Even after graduations, Reds' system still stacked -- this time with arms

March 22nd, 2024

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- The Reds were one of the most interesting and fun teams in baseball a year ago. They improved their win total by 20 from 2022 while graduating Matt McLain, Spencer Steer, Andrew Abbott, Elly De La Cruz and Christian Encarnacion-Strand to the big leagues.

But they ultimately fell two games short of the playoffs because they didn't have enough pitching. While Abbott was a revelation, virtually every other starter Cincinnati counted on battled injuries, ineffectiveness or both.

After the club finished third-to-last in the National League in ERA (4.83) for the second consecutive season, its hopes for contending in 2024 center around how much it can improve at shutting down opposing offenses. The Reds are going to score plenty of runs, especially playing at Great American Ball Park, but they need to surrender fewer.

Fortunately for Cincinnati, it has more mound help coming up behind Abbott. It spent the No. 7 overall pick in the 2023 Draft on right-hander Rhett Lowder, who has yet to make his official pro debut but should require very little time in the Minors.

Lowder won back-to-back Atlantic Coast Conference Pitcher of the Year awards at Wake Forest, leading NCAA Division I with 15 victories while ranking fourth in ERA (1.87) and strikeouts (a school-record 143 in 120 1/3 innings) last spring. He repeats his effortless delivery and pounds the strike zone with a 92-97 mph fastball, improving low-80s slider and fading mid-80s changeup.

"Rhett made a huge impression in big league camp with the way he carried himself, interacted with his teammates and performed on the mound," senior director of player development Jeremy Farrell said. "He's so poised and mature.

"He could maybe use his changeup more but we've really been hands off. One thing that has really stood out is how well he commands his breaking ball. It's so much more than stuff with Rhett: the feel he has to pitch, to set up hitters, to throw the ball where he wants to throw it. He has just been outstanding."

Lowder ranks 34th on MLB Pipeline's Top 100 Prospects list, while righty Connor Phillips -- the player to be named in the March 2022 Eugenio Suárez/Jesse Winker trade with the Mariners -- sits at No. 70. Armed with a fastball that sits at 96 mph and touches 99, along with a power slider and curveball, he averaged 13.2 strikeouts per nine innings in Double-A and Triple-A last year, ranking third in the Minors among pitchers with 100 or more innings. He continued to miss bats after the Reds called him up, but he posted a 6.97 ERA in five starts because he battled his control and command.

"I think Connor's big league experience helped his understanding of himself," Farrell said. "He just needs to get in and around the zone more consistently to allow his elite stuff to work."

A third Top 100 righty, Chase Petty (No. 98) is a little further away but might be big league-ready by the end of this season. The 26th overall pick in the 2021 Draft by the Twins, he came to the Reds in a deal for Sonny Gray in March 2022. He's doing well making the transition from high school thrower to pro pitcher, overcoming early elbow issues in 2023 to post a 1.72 ERA with a 66/15 K/BB ratio in 68 innings between High-A and Double-A while displaying a plus fastball and slider.

"Chase is becoming a professional," Farrell said. "He's understanding what it's like to pitch without his top velocity at times over the course of the season. He's well on his way to becoming a complete pitcher."

Breakout potential: Sal Stewart

One of the better all-around bats in the 2022 high school class, Stewart went 32nd overall in that Draft. He lived up to his reputation during his first full pro season, slashing .275/.396/.415 with 12 homers and more walks (84) than strikeouts (77) as a 19-year-old at two Class A levels. His high exit velocities portend more power in the future, and he has shown more defensive versatility than expected after many amateur scouts projected him as a first baseman.

"All Sal does is hit," Farrell said. "He has brought a different level of focus this year. He's growing up before our eyes. He dedicated himself to improving his body and he's in great shape. If he and [2022 first-rounder] Cam Collier are on the same club, he'll play some third base and second base. We don't want to move either one of them to first base."

What's new: Carlos Jorge

Since signing for $495,000 out of the Dominican Republic in 2021, Jorge has been one of the system's most consistent offensive performers (.294/.395/.503 while hitting his way to High-A at age 19) and dynamic basestealers (86 swipes in 104 attempts over 198 games). Originally a shortstop, he played more at second base the last two years and now will become primarily a center fielder in 2024 after getting a taste of the position last summer.

"Carlos is going to play more center field this year," Farrell said. "He's a twitchy athlete. He's really taken to center field and he loves to go out there. He lights up when he talks about it. It's fun to watch."

Camp sleeper: Julian Aguiar

A 12th-round pick out of Cypress (Calif.) JC, Aguiar is another righty who could bolster Cincinnati's rotation in the near future. He keeps hitters off balance with his ability to sequence and locate four different offerings, highlighted by his sinker and changeup.

Aguiar earned Reds Minor League Pitcher of the Year accolades in 2023 after logging a 2.95 ERA with a 138/37 K/BB ratio in 125 innings between High-A and Double-A. He needed just 31 pitches to navigate three one-run innings against the Rangers to pick up the victory in the first-ever Spring Breakout game on March 14.

"He's a total professional and had a good offseason," Farrell said. "He got more physical. He got into his first big league camp this spring and shows a true four-pitch mix."