CINCINNATI -- When reliever Austin Brice went on Reds Caravan last week, the team had yet to finalize its signing of David Hernandez to a two-year, $5 million contract. The deal essentially locked up a fourth, and perhaps a fifth, bullpen spot.
That left two open spots up for grabs, and Brice will be looking to take one of them. His competition includes Kevin Shackelford, Ariel Hernandez, Vance Worley and prospects Zack Weiss and Jimmy Herget. One of the pitchers who don't make the rotation could secure a fifth bullpen spot to join Hernandez, Raisel Iglesias, Wandy Peralta and Jared Hughes.
"I'm pumped for the way the team looks right now. I'm always up for competition and a challenge," Brice said on Jan. 25.
Brice, 25, was acquired with starting pitcher Luis Castillo in trade that sent Dan Straily to the Marlins in the previous offseason. He missed the start of the season on the disabled list with ulnar nerve inflammation in his right elbow, but did well once he got to Cincinnati in May. In largely low-leverage situations, Brice had a 1.62 ERA over his first 10 games.
Then in the next nine appearances from June 8-July 5, Brice had an 11.25 ERA with five home runs allowed. He was optioned to Triple-A Louisville on July 6.
"June was a tough month, but other than that, I found some consistency with my pitches," Brice said. "I had some effective stuff. I had a lull in June where I felt like guys were just hitting it everywhere where they weren't. That always happens. I feel really good going into this season."
Brice was able to perform well at Louisville with a 3.80 ERA and zero homers in his 15 games before his recall in August. He had three scoreless outings but strained his right lat muscle on Aug. 12 and missed the rest of the season.
As the Reds evaluate their relievers, Brice's versatility and durability could be a plus. He threw at least two innings 10 times and didn't allow a hit in five of those games. His slider was his most effective pitch, according to Statcast™, as the opposition batted .200 and he garnered 21 whiffs, while allowing five singles and one home run out of 118 pitches.
In a silver-lining sort of way, Brice felt the time he missed last season could help him going into 2018. He's since added a changeup as a third pitch to complement his fastball and slider, and he believes he can be more effective.
"I was talking to our training staff. I honestly can say, going into Spring Training, it's the best I've felt in about two years," Brice said. "I think it was a culmination over the last two years of not having much time off. It finally kind of caught up to me. My body was telling me, 'Hey, it's time to start getting stronger and some time off.' It's been good. It's a hard thing to say that being on the DL is a good thing. But it ended up being a good thing for me, especially since I got healthy and stronger at the end of the season."