The Cincinnati Reds got a jump start on their rebuild during the 2015 season by trading away starter Johnny Cueto, and they were not afraid to give their prospects a chance. Cueto was one of 11 Reds starters to reach 20 innings pitched last season. Of the other 10, eight were rookies, and Mike Leake and Jason Marquis, the two non-rookies, are neither still with the team.
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There is one potential piece of veteran presence in the Reds rotation, and that is Homer Bailey. When Bailey was last healthy for a full season in 2013, he was very effective, striking out more than eight and a half batters per nine and walking less than two and half per nine. Since then, injuries have limited his innings. Most recently, Bailey underwent Tommy John surgery in May of 2015, and that likely has him targeting a return in the second half of this season. At that point, Bailey will be worth a look in all formats, but his more moderate strikeout rates in his seasons around his 2013 breakout cap his potential as a No. 3 fantasy starter if he can return to form.
With Bailey out to start the season, Anthony DeSclafani will be the de facto ace of the team, and he actually led all rookie pitchers in 2015 with 3.2 WAR, just edging out Noah Syndergaard (3.1) and Lance McCullers (3.1). DeSclafani’s rookie season looked a lot like Bailey’s seasons pre-breakout. He struck out a bit more than seven batters per nine and walked two and a half. That sort of control-driven success will make DeSclafani hugely valuable to the young Reds, especially if he can continue to start more than 30 games per season. In fantasy, the lack of strikeouts makes him a back-end starter. As his BABIP regresses down, he should improve on his 4.05 ERA from last season, but his moderate strikeout totals through the minors put him on the trajectory of a mid-rotation MLB starter.
Beyond the one established arm of DeSclafani, the Reds rotation gets really interesting. That all starts with everyone’s favorite sleeper, Raisel Iglesias. Iglesias fell just short of 100 innings in the majors in 2015, and hiding behind an uninspiring 4.05 ERA, he dazzled with 9.8 strikeouts per nine and 2.6 walks per nine. The former rate landed Igleasis 11th among starters with 90 or more innings in 2015, just ahead of Tyson Ross, Jacob deGrom, and Madison Bumgarner. If he falls outside of the top 50 starters, jump all over him in your drafts.
After Iglesias, the Reds have a variety of options to fill the rest of their rotation. Brandon Finnegan, the biggest returning piece from the Cueto trade, has likely the best chance. Finnegan was dominant as a reliever for the Royals during their first World Series run late in 2014, and he has been used primarily as a reliever in his limited time in the majors since then. This season, he’ll be stretched out, and strikeout rates around a batter per inning in the minors offer him enough upside to keep an eye on as he makes the transition. Control was the main issue for Finnegan in 2015; he walked 4.5 or more batters per nine at all three stops in the minors, and his 3.9 walks per nine for the Royals and Reds weren’t much better. Finnegan has potential, but he shouldn’t be relied on in deeper formats, at least for this season.
The other two acquisitions from the Cueto trade, John Lamb and Cody Reed, are also left-handed starters, and both have potential. Lamb struck out 10.5 batters per nine in 10 starts for the Reds last season and is the frontrunner to land the fifth rotation spot. Meanwhile, Reed struck out nearly 11 batters per nine in 50 Double-AA innings after the trade. What’s interesting about both players is their lack of elite strikeout numbers in the minors prior to 2015. Reed’s recent success is no doubt influenced by improved velocity, which makes him the better long-term bet. Lamb’s success is driven by a plus changeup which helps him avoid platoon issues, but his fastball is too hittable to think of him as a real sleeper in shallower formats.
Michael Lorenzen has the second most career innings of the Reds healthy starter options and will probably start the season as the No. 4 starter. A straight fastball and slider both generate a lot of contact, which makes him uninteresting in fantasy. Keyvius Sampson, Josh Smith, and David Holmberg were the other three rookie starters with 20-plus MLB innings last season, but their results were uninspiring. They are unlikely to make it into the rotation this season barring injuries to other starters. Prospect Robert Stephenson continues to battle control issues in the minors, which will likely delay his MLB debut to 2017 at the earliest.
The recent Aroldis Chapman trade throws the Reds bullpen into disarray. That means there is uncertainty in the closer role, which offers fantasy owners a chance to benefit if they can speculate correctly. J.J. Hoover and Jumbo Diaz are the two most likely candidates for the job. Hoover appears to be the early favorite, and he does have five career saves to his name that could sway the experience vote. Still, he’s not a super inspiring choice. Hoover’s career 3.34 ERA is excellent but also driven by a .238 career BABIP. His career FIP and xFIP are 4.14 and 4.22, respectively. Meanwhile, the formerly strikeout-heavy Hoover weirdly jumped from a 28.5 percent groundballs to 40.1 percent grounds in 2015 and saw his strikeout rate plummet from 10.8 to 7.3 per nine in 2015. Perhaps it was a one-season blip, but it’s worrisome for potential fantasy owners. If he is given the job, then he’ll be worth drafting because of the saves, and a lack of platoon splits should help him hold onto the job for a while even if he doesn’t return to his previous strikeout form.
Jumbo Diaz would be the more attractive fantasy option if named the closer, and that’s not just because the 315-lbs. Diaz is the heir apparent to Rich Garces. Diaz struck out 10.4 batters per nine in 2015 and underperformed his 3.20 xFIP thanks to a .316 BABIP and 16.4 percent home run per flyball rate. Diaz also has the big fastball that many associate with closing and could provide him an edge. The race is uncertain enough that it’s worth it to speculate on Diaz in early drafts since his landing the job could throw him into the top 15 among closers.
The dark horse for closer is Tony Cingrani, whose strikeout rates have soared since becoming a full-time reliever but whose control problems make him a difficult reliever for a manager to rely on in high-leverage situations. Cingrani should not be drafted in most formats, but if his command improves early in the season, he will become a candidate to replace either Hoover or Diaz if they struggle in the role.
Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt