Will the 2016 Reds Contend?

July 24 2015: A Cincinnati Reds player's hat and glove sit on the Rockies third base during a regular season major league baseball game between the Colorado Rockies and the visiting Cincinnati Reds at Coors Field in Denver, CO.

The 2015 Reds sold off pieces to prepare for the future. What does that future hold, and can Cincinnati compete again as early as next season?

If the Cincinnati Reds will contend next year, it’ll have nothing to do with who is left field, whether Zack Cozart or Eugenio Suarez is starting at shortstop, or if Jay Bruce can be “more clutch.” For the Reds to win the NL Central in 2016, they’ll need a sterling rotation and a bullpen to protect it. Regardless of offense, RBI, RISP and any other statistic we obsess over following every Reds loss, if the Reds do not have a first-class rotation and a dependable bullpen, barring the return of Balco-wide MLB steroid usage, they will not compete next year.

The NL’s worst offense sits in its division’s first-place today. Baseball’s best record is 21 wins better than the Reds, yet the St. Louis Cardinals have only five more runs on the season. Cubs GM Theo Epstein manages the operations of another (current) playoff team with a worse offense than the Reds. He traded for an additional front-end rotation pitcher at the deadline.

A dangerous lineup is nice, but it’s no more necessary than a sunroof or leather seats. It’s satellite radio. The car works perfectly fine without any of it, and will cost you a lot less.

May 30, 2014; Cincinnati Reds third baseman Todd Frazier (21) bats against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field.

Offense is good, but it isn’t enough to compete on its own – as the Reds have proven.

For the Reds to return to relevance, they’ll need the pitching. So how do they contend a season away from dealing arguably the greatest Reds pitcher to date and his number two? Most likely, they don’t. Walt Jocketty sold 2016 the best way he could when he told John Fay of The Cincinnati Enquirer, “Part of the reason for getting some of the players we did and drafting and developing the players we have is to be gearing up for ’17 and ’18. But ’16 is still a year we don’t want to lose sight of.”

This is a business, and Jocketty’s not about to tell his ticket-buyers that 2016 is a wash. But he realistically omitted an answer and with purpose. For the Reds to compete next season, they would need rapid maturation from several young prospects; however, considering where these prospects are right now, it may not be far-fetched.

Robert Stephenson, the Reds No. 1 prospect according to BaseballAmerica.com – and really, anyone who knows where to find Great American Ballpark – has had a terrific introduction to Triple-A. He’s carrying a 2.26 ERA after six starts and a K/9 of nine. Most impressive is Stephenson’s 3.06 FIP and the 81-plus percent of base-runners he’s left stranded.

At this rate of progress, is it realistic to think we could see Robert Stephenson on Opening Day next season?

In two Triple-A starts, Brandon Finnegan, centerpiece of the Johnny Cueto deal, holds a 3.38 ERA and an 8.44 K/9. While the Reds are grooming him to be a starter, he’d be serious relief for one of baseball’s worst bullpens.

The Reds’ bullpen has been terrible for now two consecutive seasons, the same amount of sub-.500 seasons the Reds have incurred. Finnegan stranded over 85 percent of his baserunners for the Kansas City bullpen. He’d still be a serviceable left-handed addition to a rotation without any currently.

July 09, 2015: Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Brandon Finnegan (27) during a Major League Baseball  game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City. The Royals won, 8-3.

While his future appears to be as a starter, Finnegan can offer relief from the ‘pen if needed.

John Lamb, another massive return for the Reds in the Cueto deal, was 9-1 with a 2.67 ERA for the Royals Triple-A squad. His K/9 was 9.16 and is currently over 11 in his short time in the Reds’ system. Expect him to join the rotation next year. The most innings Lamb has thrown in a single season is 147.2, so hopefully he can amass more this season in preparation for a big league starting role next year.

His addition frees Raisel Iglesias, who is lethal in his first round through any batting order, to join the bullpen instead. His first-inning ERA is 1.01, zero in the second and 2.25 in the third. From there it gets rough: 5.67 in the fourth, 13.50 in the fifth. And while ERA isn’t perfect because of sample size, it’s a reflection of how well Iglesias performs before batters have a second crack at him, making him more serviceable in a bullpen capacity.

The bullpen needs all the help it can get, which is why they may not trade Aroldis Chapman this offseason. While this writer would rather see him dealt, to compete in 2016, he’s almost necessary, even with the revival of J.J. Hoover. There’s just not enough bullpen talent in-house to make up for Chapman’s 16.2 K/9 and absurd 0.19 HR/9. Hoover’s inherited runner scoring percentage is just 30 percent, but he’s blown four saves, and he’s only entered five games with runners on base, meaning he’s performed much better with a clean slate.

Batters are hitting .251 off Burke Badenhop, .246 off Jumbo Diaz and .242 off Tony Cingrani. Manny Parra is just coming off injury, but he’s probably the only other serviceable arm in that bullpen right now (1.19 WHIP).

The bullpen is really in a bad place, and you wonder if the Reds will convert some of its starting pitchers to bullpen roles to address it. Donovan Hand, David Holmberg, Dylan Axeldrod, Keyvius Sampson – multiple names from this pack will have to serve from the bullpen; there won’t be enough room in the rotation.

That said, if the Reds stand any chance of competing, it will largely depend on Homer Bailey – now shockingly the most senior Reds pitcher in uniform. Age 30, Bailey has become the staff ace by default. There’s reason to believe he’ll embrace the role. From 2011 to when he was hurt in 2014, Bailey was dropping his ERA every year. And before this short season, Bailey’s ERA hadn’t been higher than 3.71.

18 APR 2015: Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Homer Bailey (34) delivers a pitch against the St. Louis Cardinals during the game between the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals at the Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri.

How will Homer Bailey come back from injury?

Those aren’t ace numbers, but it points to a promising trajectory. So with Bailey at the top, here’s an educated guess of what the 2016 rotation will look like:

  • Homer Bailey
  • Anthony DeSclafani
  • Michael Lorenzen
  • Robert Stephenson
  • John Lamb

It’s a really young, really talented rotation. But will it last the entire season? Lorenzen’s and DeSclafani’s innings will be capped this year. Stephenson’s never thrown more than 136.1 innings in a year, Lamb no more than 147.2. Even if the Reds are in contention post next year’s All-Star break, will they physically be able to hang around?

That’s not likely, not until these rookies are ready to go 200 innings or more, and that may still be a couple seasons away. Because of that, and barring any major off-season acquisitions, the Reds will likely not have the longevity they need to compete in 2016. But with this nucleus of young pitching talent, by 2017, they could be NL Central favorites.

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