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Reds' progress hinges on starting rotation

MLB.com @m_sheldon

MLB Network's Spring Training series, 30 Clubs in 30 Days, begins on Thursday with the focus being on the Reds.

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- It's been said throughout the offseason at Redsfest and Caravan and it's been repeated in the early days of Spring Training: The Reds are tired of writing off seasons for the good of rebuilding.

MLB Network's Spring Training series, 30 Clubs in 30 Days, begins on Thursday with the focus being on the Reds.

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- It's been said throughout the offseason at Redsfest and Caravan and it's been repeated in the early days of Spring Training: The Reds are tired of writing off seasons for the good of rebuilding.

It's time to make progress. And for progress to happen, it will all come down to the starting rotation being improved, consistent and durable. That hasn't been seen over the past four seasons since Cincinnati last reached the postseason in 2013.

What's the goal? Although the Reds want to transition from rebuilding to winning, the club did not make wholesale improvements to the rotation in the offseason after a 2017 season where the starters posted a combined 5.55 ERA. Instead, it's banking heavily on three pitchers returning from injuries -- Anthony DeSclafani, Homer Bailey and Brandon Finnegan. All three missed most of, or all, the 2017 season.

Reds manager Bryan Price would like starters who can pitch at least seven innings per start. These are the guys -- especially DeSclafani and Bailey -- with the experience of doing just that, but DeSclafani has a strained left oblique, the same injury that cost him nearly three months to begin the 2016 season. Although he's now pain-free, he isn't expected to be ready to return until May or June.

Video: 30 Clubs in 30 Days: DeSclafani on staying healthy

What's the plan? The key to flipping the switch is not just the veteran starting pitchers. The Reds need one, or more, of their top prospects to emerge. First on that list is budding phenom Luis Castillo, who also has all but locked up a spot in the Opening Day rotation after an eye-opening 2017 debut. The right-hander is an ace in the making with four strong pitches in his repertoire, the ability to throw 100 mph and devastating offspeed stuff. He also brims with confidence. After he skipped Triple-A and had a 3.12 ERA in 15 starts last season in the Majors, the Reds want Castillo to settle in for a full season and continue to develop.

The other rotation spot is open for competition, with Sal Romano or Robert Stephenson being the favorites. Both impressed down the stretch in their final eight starts of 2017. Whoever wins the job will be expected to continue that growth. If not, there is a wealth of talent behind them -- including Tyler Mahle, Amir Garrett and others.

What could go wrong? Plenty. The Reds rotation has been ransacked by injuries the past two seasons, and they used 16 different starters in 2017. It forced them to often use pitchers before they were ready for the Majors and many couldn't get past the fifth inning. With young pitchers comes unpredictability, and there will still be plenty of young pitchers on the staff.

And there is uncertainty with the veterans, too. Bailey is four years removed from his last 30-start season and has had three elbow surgeries since. DeSclafani pitched 184 2/3 innings over 31 starts in 2015, but he had 20 starts in 2016 because of the left oblique strain he is once again fighting through. Last season, he didn't pitch at all because of a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow. Finnegan had injuries to both arms and had only four starts in '17. Can they hold up for a whole season?

Who might surprise? One rotation contender very determined to win a rotation spot has been a reliever the past two-plus seasons. Michael Lorenzen has the pitches to step into a starting spot, but is now battling a strained right teres major muscle. The injury was diagnosed as a Grade 1 strain, which means he might not miss much time. When he returns, the right-hander likely will head back to his former bullpen role.

Garrett had an offseason procedure to alleviate discomfort in his right hip and following a rough rookie year, he could be primed for big things. The lefty, who struck out 12 batters in his third big league game last season, has the velocity, size and poise to be a pitching star if he can put it all together.

Video: 30 Clubs in 30 Days: Gennett on learning from Votto

With a lineup anchored by star Joey Votto, the Reds will score runs. Third baseman Eugenio Suarez and outfielders Scott Schebler and Adam Duvall have emerged as power threats, as did second baseman Scooter Gennett, who surprised in 2017 with 27 homers. Prospects Jesse Winker and Nick Senzel have a chance to have an impact in the outfield and infield, respectively. Senzel has been trying his hand at shortstop and hit bat would profile very nicely if he can handle the position defensively.

So the key is the rotation. Will the veterans stay healthy? Will enough pitching prospects emerge? If they get a positive answer to both those questions, this could be the season where the Reds turn the corner toward once again competing for the NL Central.

Mark Sheldon has covered the Reds for MLB.com since 2006, and previously covered the Twins from 2001-05. Follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon and Facebook and listen to his podcast.

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