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
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
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.
The featured image is courtesy of mlb.com
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