The 2014 Reds rotation ranked third in ERA but just 23rd in WAR, which is a bit strange given that Cincinnati got more innings out of its starters than any other team. Alfredo Simon played a fairly large role in that discrepancy as he threw just shy of 200 innings with a 3.44 ERA but just 0.9 WAR. Simon’s low strikeout rate doesn’t exactly rack up WAR. If Mat Latos and/or Homer Bailey had been able to throw a full season’s worth of innings, the discrepancy surely would have been less pronounced.
The good news is that Simon will be staving off the regression monster elsewhere and Bailey will hopefully make at least 30 starts this year. The bad news is that Latos is gone and the Reds didn’t do much in the way of replacing Latos or Simon’s numbers. They’ll go with internal options, which isn’t assured to go wrong, but the back half of the rotation is iffy at best.
The staff is, of course, led by the mystifying Johnny Cueto. I say mystifying because Cueto is one of those guys that has been outperforming his peripherals for years, and no matter how long he does it or how well people might explain how “he” does it (here’s another good Cueto link), the fear of regression will always be there for some. I’m not going to bother explaining why Cueto can keep doing what he does; go read those links. But I do want to focus on the fact that even if his ability to beat his peripherals does disappear all of a sudden, he doesn’t have as far to fall because his peripherals have greatly improved in the last two years.
Cueto has easily posted the best xFIPs of his career in the last two seasons because he’s generating more strikeouts. In 2013 he upped his swinging strike rate to 11 percent, which pushed his strikeout rate over 20 percent for the first time since he became good. Last year he gave back a few of the swinging strikes but was third in the league in strikeouts looking and pushed his strikeout rate over 25 percent. He may give back some of those called strikes, but as long as Brayan Pena continues to catch the lion’s share of Cueto’s games, he may be able to minimize a loss in that department. Pena isn’t an elite pitch framer, but he is above average and much better than Devin Mesoraco.
The worst case scenario is that Cueto (and the team around him) loses all his magic and sees his strikeout rate dip from where it was last year. If that happens, we’re looking at an ERA in the mid-to-low threes and a WHIP around 1.20, maybe? You’re certainly hoping for better from a guy going among the top 10 starting pitchers, but it’s not going to kill your season and is unlikely to happen anyway. Maybe I’m overblowing the skepticism of Cueto because I’ve always been a fan and have come to his defense often. But he’s no more risky than the guys going just ahead of or just after him.
After Cueto comes Bailey who had a disappointing 2014 season. Though as disappointing seasons go, it wasn’t all that bad. Bailey failed to match the best ERA, WHIP and strikeout rate of his career that he posted in 2013, but he more or less regressed back to what he was in 2012, which wasn’t a bad pitcher. The most disappointing aspect of his season wasn’t really his performance but just how much performing he did. Because of neck and elbow issues, Bailey was limited to just 145 innings. Apparently the injuries were a problem all year, which provides a line of reasoning for his reversion back to 2012 Bailey.
Assuming he’s healthy, Bailey is a good bet to bounce back. Arsenal Score clearly shows that Bailey still has great stuff, and my average of Steamer, ZiPS and Pod’s projections has him being a top 40 pitcher in just 175 innings. He’s going just outside the top 40 on average, so you won’t be overpaying for him at his current price. But there’s upside from top 40, and he’s potentially a really nice value.
Next up, at least from the standpoint of potential fantasy relevance, is Tony Cingrani. We all know about Cingrani posting a sub-3.00 ERA in 2013 despite throwing his fastball more than 80 percent of the time and not having a useful third pitch. In some way he’s similar to Cueto in that his success was unorthodox. Many predicted Cingrani’s inevitable demise should he fail to develop a third pitch, and 2014 may have been justification for that line of thinking as Cingrani put up a 4.55 ERA.
But Cingrani dealt with a shoulder issue last year that limited him to just 63.1 innings. It’s hard to say how much the shoulder issue affected him, but it’s certainly a viable explanation for his struggles. We can’t rule out the possibility that a healthy Cingrani can keep conjuring up his two-pitch magic. It’s unlikely given what we know about the success rate of two-pitch starters, but we still haven’t seen a healthy Cingrani be bad.
Perhaps most importantly, Cingrani doesn’t have to repeat what he did in 2013 to be useful. I covered this earlier this offseason, but even significant regression from his 2013 performance would still have value in mixed leagues. He’s going 114th among starters and undrafted in virtually all 12-team mixers, and a last round pick to see if a healthy Cingrani can keep doing his unique thing seems like it could pay off.
Moving on to a more consistent option, Mike Leake has given the Reds 30+ starts in three consecutive seasons. In all three he has had a well above average walk rate, and in the last two he has kept fly balls in the park at a rate that has allowed his HR/9 to be near league average when coupled with his ground ball tendencies. Last year he added more strikeouts to the mix and got his strikeout rate closer to, but still below, league average. Unfortunately, the strikeout gains may not be here to stay. Leake should continue to be a reliable member of the Reds’ staff, but his fantasy usefulness is limited to NL-only leagues and the occasional streaming start in mixed leagues.
Rounding out the rotation appears to be Anthony DeSclafani as he’s listed as the fifth starter on the Reds depth chart. Ignoring DeSclafani’s short major league debut last year, his minor league stats indicate that he can post an above average walk rate and maybe a league average-ish strikeout rate. But Cingrani isn’t the only Cincinnati starter that doesn’t have a third pitch. Just over 95 percent of the pitches DeSclafani threw in his short debut last year were either fastballs or sliders. Until he develops a third pitch or shows us he can pull a rabbit out of a hat like Cingrani, he’s not much of an option.
As for prospects, Kiley McDaniel has Raisel Iglesias as a candidate to be in the rotation at some point this year, and Iglesias has a chance to be in the big league bullpen on Opening Day. He’s not anyone to be concerned with for now, but maybe he’s a name to file away for NL-only leagues.