An early look at the Reds’ Opening Day bullpen

An early look at the Reds’ Opening Day bullpen

Over a season, the average major league bullpen covers 600 of its team’s 1450 innings. That simple math alone shows the pivotal role relief pitchers play in victory and defeat.

While most public attention focuses on a team’s closer, the collective strength of its 8-pitcher unit determines how much flexibility a manager has to exploit matchups and respond to opponent strategies. It’s hard to imagine a team winning a division, let alone a pennant or World Series without a capable bullpen.

Opening Day is more than three weeks away. But it’s not too early to examine the leading guys who might comprise the Reds relief corps on March 28. We’ll start by looking back at the 2023 bullpen to provide context and insights for what the Reds hope to accomplish this year.

2023 Reds Bullpen

Key Stats How good was the 2023 Reds bullpen?

Evaluating a pitcher should begin with outcomes he has most control over — strikeouts and walks. In 2023, Reds relievers ranked 27th out of 30 teams in strikeouts and 25th in walks. After whiffs and free passes, ground-ball percentage and average exit velocity are measures where pitchers are thought to have some, but not complete, control. The Reds bullpen had the lowest ground ball rate in the majors. The good news is it had the fifth lowest average exit velocity.

One surprising figure was the bullpen’s collective HR/FB — that’s the percentage of fly balls that go as home runs. You would expect it to be higher than average because of the snug dimensions of Great American Ball Park. And over the years, Reds starters and relievers have had an elevated HR/FB. For example, last year Reds starters had the 28th highest HR/FB at 15.4%. But the team’s bullpen had a HR-to-FB ratio of only 10.1, second-lowest in the league.

Putting all that together, the Reds ranked 29th in xFIP (strikeouts, walks, ground-ball rate) and had the 10th highest xERA (includes contact quality).

Injuries The Reds bullpen was beset by injuries early in the season. Three pitchers who had been counted on as pillars of the pen — Tejay Antone, Lucas Sims and Tony Santillan — were sidelined at the start. Shortly after, the Reds lost two more relievers from the Opening Day roster, Fernando Cruz and Reiver Sanmartin.

The multiple assignments to the IL forced the Reds to call on Casey Legumina, Kevin Herget, Joel Kuhnel, Alan Busenitz, Silvino Bracho, Daniel Duarte, Randy Wynne, Jake Wong, Alec Mills and Michael Mariot — before the All-Star break. In total, the Reds used 31 relievers in 2023, counting two position players — Jason Vosler and Luke Maile. 17 of those pitchers threw fewer than 10 innings.

The Reds using 31 relievers was higher than average but not a huge outlier. A number of teams used that many or even more. Compare the Reds to NL Central rivals: Brewers (30), Cubs (24), Cardinals (23). The Cleveland Guardians used the fewest (18).

Usage Despite cycling through a large number of relievers, several pitchers were still used to full capacity. In fact, most conversation regarding the Reds 2023 bullpen revolves around its overuse. Injuries to and ineffectiveness of the starting rotation forced manager David Bell to call on his relievers early and often. The Reds had the sixth-most number of innings pitched by their bullpen last year (652.1). The only team reaching the postseason with more was the Tampa Bay Rays (658.1).

Twenty major league relievers threw 70 or more innings last year. The Reds had two in that category — Ian Gibaut (75.2) and Buck Farmer (75.0). 62 more big league relievers threw 60+ innings. Three Reds — Alexis Diaz (67.1), Fernando Cruz (63) and Lucas Sims (61) — were in that category. While Diaz avoided the IL, Cruz missed a month with a shoulder strain and Sims missed the first few weeks with back spasms.

Reliever Derek Law threw 51 innings for the Reds despite missing a month and a half with an elbow sprain. Lefty Alex Young threw 53 innings, although missing nearly a month with a hamstring issue.

Let’s take a look at the leading candidates to make the Reds 2024 Opening Day bullpen.

Six Returning Guys

The Reds enter the 2024 season counting on six arms from last year’s campaign. That includes Buck Farmer although he’s back on a free agent deal. Here are the six in alphabetical order.

Fernando Cruz (33) turns 34 on Opening Day. He was drafted in 2007 but didn’t see major league action until 2022 when he threw 14 innings for the Reds. Cruz led the Reds 2023 bullpen in strikeout rate and was in the 99th MLB percentile. At 10%, his walk-rate was a little bit higher than league average, but not much. His average exit velocity was around the league median as well. When available, he was one of the heaviest-use pitchers. As mentioned above, Cruz missed a month last year with a shoulder strain and still threw 63 innings. Based on his performance and projections, Cruz should be a lock for the 2024 bullpen. But he’s one of the few pitchers with an option left, so if there’s a squeeze, he’s at risk of being sent down for roster reasons.

  • Concern: That ground-ball rate, which is in the bottom 4% in the majors.
  • Contract Status: Pre-arbitration
  • Options remaining: Yes
  • Already pitching in spring training: Yes
  • RC+ posts: background, scouting; emergence.

Alexis Diaz (27) was the Reds closer in 2023, converting 37 of 40 save opportunities. David Bell has already tagged him for the same role in 2024. Diaz has a two-pitch portfolio with equal amounts 95-mph fastball and 88-mph slider. While Diaz maintained an xERA in the 80th percentile over the full season, his effectiveness waned later in the year. Was it fatigue or hitters adjusting? From the start of the season through June 9, his strikeout rate was 49%. But June 10 and after, it dropped to 21%. It hit a low of 16% in September.

Buck Farmer (33) performed a solid-citizen role for the 2023 Reds. The club brought him back on a 1-year, $2.25 million deal out of free agency. Farmer’s strikeout and walk rates are a bit below average. His ground ball rate is in the bottom 9th percentile. He finished second to Ian Gibaut in innings pitched at 75. Farmer’s xERA was about 10% higher than Gibaut’s but still better than MLB average.

  • Concern: Not much; usual veteran reliever worries
  • Contract Status: One-year free agent contract
  • Options remaining: No
  • Already pitching in spring training: Yes
  • RC+ posts: none

Ian Gibaut (30) enters his third season pitching for the Reds, who picked him up off waivers in July 2022. He had been with five previous organizations. Gibaut was a workhorse, leading Reds relievers with 75.2 innings pitched. He’s been an average pitcher for the Reds. Gibaut’s strikeout, walk and ground ball rates are a hair below average but he also induces below average exit velocity. In the end, he produced a solid, well below average xERA. Gibaut has been shut down for a few days this spring due to forearm pain, with uncertain availability for Opening Day.

  • Concern: Waiver wire relievers are inconsistent; forearm pain
  • Contract Status: Pre-arbitration, arbitration eligible in 2025
  • Options remaining: No
  • Already pitching in spring training: No (forearm pain)
  • RC+ posts: none

Sam Moll (32) appeared in 25 games for the Reds after being acquired in the club’s only deadline trade. The veteran lefty had an excellent stretch in August and September, combining an above-average strikeout rate with a strong ground ball rate. His xERA was in the league’s top 95%. Unlike the other two left-handed pitchers on this list, Moll has had a gigantic LHH/RHH split which continued last year. His xFIP was less than half (2.51) for lefties than for righties (6.01).

  • Concern: Not much; usual veteran reliever worries
  • Contract Status: Pre-arbitration, arbitration eligible in 2025
  • Options remaining: No
  • Already pitching in spring training: No (shoulder soreness)
  • RC+ posts: meet Sam Moll

Lucas Sims (29) enters his final season under reserve clause control with the Reds. He reached agreement with the club through the arbitration process on a $2.85 million salary for 2024. After missing almost all the 2022 season and beginning 2023 on the IL, Sims appeared in 61 innings last year, a heavy workload when available. It’s also noteworthy that David Bell used Sims in the toughest spots. Compared to his three seasons of 2019-2021, Sims saw his strikeout rate drop (although it remained in the top 81 percentile) and his walks soar. Positive: Maintains a top-five spin rate in all three pitches.

  • Concern: Walk-rate in bottom 2%, ground ball rate in bottom 1%
  • Contract Status: Final reserve clause season, free agent in 2025
  • Options remaining: No
  • Already pitching in spring training: Yes
  • RC+ posts: when Sims was best in MLB

Three New Guys

Beyond the six returning guys, a major offseason emphasis for the Reds front office was adding quality depth to the bullpen.

Nick Martinez (33) pitched four years for the Rangers (2014-2017), four years in Japan (2018-2021) and two more in San Diego (2022-2023) before becoming a free agent. The Reds signed him in November to a two-year deal paying $14 million in 2024 and $12 million in 2025 as a player option. Martinez was a starter through most of his career until San Diego assigned him to mostly a relief role. He did make 19 starts in his two years as a Padre. The stats in the chart are for his relief innings in 2023. Tremendous ground ball rate, great control and super-low average exit velocity.

  • Concern: Not as effective as a starter
  • Contract Status: Two-year free agency deal
  • Options remaining: No
  • Already pitching in spring training: Yes
  • RC+ posts: none

Emilio Pagan (32) pitched for five major league organizations (he was traded a lot) before reaching free agency last fall. He agreed to a two-year, $16 million deal with the Reds. The $8-million salary in 2025 is a player option. Pagan’s up-and-down career is hard to characterize. He’s had seasons when he pitched well but it wasn’t reflected in his ERA. Others years, like 2023, his low ERA (2.99) didn’t square with his fundamentals (4.57 xFIP). Pagan’s strikeout and walk rates have been inconsistent, although generally good.

  • Concern: Extreme fly-ball pitcher, hard-hit rate in bottom 8%
  • Contract Status: Two-year free agency deal
  • Options remaining: No
  • Already pitching in spring training: No (recovering from sports hernia surgery)
  • RC+ posts: none

Brent Suter (34) will be pitching in his ninth major league season in 2024. He appeared in nearly 200 games for the Brewers and spent last season in the Rockies bullpen. The Reds signed the Cincinnati native to a 1-year, $2.75 million deal. Suter pitches a lot like Wade Miley except instead of a cutter, he throws a soft (bottom 1%) fastball with an unusual shape 60% of the time. His strikeout rate is below average, while his walk and ground ball rates are about league average. Suter succeeds by inducing weak contact. His average exit velocity of 84 mph last year was in the top 1% of MLB. Keep in mind that while he’s a lefty, Suter has shown no particular affinity for retiring LHH. If anything, over his long career, he’s been tougher on RHH.

  • Concern: low strikeout rates and GABP don’t go well together, 4.48 xFIP in ’23
  • Contract Status: One-year free agency deal
  • Options remaining: No
  • Already pitching in spring training: Yes
  • RC+ posts: none

Two Other Guys

Two other relievers deserve mention as possibilities to make the Reds Opening Day bullpen.

Tejay Antone (30) has been outstanding when healthy. The stats in the chart are his career numbers back through 2020. Antone landed on the IL half-way through the 2021 season and had Tommy John surgery that August, the second TJS of his career. Antone rehabbed from that procedure throughout the 2022 season. In winter 2023, he suffered a flexor strain and treated it non-surgically. Antone was activated last September 1 and made five appearances before shutting down again with elbow pain. Through Saturday, Tejay Antone has pitched in two 2024 spring training games, with four strikeouts and one walk in two IP.

  • Concern: Elbow health
  • Contract Status: Arbitration eligible, free agency possible in 2026
  • Options remaining: Yes
  • Already pitching in spring training: Yes
  • RC+ posts: pitch portfolio; spinful ways

Lefty Alex Young (30) appeared in 63 games for the 2023 Reds covering 53.2 innings. Young was another solid citizen in the pen, with strikeout and walk rates near average and an above average ground ball rate (81st percentile). His average exit velocity (bottom 15th percentile) indicates many hard-hit balls. On the plus side, Young had one of the best chase rates in baseball at 35.6% (top one percentile). He missed about a month toward the end of the season with hamstring tightness. Young did return to regular reliever roles, even pitching the final game of the season, striking out the side. He hasn’t pitched in spring training yet due to back pain suffered in mid-February.

  • Concern: Hard-hit rate, uncertain back health
  • Contract Status: Pre-arbitration, arbitration-eligible in 2025
  • Options remaining: Yes
  • Already pitching in spring training: No (back pain)
  • RC+ posts: Meet Alex Young

Projections

Expert pre-season projections are based on comparisons to similar players over many seasons. Underlying performance measurements (strikeouts, walks, contact quality) play a larger role in projections than do public-facing stats like past ERA. Here are 2024 ERA projections for the eleven pitchers listed above. It’s an average of the ZiPS and Steamer systems:

  • Cruz (4.05)
  • Diaz (4.10)
  • Martinez (4.33)
  • Moll (4.45)
  • Pagán (4.57)
  • Gibaut (4.59)
  • Suter (4.63)
  • Young (4.69)
  • Antone (4.73)
  • Sims (4.83)
  • Farmer (4.86)

These projections represent a midpoint in a range of possible outcomes. That none of the Reds relievers are projected to have sub-4 ERAs doesn’t mean none will, only that the projection systems can’t predict which pitchers will have better-than-expected seasons, although one or more surely will. Remember, expert projection systems factor in ballpark, with GABP being one of the worst parks for pitchers, and take into account team defense. One recent 2024 analysis had the Reds defense ranked #27 out of 30 teams. FanGraphs ranks the Reds bullpen 21st out of 30 teams.

Final Thoughts

The Reds added three veteran arms to a group of solid pitchers from last year. Each has his own strengths. In Alexis Diaz, the Reds have a closer who has at times been dominant, though even when Diaz isn’t at his best, he’s been quite good.

After Diaz, the Reds don’t have a shutdown setup guy, let alone two or three. They have high-strikeout pitchers (Cruz, Sims, Antone) and ground-ball specialists (Martinez, Moll, Young). Others excel at minimizing hard contact (Suter, Martinez). But the club still lacks 7th and 8th inning guys like the Nasty Boys or Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton on the 2012 championship team. Manager David Bell says as much when he indicates he’s going to use a number of players as set up relievers. To paraphrase John Madden, if you have more than one or two set-up guys, you actually have none.

Conspicuous is lack of power-arms produced in the Reds farm system, other than Diaz. The Reds haven’t been as successful with development of relievers as they have with position players and starters. One remedy would be moving contenders for the rotation into the bullpen. Of course, to do that requires the five starters to be effective and remain healthy. A worst-case scenario for the bullpen is if Nick Martinez gets pulled into a starter role

The bullpen doesn’t appear likely to be a strength of the 2024 Reds team. But absent a wave of injuries, it shouldn’t be a significant liability, either.

Featured image: Reds Facebook

Steve Mancuso

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.