by Steve Mancuso

Michael Lorenzen: What if and what now?

Michael Lorenzen’s time with the Reds is coming to an end this fall. After completing six years of major league service, as laid out in the sport’s bargaining agreement, Lorenzen will have earned the right to free agency. So barring an unforeseen last-minute extension, the muscular 29-year-old will be able to negotiate with any team for his services.

Despite that long tenure in Cincinnati, the Reds still haven’t quite figured out what to do with him. Once again, they face the recurring and crucial fork in the road about how to best take advantage of Lorenzen’s enormous talent. That’s nothing new. It’s the central dilemma that has confronted the club since they chose Lorenzen in the first round of the 2013 amateur draft. 

Remember, at the time of his selection, Michael Lorenzen hadn’t begun a baseball game on the pitcher’s mound.

That basic fact has remained at the core of uncertainty about what to do with such a magnificent and compelling player. Lorenzen had been a first-team All-American his junior year at college baseball powerhouse Cal State Fullerton, but as the team’s center fielder. Because of his outstanding arm, Lorenzen was asked by the Titans manager to trot in from the outfield to close out games. Lorenzen did that 42 times over two seasons.

But he had never started. 

Rushed into a new role

The first decision the Reds made regarding Lorenzen was that he would give up playing outfield to become a pitcher. Then they chose to groom him as a starter. Lorenzen was assigned to the club’s reliever-to-starter experiment that included top picks Nick Howard and Tony Cingrani. In 2014, Lorenzen started 24 games for AA-Pensacola.

The Reds rushed Lorenzen’s progress. As the 2015 season opened, the team was staring down a starting pitcher shortage. Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon had happily been off-loaded for financial reasons. Cingrani had moved back to the bullpen. Homer Bailey made two starts before being sidelined with elbow issues that would lead to Tommy John surgery. Deadline trades of Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake were looming. 

Michael Lorenzen’s assignment to the Reds rotation was all but forced by the gross mishandling of player personnel at the front edge of the organization’s sputtering rebuild. Lorenzen was called up, not on his own schedule, but when Bailey’s elbow gave out. The 23-year-old out of Anaheim ended up starting the second-most games for the 2015 Reds. Only Anthony DeSclafani logged more.

But Lorenzen’s performance in 2015 was iffy enough — understandable, given his lack of experience in a rotation — that his future role as a starter wasn’t certain. Then came the injuries. 

History re-repeating

In the third week of March 2016, having come to camp competing to remain as a starter, Lorenzen suffered a ligament sprain in the elbow of his pitching arm. The injury was described as “mild” by doctors.

Lorenzen said he hadn’t pushed things. “I was being smart about it. I’d rather take a couple weeks off during spring training than miss time during the season.”

Lorenzen made his first appearance on June 24. He pitched the entire 2016 season from the bullpen. And also all of 2017.

In the third week of March 2018, having come to camp competing for a spot in the Reds rotation, Lorenzen felt a pain in the shoulder of his pitching arm. He was diagnosed with a Grade 1 strain of the teres major muscle. Grade 1 strains are at the mild end of a continuum up to Grade 3 which is termed severe. He was shut down.

Lorenzen made his first appearance on July 25. He pitched almost the entire 2018 season from the bullpen. Also all of 2019 and nearly all of 2020.

In the third week of March 2021, having come to camp competing for a spot in the Reds rotation, Lorenzen felt something in his pitching shoulder that wasn’t right. As he was being stretched out to pitch in the rotation and was working on a new curveball, he walked off the field of an intra-squad game.

“I don’t think I’ll miss any time at all,” said the 28-year-old pitcher. One more outing in March and he’d be ready.

“All indications are it’s not going to be any sort of long-term injury,” said his manager David Bell.

“I knew I was just going to shut it down. I know it’s not that bad. Instead of being out for a month and a half, I don’t think I’ll miss any time at all,” said Lorenzen.

Lorenzen’s ambitious plan to return had a setback at the end of spring training. It’s now April 12. Bell said yesterday that Lorenzen’s strained right shoulder isn’t progressing “as fast as he would like it to be.” We’ll learn more after the two sit down to talk this coming weekend in Cincinnati.

What if? 

Playing the “what if” game with Michael Lorenzen is agonizing. Reader discretion advised. 

What if the Reds had kept Michael Lorenzen in centerfield, where he had played in college? Have I mentioned he was a first-team All-American? We’ve seen breathtaking flashes of Lorenzen in the batter’s box. The mind of a Reds fan reels imaging how Lorenzen might have hit had he worked on it every day. 

Even today, eight years later, Lorenzen is the best defensive CF on the team. That’s said in full acknowledgement that Nick Senzel has started to look like a talented, hard-charging outfielder, not a square peg in a round hole. (See earlier reference to personnel mismanagement.) With his speed, Lorenzen would have provided everyday plus-value as a base runner.

The Reds could have developed Lorenzen at standard pace as heir-apparent to Billy Hamilton. With an arrival time for Lorenzen of 2016-2017, they could have traded Hamilton for a good return, instead of letting him go years later for nothing. The Reds could have kept Senzel in a natural infield position to ease his pro transition.

The hard truth is that while Michael Lorenzen has been good in the bullpen, he’s not a shut-down guy. From 2017-2020, his xFIP ranged from 10% better than league average to a few points worse than average. That has value. So does a rangy centerfielder with a cannon for an arm who hits 25 home runs a year.

One other regrettable part of this saga: There’s a good chance Lorenzen would have improved more had the Reds pitching development not been a horse-and-buggy operation. That’s a whole other layer of “what if.”

Agonizing, like I said.

What now? 

Given the circumstances, we need to ask two questions about Michael Lorenzen and his role for the 2021 Reds.

First, does timing dictate putting Lorenzen back in the bullpen?

It has been nearly a month since his injury. Lorenzen has played catch but there have been no reports of him throwning off a mound since. Even assuming he returns to full health, does the layoff mean he has to start from scratch in building up his pitch count? Lorenzen could help the Reds sooner if the goal was to get him back to the bullpen. As far as needing him for a rotation spot, Tejay Antone seems ready for making that jump, if the Reds feel a new arm is necessary.

A more fundamental question is this: Is Michael Lorenzen’s right arm trying to tell the Reds something?

This spring marks the third time Lorenzen has started the season on the injured list. Each time he was stretching out to a starting role and the injury concerned his pitching arm. Shoulder injuries for baseball players can be serious. Five years ago, Raisel Iglesias was the Reds most promising young starting pitcher in a good while, having already worked his way from Cuba to the Opening Day mound at the age of 26. But two bouts of shoulder trouble landed Iglesias in the bullpen for the rest of his career. That move was prudent. There’s risk in tempting fate in a profession where three-strikes-and-you’re-out has more than one real meaning.

So, back to April 2021 and the choice today that confronts the Reds. Should the Reds prep Michael Lorenzen for the starting rotation or the bullpen?

It is understandable Lorenzen wants to be a starting pitcher. Not only does that offer a hefty challenge for a guy who seems to thrive on them and who has chafed at the limits his bullpen role has imposed. But as Lorenzen’s final season before selling his wares in free agency, it’s his last chance to prove he can start. And get paid like one.

On the other side of the equation, it also made sense for the Reds to try Lorenzen (again) in the rotation. To be sure, he will have value as a reliever in this Reds bullpen. But as a solid fifth starter, Lorenzen would provide even more payoff on the field or trade value at the deadline.

The choice ultimately depends on information that folks outside his inner-circle won’t know. Or that maybe no one, even his doctors, will know. Like what’s the risk his shoulder injury will recur? Does it relate to pitching load? Maybe Lorenzen just needs to stop throwing that new curveball and he’ll be fine. Or maybe it’s time for Michael Lorenzen and the Reds organization to listen to that right arm of his.

Then again, the injuries might be a coincidence. The one in 2016 was an elbow and hasn’t recurred. Michael Lorenzen did start in 2014 and 2015 without physical troubles. At the end of 2020, he built up his pitch count and made two clutch starts in big September games.

Lorenzen as ill-fated starter might not be destiny.

But that’s the context. Now, one final time, we watch as the Cincinnati Reds choose a path for Michael Lorenzen. 

Photo: Frank Jansky (Icon Sportswire)

Steve Mancuso is a lifelong Reds fan who grew up during the Big Red Machine era. He’s been writing about the Reds for more than ten years. Steve’s fondest memories about the Reds include attending a couple 1975 World Series games, being at Homer Bailey’s second no-hitter and going nuts for Jay Bruce at Clinchmas. Steve was also at all three games of the 2012 NLDS, but it’s too soon to talk about that.