The Reds’ Rotation Situation

The Reds’ Rotation Situation

The Reds come into the weekend with a decision to make, with the return of Hunter Greene to the team’s starting rotation. Greene was pushed back from a scheduled start on Monday, and is now scheduled to pitch on Sunday in St. Louis, after experiencing some hip discomfort. On Thursday, David Bell reiterated the plan for Greene to return on Sunday, leaving the Reds with a decision.

The Reds currently sit with six pitchers in the starting rotation, which has left the bullpen a bit more stressed, having just seven relievers. It’s clear that the six-man rotation was never intended to be a long term solution, but what’s less clear is how they will attempt to resolve the logjam. The truth is, excluding Greene and rookie Andrew Abbott, who made his first career start in Greene’s place on Monday, the Reds’ rotation has struggled all season. It’s arguably been the team’s biggest weakness, with each of the other starters posting high ERAs, subpar peripherals, or a combination of both.

Second year pitchers Graham Ashcraft and Nick Lodolo haven’t pitched nearly to the level we saw from them last season. Lodolo currently sits on the 60-day IL, and his return is still a while away, so he won’t factor in to the short term plan. Ashcraft could, though his 6.78 ERA, 5.12 FIP, and 4.75 xFIP through 65 innings across 13 starts certainly don’t make that a guarantee.

Ashcraft also left his start on Thursday after being hit in the leg by a batted ball, though Ashcraft didn’t sound like he expected the injury to linger for more than a few days. Still, it’s worth wondering if a trip to AAA to work on some things and get right might be the best solution, particularly when it comes to Ashcraft’s confidence and long term future. The Blue Jays sent Alek Manoah, a young pitcher with even more prior success than Ashcraft, to the minor leagues this week after a string of rough starts to begin his season, so it wouldn’t be shocking to see the Reds do something similar with Ashcraft.

Rookie Brandon Williamson goes into the weekend with a 5.40 ERA, 6.21 FIP, and 5.66 xFIP and is coming off his worst start of the season against the Dodgers. He wasn’t exactly lighting up AAA before getting the call to Cincinnati either, actually posting a higher ERA, FIP, and xFIP in AAA this season. It’s fair to wonder if he was rushed to the Majors and would be better off with some more development time, and sending Williamson to AAA might be the most likely outcome for an immediate solution.

Veterans Luke Weaver and Ben Lively have both struggled as well, though in very different ways. Weaver has posted a 6.27 ERA, but his 5.46 FIP, 4.24 xFIP, and even his 4.51 xERA all indicate he’s pitched better than that. Lively has been essentially the opposite, posting a shiny 3.03 ERA, backed by less optimistic peripherals. His 4.73 FIP and 3.94 xFIP still don’t seem terrible, but they point to some impending regression, and he doesn’t exactly have a strong track record to fall back on.

What both Weaver and Lively have working in their favor is that each has experience pitching from the bullpen. That likely will keep both safely on the roster, at least for now, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see either transition into a reliever role. Weaver in particular worked almost exclusively out of the bullpen last season, and hasn’t racked up large inning totals throughout his entire career. It’s likely that at some point he will transition to the bullpen if he stays healthy, and being less than a handful of starts from surpassing his second highest innings total of his MLB career, that move could be coming sooner rather than later.

While the short term decision comes down to removing one of those four from the rotation, at least for the time being, there are a multitude of longer-term question marks with the Reds’ rotation. If this team is truly hoping to make a run toward the playoffs this season, it’s likely a rotation made up of some combination of Greene, Abbott, Ashcraft, Weaver, Lively, Williamson, and eventually Lodolo will still fall short of what they need. While they don’t necessarily have to commit to a move now, the longer they can continue to tread water and remain within touch of the division lead, they should begin exploring the options to make some upgrades.

Perhaps those upgrades will come from within the organization. It likely won’t come from AAA, unless you believe Levi Stoudt can take the next step to be at least a quality back-end starter, or buy the success of a 28 year old with limited MLB experience that the Reds signed out of the Independent Leagues just weeks ago. Maybe Stoudt does become a piece you can rely on going forward, but in all likelihood, he’s not going to cut it during a potential playoff run this season.

Dropping down to AA Chattanooga, prospect Connor Phillips looks solid, though he’s not without flaws and it’s fair to question if he would truly be ready for the Majors this year. His success at AA has also come with the caveat that he pitches in the Southern League, where they’re experimenting with new, enhanced grip baseballs that have caused the league’s strikeout rate to skyrocket. Phillips would likely have to move up to AAA and show some sustained success, similar to Abbott, before he’d be in consideration for a call. Again, like with Stoudt, it’s entirely possible he’s an important part of your future, but in all likelihood, it’s at least a bit further down the road.

That leaves the idea of a potential trade. Again, the Reds aren’t yet at the point where they’d likely consider going out and acquiring a pitcher, especially one that requires a substantial prospect package to land. This is a team that in the past year and a half has dealt Tyler Mahle, Luis Castillo, and Sonny Gray, the latter two of which would look very good in this rotation right about now, while Mahle had Tommy John surgery and is out for the season.

Still, the Reds have shown the willingness to go out and acquire players at the deadline before, even when they weren’t clearly in a contention window. We saw this in 2019, when the Reds went out and acquired a future Cy Young winner while merely treading water in terms of record. The question becomes whether the Reds would be willing to make a similar move this summer, and if so, who would be available.

The two pitchers that seem the most likely to be available at the deadline are the Lucas Giolito of the White Sox and Shane Bieber of the Guardians. Each team still sits within reach of their own division, though the White Sox have struggled mightily at times and the Guardians reportedly are going to listen to offers on Bieber this summer. Giolito is a pending free agent after the season, while Bieber comes with another year of club control. Naturally, Bieber would cost more to acquire, but that’s the type of acquisition that could make a lot of sense for a team that’s seemingly gearing up to make some real noise in 2024, regardless of what happens the rest of this season.

Both of those two pitchers fall into the category of an impact acquisition that could give the Reds enough of a boost to make a run at the division. If they’re truly serious about contending, the Reds would likely be well suited to still add another back-end starter even if landing a big fish, and the bullpen could stand an addition or two as well. At this point, it’s merely wishful thinking that the Reds would be willing to spend the salary and prospect capital to go out and acquire a star pitcher, but we’re at a point in the season where the possibility should at least be on the radar.

Even if the Reds don’t go out and acquire pitching help at the trade deadline, pitchers like Giolito, Aaron Nola, and others will almost certainly be hitting free agency this offseason. We won’t even get into the biggest pending free agent pitcher, two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani, as it would be shocking to see the Reds get into a bidding war that would likely require them to commit at least twice as much salary as they gave to Votto.

Acquiring one of the pending free agents at the deadline could give you a leg up on keeping them in Cincinnati longer-term, so that’s a factor the Reds could consider as well. That could especially make sense with the mid-tier pending free agents, who may not want to risk testing the market in a year that will see multiple higher-end starters become available. Those types also typically don’t cost as much in terms of prospect capital to acquire, so the Reds could lean on their deep farm system without having to trade away any of the top-tier names.

While the path that the Reds take with their rotation both short term and long term is far from clear, what is clear is that the next couple months will leave the Reds with a lot of decisions to make with regards to starting pitching. These decisions could very well determine whether the Reds shock the world and make the playoffs this season, and whether they’re able to live up to growing expectations next season.

 

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Kyle Berger

Kyle Berger is a lifelong Reds fan who has lived in the Cincinnati area for his entire life. Kyle has always been interested in the analytics side of baseball, and recently graduated from Miami University with a degree in Business Analytics. You can follow him on Twitter @KB_48, where most of his Tweets are about the Reds or baseball in general.