Pitchers and catchers have officially reported to spring training and baseball is right around the corner. The rebuilding Reds have a litany of interesting roster battles set to unfold in the coming month-and-a-half, with many spots there for the taking.
On Monday, Steve analyzed which position players will make the Opening Day roster. Today, it’s time for the pitchers!
Quick housekeeping items:
- Teams are only permitted to carry 13 pitchers on the 26-man roster under the new collective bargaining agreement.
- For each player, you’ll see a graphic showing their Opening Day age, throwing arm, and their projected ERA and FIP. FanGraphs Depth Charts projections, which blend ZiPS and Steamer projections, are used.
Without further ado, here’s our first crack at projecting the Opening Day pitching staff.
The Starting Rotation
It’s a two-horse race between Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo for Opening Day starter. Either one would be worthy of the honor. But Opening Day is a spectacle in Cincinnati — and there’s no bigger spectacle on the Reds’ pitching staff than Greene. He gets the nod here.
Greene’s rookie season was a roller coaster, but it ended on a high note. He returned from a month-long stint on the injured list on September 17 and eviscerated opponents over his last four starts. For what it’s worth, his two starts before hitting the IL were pretty good, too. Put those six starts together and he ended the year with a 1.02 ERA, 1.70 FIP, 2.63 xFIP, and ludicrous 30.9 K-BB% in his final 35.1 innings.
As MLB.com’s David Adler wrote about, Greene’s vaunted velocity only increased as the year came to a close, averaging 99.8 mph over his last four outings. He added more spin to his heater, too, helping it drop less and allowing him to get more whiffs on fastballs up in the zone. One point that the article didn’t mention is that Greene got also more horizontal movement on his fastball as the season went along.
In this case, a downward trend is good — it means Greene’s fastball tailed more toward righty hitters and away from lefties.
We’ve gotten this far and haven’t even mentioned Greene’s ridiculous slider, which registered a 38.0% whiff rate and .245 xwOBA last season. Even without a quality third pitch, Greene’s fastball and slider are nasty enough to make him an excellent big-league pitcher. But if he improves his changeup as well, look out.
The former seventh overall draft pick made the Cincinnati rotation out of spring training last year, but his rookie season hit a snag after three starts when he strained his lower back. The injury kept him off a big-league mound for two-and-a-half months, but he showed no ill effects when he returned. Lodolo stayed in the rotation the rest of the season, posting a 3.35 ERA, 3.78 FIP, and 3.55 xFIP over 88.2 innings to close out the year. His hot stretch from July to October was enough to earn a couple of votes for NL Rookie of the Year, as he tied for sixth with Pirates shortstop Oneil Cruz.
Greene wasn’t the only rookie striking out batters left and right. Lodolo had a 29.7% strikeout rate in his first season, finishing 13th among pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched (Greene was seventh). They were the first pair of rookie teammates in MLB history to pitch 100 innings and have a strikeout rate of at least 29%.
Another similarity with Greene: Lodolo worked with the Reds’ pitching coaches to improve his already-impressive arsenal, adding more movement to his curveball and better distinguishing his fastballs, as outlined by Justin Choi at FanGraphs. Lodolo, of course, has a different repertoire than Greene. The TCU product throws plenty hard (63rd percentile velocity), but he has an arm angle that makes it tough for hitters to pick up the ball and generates a lot of horizontal movement. All four of his pitches — sinker, four-seamer, curveball, and changeup — got at least three inches of horizontal movement above average. Lodolo also got ground balls at a 46.0% clip, which was actually well below his minor-league numbers but still above the MLB average (42.9%).
All this is to say Lodolo looked the part of a former top-10 pick and top-20 prospect. There’s no reason to think he can’t build on it in 2023.
The third pitcher in a formidable rookie trio, Ashcraft was called up to make his MLB debut in Toronto last May. He pitched well enough that he never returned to the minor leagues, minus a brief rehab stint at the end of the season. Ashcraft finished with a 4.89 ERA due to a rough stretch to end the season, but his peripheral numbers were much better (4.21 FIP, 4.09 xFIP).
Ashcraft’s velocity is nearly as flashy as Greene’s, as he ranked in the 94th percentile (97.3 mph). Only four starting pitchers threw more 100-mph fastballs than Ashcraft (47): Greene (337), Jordan Hicks (92), Jacob deGrom (80), and Sandy Alcantara (56). Unlike those pitchers, though, Ashcraft’s primary fastball is a cutter. Only two pitchers, both relievers, had a higher average cutter velocity. Brewers ace Corbin Burnes was the closest starting pitcher to Ashcraft at 95.0 mph.
Ashcraft proved tough to square up, with his average exit velocity ranking in the 83rd percentile and his barrel rate in the 88th percentile. His power cutter, along with a slider and sinker, helped him keep the ball on the infield dirt. His 54.5% ground-ball rate was eighth among all starters with 100 innings last year.
That Burnes comparison jumps out, but Ashcraft will need to figure out how to strike out more hitters to reach that level. Ashcraft had a 15.3% strikeout rate in 2022, which ranked in the sixth percentile. Fortunately, he displayed much better control than he did in his minor-league career, ranking in the 70th percentile with a 6.5% walk rate. If Ashcraft can figure out how to miss more bats, his potential is huge.
With the first three rotation spots locked up by the young guns, the final two are up for grabs.
Barring injury, Cessa will make the Opening Day roster. His role remains to be seen. He transitioned from relieving to starting last August, joining a Reds rotation decimated by injuries and trades. In what were his first starts since 2018, the right-hander acclimated himself well with a 3.77 ERA in 43 innings. The peripherals screamed for regression (5.07 FIP, 4.40 xFIP), but the Reds could probably live with Cessa pitching close to that xFIP in 2023.
Cessa isn’t flashy. He gets some whiffs with his slider, but he isn’t a high-strikeout pitcher even as a reliever. He generally throws strikes, though, and has previous experience starting. There’s a strong chance Cessa slides back to a relief role later in the season if he struggles or the Reds feel a prospect like Brandon Williamson is ready.
Notably, Cessa will miss a good chunk of Reds camp because he’s pitching for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic. However, he’s expected to be part of Mexico’s rotation, which should allow him to continue stretching out for a starter’s workload. If a younger pitcher such as Williamson, Levi Stoudt, or Justin Dunn comes into camp and impresses, the Reds would probably be happy to move Cessa — who is a free agent after the season — back to the bullpen. But for the time being, we’ll put Cessa in the Opening Day rotation.
The fifth spot is also anyone’s for the taking. Along with Williamson, Stoudt, and Dunn, Connor Overton will also get a chance to prove his cameo last season wasn’t a fluke. The Reds signed Weaver to a one-year deal in early January, with a chance to make the rotation.
A former top-100 prospect with the Cardinals, injuries have kept Weaver from reaching his potential. He hasn’t started more than 13 games or thrown more than 65 innings since 2018. Last year, the Diamondbacks moved him to the bullpen after he left his first start of the season with elbow inflammation. He’ll have to re-prove he can handle a starter’s workload. But there’s at least some evidence he has something left in the tank, which could land him a starting job if he’s healthy. He has the most MLB starting experience in the group, so he’s the pick for now.
Díaz was the Reds’ best reliever last year, bursting on the scene to make the 2022 Opening Day roster despite never pitching above Double-A. He rewarded the team’s faith in him by posting a 1.84 ERA and a 32.5% strikeout rate in 63.2 innings. Díaz throws hard from a funky arm angle (81st percentile in velocity), and it looks like he throws even faster to hitters because he gets elite extension (100th percentile). He pairs the heater with a wicked slider that notched a 45% whiff rate in 2022.
Unsurprisingly, he was almost as hard to hit as his older brother, Mets all-star closer Edwin Díaz. The younger Díaz ranked in the 85th percentile or better in average exit velocity, hard-hit rate, expected batting average, expected slugging percentage, expected ERA, strikeout rate, and whiff rate.
An inflated walk rate (12.9%) is cause for concern, and it’s why his projected ERA above is approaching 4.00. If he can throw more strikes in 2023, Díaz can easily beat those projections.
It was a lost season for Sims in 2022. He started the season on the IL due to back spasms. He returned on April 23 but pitched in only six games before his back flared up again. When Sims was on the mound, he didn’t look healthy. His velocity was down by nearly 2 mph and he gave up seven runs and six walks in 6.2 innings. The back injury eventually got so bad that he couldn’t feel one of his feet, resulting in the need for season-ending surgery.
Sims was expected to recover in time for his normal offseason training, which should leave him ready to enter the season in the Reds bullpen. The right-hander had a 4.40 ERA in 2021, but his peripheral numbers pointed toward better things in the future (2.47 xERA, 3.00 FIP, 3.03 xFIP) and he was dominant in the final two months. When healthy, Sims has shown off a high-spin fastball that sits in the mid-90s and two breaking balls, a curveball and a slider, with whiff rates over 40%. Along with Díaz, Sims will see a lot of work in high-leverage situations.
With Kyle shipped to the Twin Cities, there’s only one Farmer in town now. After making the club as a non-roster invite last year, Buck Farmer was designated for assignment in May — a baffling choice over Hunter Strickland, who somehow stayed in the Reds bullpen all season. The team re-signed Farmer to a minor-league deal and he pitched his way back to Cincinnati in July. Unlike many of the bullpen fill-ins throughout the year, Farmer actually earned his call-up and proved he belonged to stay.
Behind increased velocity and a revamped slider, Farmer had his best MLB season by almost any metric — his 3.51 xERA, 3.03 FIP, 3.86 xFIP, and 27.1% strikeout rate were all career bests. His 3.83 ERA was the third-lowest of his career. His 1.0 fWAR tied Díaz for the team lead among relievers. It wound up being an easy choice for the Reds to tender Farmer a contract in November; he agreed to a $1.75-million deal for the upcoming season and will be a free agent entering 2024.
Whether Farmer can repeat that success in 2023 at age 32 remains to be seen. His 12.6% walk rate, preceded by a 12.3% mark the year before, is a giant red flag. The answer will likely come down to whether he keeps missing bats at the same clip or regresses to his career norm.
A complete unknown to Reds fans before last season, Ian Gibaut was claimed off waivers from the Dodgers in July and pitched fairly well in the second half. The 4.50 ERA wasn’t anything to get excited about, but the peripheral numbers were excellent (3.27 xERA, 3.11 FIP, 3.51 xFIP), largely thanks to a 30.0% strikeout rate. Gibaut is out of minor-league options, which makes him a virtual lock for the Opening Day bullpen.
Gibaut throws hard, with an average fastball velocity of 95.8 mph. It looks even faster to hitters because Gibaut — like Díaz — gets excellent extension (92nd percentile). His perceived fastball velocity was a full mile per hour faster (96.8) than the actual reading. Gibaut doesn’t have an elite secondary pitch like Diaz, but his changeup and slider have both shown some promise. Like every pitcher before him on this list, Gibaut has some control issues with a career 12.5% walk rate (11.3% in 2022).
With the Reds again lacking proven left-handed relievers, Reiver Sanmartin is a shoe-in for the Opening Day roster. Sanmartin made the rotation to start last season because Luis Castillo and Mike Minor began the year on the IL. Sanmartin’s four starts were disastrous, and he was optioned to Louisville at the beginning of May. He returned in mid-June as a reliever and closed out the season on a strong note, posting a 3.32 ERA, 4.05 FIP, and 4.15 xFIP the rest of the way.
Sanmartin had a passable strikeout rate (21.4%) as a reliever, but his strikeout rate was more than twice as high against lefties (29.3%) versus righties (14.0%). Where he excelled was getting ground balls. His 58.8% ground-ball rate was 10th-best among all relievers with at least 40 innings last year. Sanmartin had a concerning walk rate (11.6%), but there’s hope he can bring that number down because he was a prominent strike-thrower in the minors (4.9 BB% in 446 IP).
This is where confidence levels start to dip for the bullpen predictions. The 2022 season was mostly a wash for Santillan, who didn’t pitch after June 13 due to a back injury. The right-hander was fantastic after shifting to the bullpen for a reliever-needy Reds team in 2021. Last year, he was often used as a high-leverage reliever when healthy, with inconsistent results. He finished the year with a forgettable 5.49 ERA, 4.56 xERA, 4.08 FIP, and 5.15 xFIP. He continued to walk too many batters (12.5 BB%) and although his fastball velocity increased, his strikeout rate plummeted from 29.5% in 2021 to 21.9% in 2022 as his slider command disappeared.
We can probably chalk that up to the back injury, but Santillan wasn’t exactly known for his pinpoint control and command to begin with. Still, he’s more likely than not to make the Opening Day bullpen.
You won’t find many pitchers with a FanGraphs page as confusing as Kuhnel’s. His 6.36 ERA last season was abysmal. But his xERA, FIP, and xFIP were all under 4.00. Remember, these metrics all factor out variables a pitcher can’t control: defense, luck on balls in play, inherited runners given up by relievers who pitch after them, and official scoring decisions. What’s behind the discrepancy? Let’s refer back to a late-season newsletter item from Steve for answers (statistics updated through the end of the year):
On the plus side: Kuhnel has an excellent 52.2% ground ball rate where the league average is just 43.5% … Best of all, Kuhnel has only walked 5.5% of the batters he’s faced. That’s less than half [Alexis] Díaz’s walk rate and well below league average of 9.1%. Those are strong fundamentals.
On the minus side: Kuhnel has given up a .343 batting average on balls in play (league BABIP: .288) and a home run per fly ball rate of 15.1% (league HR/FB: 10.8%). The balls have fallen in and gone over the fence in a disproportionate manner.
The elevated BABIP and HR/FB may have been elevated due to some bad luck, but a propensity for giving up hard contact didn’t help (12th percentile in exit velocity, 32nd in hard-hit rate). Still, there’s a reason the Reds didn’t designate Kuhnel for assignment this offseason amid a multitude of 40-man roster additions. The fact that they’re rebuilding plays a role; a contending team likely would’ve moved on from Kuhnel. However, the ability to throw strikes and get ground balls has value in Great American Ball Park. Let’s pencil him into the bullpen for now.
Predicting the last spot in the bullpen is always a crapshoot. But the Reds are going to need more than one lefty, and Young will be one of only five southpaws in camp. Three of them are starters (Lodolo, Williamson, Andrew Abbott), and one is already listed above (Sanmartin). That leaves Young as the final option remaining.
The Reds signed Young to a minor-league deal earlier this offseason. A native of Westlake, Ohio, Young began his career with the Diamondbacks. He was a waiver claim by the Guardians in 2021 and was traded to the Giants in 2022 after being DFA’d for the second time in his career. Young had a career-best 2.39 ERA and 2.96 FIP in 24 games with San Francisco. His 4.14 xFIP indicates he probably overachieved, as he didn’t give up a home run and had worse-than-average strikeout and walk rates. Young is cut from the same cloth as Sanmartin in that he’s a sinker-baller who throws lots of changeups and sliders as well as gets a lot of grounders (54.2% in 2022).
The Reds could choose to enter the year with only one lefty reliever. They carried only one southpaw in the bullpen for most of last year and at times had none. If that’s the case, Fernando Cruz would be the predicted next man up.
Featured photo by Rick Ulreich/Icon Sportswire
I hope we see Williamson in the starting rotation rather than Cessa or Weaver!
great breakdown, thanks!