The dark-horse rotation that might surprise in '24

January 11th, 2024

If you look at the top projected starting rotations for 2024, you won't bat an eye at the first few teams you see. At No. 1 are the Braves, who just added Chris Sale to pitch alongside Spencer Strider, Max Fried and Charlie Morton. At No. 2, the Phillies, with their pair of aces in Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler. And then at No. 3 are the Dodgers, who are loaded with Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Tyler Glasnow and the returning Walker Buehler.

But then you start seeing some surprises. Here's one team you might not have expected to see in the Top 5: the Reds.

The Reds' starting pitchers ranked 25th out of the 30 MLB teams in Wins Above Replacement in 2023, and 28th out of 30 in ERA. But they're supposed to be a top-five starting rotation in 2024? Without having added any of the marquee starters on the free-agent or trade market?

Here's how they can do it. Cincinnati's projections aren't coming out of nowhere. The Reds' strength is their deep corps of starting pitching options -- Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo, Graham Ashcraft, Andrew Abbott, Frankie Montas, Nick Martinez, plus potentially toolsy prospects like Rhett Lowder on the way -- and the high ceiling of those options.

But they have to put it all together. The dark-horse Reds can have one of the best rotations in the Majors if these four things happen.

1) Greene and Lodolo become the aces they're supposed to be

The projections were excited about Greene and Lodolo last year -- after promising rookie seasons from the duo in 2022, both were projected for over 200 strikeouts in '23. That didn't happen. Part of it was growing pains; a big part of it was injuries (Lodolo's season ended in May, Greene missed two months during the summer). None of it was lack of talent.

These are two electric young starting pitchers. Greene is 24. He has hit triple digits over three times as often as any other starter since his debut. Lodolo is 25. He has a signature pitch in his wipeout curveball, which generates elite swing-and-miss numbers, and everything he throws has plus-plus movement.

So the projections are right back on Greene and Lodolo's side. Both are projected for over 10 K/9 in 2024 (11.1 for Greene, 10.6 for Lodolo). With a strikeout pace like that over a full, healthy season from the two of them, they could turn into those 200 K aces sooner rather than later.

As it stands, Greene is projected for 195 K's, and Lodolo for 141, but that's because of the possibility the lefty sees some time as a swingman between the rotation and bullpen. He could blow past that number if he's in the rotation all year.

2) Frankie Montas is the A's version of himself

The Reds did make one addition to their starting rotation, a high-upside play who could help them reach that top rotation status … if it works out.

That move was to sign Montas after an injury-plagued tenure in New York. The Yankees traded for Montas in 2022 during his breakout run as the A's ace, but Montas struggled after the trade as he dealt with shoulder issues that resulted in surgery and forced him to miss nearly the entire 2023 season.

Now the Reds are betting on Montas as a bounceback candidate. The health of the 30-year-old's right shoulder is Question 1. Whether Montas will still have his pre-injury stuff is Question 1A.

If he does, remember that Montas can be a bulldog on the mound who racks up strikeouts with an overpowering fastball-splitter combo. This was a 200-K pitcher just a few years ago in 2021. And for his part, Montas thinks big things are coming for the Reds, saying of his new rotation-mates: "They're all electric."

3) Ashcraft builds on his success down the stretch

Ashcraft fits right in with Greene and Lodolo: He's young (25), he's got great stuff (a 97 mph fastball, a high-80s slider with top-tier movement), and he's … a little volatile.

Ashcraft was great at the beginning of 2023 -- he had a 2.00 ERA over his first six starts. He was great at the end of 2023 -- he had a 2.58 ERA over his last 12 starts. It's the middle of the season -- the eight starts in between, where he had a 12.82 ERA and gave up six or more runs five times -- that was the problem.

If Ashcraft figures out how to avoid blowup stretches like that, the Reds' rotation really starts to take shape. The run he went on to close out the season seems to show his ability to grow through adversity, and the 2024 projections, at least, think Ashcraft will be a solid workhorse for Cincinnati.

4) Abbott avoids a sophomore slump

Another promising young starting pitcher (the Reds' rotation really has a theme). Abbott impressed as a rookie after the Reds called up the top pitching prospect in June, posting a 3.87 ERA in his 21 starts -- the best of any starter on the team -- and 120 strikeouts in 109 1/3 innings, though he did cool off after a lights-out start.

Like Greene and Lodolo a year ago, the 24-year-old Abbott is projected for a strong sophomore season in 2024. The left-hander is looking at close to 150 strikeouts with a K/9 close to 10.

Abbott doesn't have the raw overpowering stuff of Greene or Lodolo, but he had a lot of success with his four-pitch mix, which features the trendy "sweeper" slider, a pitch against which opponents hit just .174. He'll need to avoid a sophomore slump -- and especially the injury issues his teammates went through in their second season -- but if he does, Abbott will give the Reds' rotation not just depth, but young, talented depth. That's why they have such a high ceiling.