 16th) that he gave up three earned runs or less. This stint was highlighted by an eight inning, six strikeout shutout of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Unfortunately, the three starts before and two starts after that stretch combined for 23 earned runs (a 7.76 ERA in those 5 starts). Romano will probably start the season in AAA until the inevitable injury to somebody in the rotation. If Romano puts together a strong spring, it may be enough to earn him the final rotation spot.

 

 

Longshot Candidate: Vance Worley

Vance Worley is definitely more of a longshot opportunity. He was impressive in his rookie and sophomore seasons for the Phillies in 2011 and 2012. Worley made 43 starts for a Phillies rotation that consisted of legends like Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. Vance Worley did not hold that rotation back though, as he put up 4.2 WAR combined in those two seasons.

Worley rose back to prominence in 2014, logging 17 starts for a 2.85 ERA. In 2016, Worley bounced over to the Orioles and put up decent stats as a starter and reliever. The advanced stats suggest otherwise, however, as Worley’s FIP and BB/9 preceded a 2017 downfall. Worley has shown brief glimpses into a MLB caliber pitcher, but his inconsistency has held him back to this point.

So now that we know that Worley is an inconsistent journeyman pitcher, why could he make the Reds’ rotation? It really comes down to how well he pitches in the spring. Worley’s best shot comes if one or more of the Reds’ starters are hampered by injuries this spring. Worley could eat innings for the Reds’ rotation early on, giving the Reds flexibility to leave their prospects in Triple-A. Vance is not on the Reds’ 40 man roster, but the Reds could clear space if the team deems necessary.

Brandon Finnegan, Robert Stephenson and Sal Romano have the best shots of earning spots in the Reds rotation for 2018. Bryan Price, however, is not afraid to give starts to somebody he thinks deserves it based on spring training numbers. Just last year, Rookie Davis won a rotation spot over more well-known peers due to being effective throughout spring training. Price may not follow conventional wisdom, but Finnegan, Stephenson and Romano have the best stuff among the current candidates. Two of them should be in the backend of the Reds rotation by March 29th when the regular season commences.

 

Sam Auricchio

Twitter: @SamAuricchio

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NL Central division

New Year’s Resolutions for NL Central teams

2018 is upon us, and that means it is time to look forward to the year ahead. The NL Central division proved to be one of the most lackluster divisions in 2017, with the Cubs not quite hitting their stride until September, and the Cardinals floating around .500.

With that being said, here are New Year’s resolutions for the five teams in the NL Central to make it a more exciting year.

Cincinnati Reds: Get extended work from young starters

The Reds finished in last place with a 68-94 record. That would make you think they are an all around bad team right? Well, not exactly.

The Reds had a pretty good offense. Joey Votto may have won the MVP if the Reds had more wins, and Scooter Gennett had a breakout year at the plate. They ranked 14th in runs and still have the potential to be one of baseball’s better teams.

What the Reds struggled with was pitching. They were second to last in ERA and could not get much of anything from anybody. However, 2018 is the year where many of their young pitchers should be getting a full season worth of work. Their young core is highlighted by Brandon Finnegan, Luis Castillo and Robert Stephenson.

If these three guys can start to put together a full season worth of solid work, the Reds may be closer to competing than most think.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Plan for the future

NL Central division

Andrew McCutchen may be in his final year in Pittsburgh (Photo from Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports).

Andrew McCutchen is entering the final year of his six-year, $51.5 million contract. He finished 2017 with a respectable .279/.363/.486 slash line, along with 28 home runs and 88 RBIs. Those are stats that can help any team in the majors. The reason I say that is because the Pirates ought to seriously consider moving him before he hits free agency next winter.

The Pirates have a couple good players coming up through their system, such as Austin Meadows, who is the the ninth best prospect in baseball according to MLB.com. Josh Bell also had a great rookie year, and Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte add to a solid outfield.

The only problem is that this team does not seem to be getting anywhere. Pittsburgh finished at 75-87 and fourth in the Central. Marte being suspended for half the year may have had something to do with that, but his presence for a full season alone won’t help them compete for the NL Central crown.

There have already been intense discussions about Gerrit Cole moving to New York. The move does not seem as serious as it once did, but just the fact that there are credible talks out there speaks as to what the Pirates think they can accomplish in 2018. With some of the young talent they have, this is a good opportunity for them to build up for 2019-21.

This coming year looks to be more of a year in limbo for Pittsburgh, so it would be best to get what they can for McCutchen and Cole.

St. Louis Cardinals: Add another bat and a reliever before the regular season

NL Central division

The Ozuna trade shows how serious the Cardinals are about winning now (Photo from Walsh Sports Analytics)

The Cardinals have been the center of multiple rumors this offseason. They were able to land Marcell Ozuna from the Marlins for a fairly reasonable price, so they have that to be happy about. They also signed a pitcher from from the NPB not named Shohei Ohtani in Miles Mikolas. Both acquisitions should make an immediate impact on the ball club.

With Trevor Rosenthal released from the team, the Cardinals are in search for a closer. There are still plenty of names available. Alex Colome has been brought up in multiple trade rumors with the Cardinals, and Greg Holland and Wade Davis are still on the market as well. Any of these three guys would bolster the back of a bullpen that does not have a closer at the moment.

St. Louis should also be in search for one more impact bat. Adding Ozuna was nice, but the front office knows that there is more work to be done.

With the outfield in a comfortable position at the moment, the Cardinals ought to be looking for corner infielders. Ideally, they would like to have Matt Carpenter move around the infield and have Jedd Gyorko as a utility man. Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas are two free agents that come to mind that fit the mold. The only problem is that these two do not provide any extra pop that the Cardinals don’t already have. It would just clutter the infield more.

The Cardinals are still looking for a team to trade with. Manny Machado and Josh Donaldson are both on their radar, but it seems they won’t be traded at least until the All-Star break.

The Cardinals may have to wait until 2018 free agency to add one of these guys, but that should not stop them for looking for a bat this offseason. They are not that far off from competing with the Cubs for the NL Central title in 2018.

Milwaukee Brewers: Build off 2017 success

NL Central division

Travis Shaw was a first time All-Star in 2017 (Photo from Pintrest)

Even though they did not make the playoffs, the Brewers were a pleasant surprise in 2017. Travis Shaw and Eric Thames emerged as above average hitters and made the Brewers a threatening lineup. Jimmy Nelson also broke out as a potential ace in the rotation. They were able to give the Cubs fits and were neck and neck with them until the end.

The organization knows that this is not the time to take any steps back. The Brewers have real potential to make the playoffs, so they are doing what they can to ensure they play at the same type of level they did last year. They have not landed any big name free agents, but the signings of Jhoulys Chacin and Yovani Gallardo show they are serious about improving their rotation and doing what it takes to stay in the thick of things.

Although it is unlikely, signing an arm like Jake Arrieta or Yu Darvsih would be tremendously helpful. The Brewers had the lowest payroll in 2017, so that says a lot about what they were able to accomplish in the NL Central. If they were able to spend a little more money, who knows what they might be able to do.

Chicago Cubs: Stay separated from the rest of the pack

After the Cubs broke their legendary drought in 2016, it looked as if it would be impossible to dethrone the Cubs for the years to come. After 2017, it is evident that is not the case. Kyle Schwarber struggled at the plate greatly and Jason Heyward is not playing up to his contract. Now that Jake Arrieta and Wade Davis have hit free agency, the Cubs look vulnerable.

It is still important to remember the Cubs have the best pieces out of anyone in the Central. There is no reason they can’t make 2018 the fourth consecutive year they make the NLCS. However, the Cardinals look like they have a decent shot at making things more difficult for the Cubs. The Brewers also may be even better next year.

The Cubs have had some solid signings thus far. They signed Tyler Chatwood and Brandon Morrow, who are two excellent pickups for their rotation.

What the Cubs are hoping for is continued growth from the 2016 MVP, Kris Bryant. He still had a great 2017, but he has the potential to be a perennial MVP contender. Along with Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs have a lot of pieces in place for success. They just need to make sure it is enough to fend off the Brewers and Cardinals.

Either way, this should be an exciting year in the Central and could lay ground for what happens in the future as well.

 

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The Spring Injury Report: Next Man Up

The injury bug is a dreaded topic for teams and fans alike. Managers are settling in on their Opening Day rosters with two short weeks remaining until regular season action. Unfortunately, they must contend with the question of who will bridge the gap while the starters recover.

Today, The Game Haus takes a look at some of the most impactful injuries from around the league. Who are the big names? How will teams have cope with their absence? Who will step into the role in the short term?

 

Jason Kipnis

Injury Update:

Strained Rotator Cuff – Out 4-5 weeks

Analysis:

Kipnis experienced a brief, five-day shutdown early in camp with what was described as shoulder soreness. The injury didn’t appear serious at the time, but it has escalated from what the team originally expected.

Kipnis has no history for this type of injury, which should give fans some comfort this won’t be a reoccurring issue. However, the escalation of “soreness” to now missing over a month does provide cause for concern.

Next Man Up: Jose Ramirez

The extremely versatile Jose Ramirez played the role of ultimate utility man last season. He spent time primarily at third base and left field. Ramirez also has experience at shortstop. The transition over to second base may be challenging, but Ramirez has the skill set to manage.

The Indians don’t have many options in terms of late spring acquisition, and the farm lacks depth at second. The other problem this creates will be backfilling Ramirez at third. Fortunately for the Indians, minor leaguer Giovanny Urshela has some MLB experience and would provide a serviceable stopgap at third.

Kipnis is undoubtedly a critical part of this Indians lineup, but Ramirez has proven more than capable and should be able to carry the load in the meantime.

 

Ian Desmond

Injury Update:

Fractured Left Hand – Expected out until late April

Analysis:

This is an incredibly frustrating injury for both Desmond and the Rockies. Desmond was slated to be the everyday first baseman before being hit by a pitch during a spring training game. The Rockies made a sizeable offseason investment to the tune of five years and $70 million.

It looks as though Desmond is slated to return at the end of April after receiving surgery on his hand. Disappointing as it is, one month out of the entire season shouldn’t give the Rockies much cause for concern.

Next Man Up: Mark ReynoldsThe Spring Injury Report: Next Man Up

With Desmond out and Gerardo Parra taking increasing repetitions in the outfield, first base falls to veteran Mark Reynolds. Reynolds looks likely to win the job, but will compete this spring against younger options Jordan Patterson and Stephen Cardullo.

Reynolds hasn’t traditionally hit for average, but he did bat .282 in 116 games last season. He also brings a decent power threat to the table, which should play well in an already strong Rockies offense.

You can’t replace Desmond’s production in the short term, but if he returns fully healthy at the end of April, the Rockies won’t miss much.

 

Anthony DeSclafani

Injury Update:

Sprained UCL, right elbow – Expected out 1-2 Months

Analysis:

DeSclafani is listed as the ace of this Red’s pitching staff to put this loss in context. The Reds aren’t seen as a highly viable contender this year, but losing starting pitching hurts regardless. The good news is that the injury won’t require Tommy John surgery as is so prevalent in the MLB today. A speedy recovery should see DeSclafani back in a rotation that will undoubtedly be missing him by May.

The Spring Injury Report: Next Man UpNext Man (Men) Up: Tim Adleman, Bronson Arroyo, Rookie Davis, Amir Garrett, Cody Reed, Sal Romano and Robert Stephenson

Wow, talk about a spring training competition. Adelman is currently listed highest on the depth chart at number four out of all those names. That should be an indication of how many spots were up for grabs before this injury.

With this many rotation spots in flux, the balance of these names will end up in the bullpen. The Reds will need a lot more than one guy to step up if they’re going to successfully bridge the gap until DeSclafani’s return.

The silver lining here is that for a rebuilding team, plenty of young players will have the opportunity to develop. It may feel like an awfully long season for the Reds’ fans and their organization while they wait for that development to happen.

 

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Free Agents

NL Central Recap Week Three

Photo courtesy of sportingnews.com

Photo courtesy of sportingnews.com

The NL Central is holding steady so far, with the teams still in the same spot in the standings as they were a week ago.

The Chicago Cubs maintain one of the best records in baseball. The Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals are lurking around .500 and the Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers are staying in it.

There were plenty of story lines in week three for the Central including a special performance on the mound from perhaps the best pitcher in all of baseball. Let’s dive right into it and take a look at how each team fared this week.

Chicago Cubs: 14-5, 1st place in the NL Central (6-1 last week)

This just in, the Cubs and Jake Arrieta are really good. Over the past week the Cubbies swept their arch rival Cardinals in a 3 game set and took 3 of 4 from the Reds.

The 6-1 week improved what was already one of the best records in all of baseball coming into the week, and helped them stretch out a 4 game divisional lead in the early going.

Intriguing stat line of the week: Jake Arrieta’s no-hitter, 9.0 innings, 0 H’s, 0 R’s, 4 BB’s, and 6 SO’s. This was a pretty easy one. No-hitters only come around so often and Arrieta took care of the Reds with ease on Thursday while seeing his teammates give him 16 runs of support.

Player to watch: Jake Arrieta. Spotlighting the same player twice in this recap may be overkill, but, Arrieta’s historic start deserves it. Now with a 0.87 ERA on the young season, Arrieta is starting to look like the best pitcher in all of baseball. Clayton Kershaw might have something to say about that, but if Arrieta continues this trend he started in the 2nd half of last season, he may just have one of the best seasons by a starting pitcher ever.

St. Louis Cardinals: 10-8, 2nd place in the NL Central (2-4 last week)

The Cardinals ran into a freight train in the Cubs to start the week, getting swept in a 3 game set, before taking 2 of 3 from the San Diego Padres to cap off the week.

With the win over the weekend the Cardinals were able to finish the week above .500 and maintain their 2nd place status in the division.

Intriguing stat line of the week: Adam Wainwright 6.0 innings, 7 H’s, 3 ER’s, 1 BB, 2 SO’s. Coming off an Achilles injury last season, Wainwright is off to a tough start to the season. His quality start against the San Diego Padres is an improvement upon what he had done prior, but, it’s still not particularly impressive. If Wainwright can return to pre-injury form for the Red Birds it would be huge, it doesn’t look like he is there quite yet though.

Player to Watch: Jedd Gyorko. Gyorko once looked like a future star with the Padres, blasting 23 HR’s in his rookie season in 2013. Since then it has been mostly disappointment for the young infielder. Already with four HR’s on the young season to go with a stellar .289 batting average and .999 OPS, Gyorko may force his way into everyday at-bats if Kolten Wong continues to struggle at second base for the Cardinals.

Pittsburgh Pirates 10-9, 3rd place in the NL Central, (3-3 last week)

The Pirates failed to capitalize on an opportunity to beat up on the subpar San Diego Padres, losing 2 of 3 to them to start the week. They managed to bounce back over the weekend to take 2 of 3 from the D-Backs and remain over .500.

The Pirates have avoided the same slow start they had last season, and are set up in good position to make a run at some point and be right in playoff contention.

Intriguing stat line of the week: Jordy Mercer. 3 for 4, 1 HR, RBI’s, 1 BB, 2 R’s. Mercer has been given the opportunity to bat leadoff against lefties and he is making the most of his early season opportunities. His great game on Friday was a good showing that justified the Pirates batting him leadoff against lefties.

Player to Watch: Jung Ho Kang. After an impressive rookie season cut short by a gruesome injury, Kang is on the road to recovery playing in rehab games with AAA Indianapolis. Provided there aren’t any setbacks, Kang should rejoin the Pirates this week and presumably take David Freese’s spot in the lineup.

Cincinnati Reds 9-10, 4th place in the NL Central, (3-4 last week)

The Reds continue to lurk at the bottom of the division, keeping themselves within striking distance. They managed to take 2 of 3 from the Rockies to start the week. They even managed to snag 1 game in the 4 game set against the Cubs despite being outscored by a whopping 24 runs in the series.

Facing the Mets and Pirates in 3 game sets on the road this upcoming week will be a good test for the Reds. If they go 3-3 against these playoff teams from 2015, it might be time to start taking the Reds more seriously.

Intriguing stat line of the week: Robert Stephenson 7.0 innings, 3 H’s, 1 ER, 2 BB, 3 SO’s. In just his second big league start Stephenson dominated a power filled Rockies lineup. The 23 year-old rookie is looking solid so far through his first 2 big league starts and should be considered a part of the wave of young pitching talent set to contribute to the Reds in 2016.

Player to Watch: Eugenio Suarez. Suarez continues to look like one of the top breakout players in all of baseball in 2016. He’s currently slashing .300/.355/.529 to go along with five HR’s and three SB’s. Suarez makes the Reds lineup look much better if he can continue to be a productive bat.

Milwaukee Brewers 8-11, 5th place in the NL Central, (3-4 last week)

After splitting a four-game home and home series against an interleague opponent in the Minnesota Twins, the Brewers missed a chance to capitalize and have a winning week by losing a 3 game set to the Philadelphia Phillies.

They remain within striking distance, and despite the possibility of a full on rebuild later on in the season, the Brewers are doing enough currently to keep their slim playoff hopes alive.

Intriguing stat line of the week: Jeremy Jeffress 1.0 inning, 3 hits, 3 ER’s, 0 BB’s, 0 K’s. Tapped as the Brewers closer after an injury to Will Smith toward the end of Spring Training, Jeffress has been mostly fine so far. He came in on Saturday to hold a deficit at 1 for the bottom of the 9th and instead surrendered a 3-run HR to Odubel Herrera. The Brewers need Jeffress at the back end of the ‘Pen so hopefully this was just a mulligan of an outing

Player to Watch: Chris Carter. Carter is somehow managing to slash .295/.361/.689 with five HR’s and nine doubles to start the season. The power numbers aren’t surprising, but, the batting average is as he’s coming off a season where he hit below .200. His BABIP of .333 is a little high, but, nothing astronomical. So maybe Carter can continue to provide power while also managing to hit something more respectable like .240.