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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

2014 Reds Preview: Starting Pitchers

2014 Reds Season Preview

The pitching staff experienced a significant departure when Bronson Arroyo left the Reds.  I plan to do a retrospective on him, but suffice to say, his tenure with the Reds was one filled with great memories and a lot of surprises.  I think I basically underrated him throughout most of his career with Cincinnati.

In his place, the Reds hope to fill the rotation with a healthy Johnny Cueto and a full year of Tony Cingrani.

Let's look at the projections!  Below are projections for the starting rotation.  As with the hitters, I'm reporting projected WAR over a full season, which for starting pitchers I'm defining as 180 innings.  I am in no way accounting for what probably should be somewhat conservative playing time projections for Johnny Cueto and (maybe?) Mat Latos.  I'm also providing some basic scouting info on velocity and pitch types.  I'm doing a lot of lumping here: %Fst = Fast pitches, so four-seamers, two-seamers, sinkers, and cutters; %Brk = breaking balls, so curves and sliders; %Off = Offspeed pitches, so change-ups, splitters, and (for lack of a better place for them) knuckleballs.  Those data are based on 2013 pitch usage, so for David Holmberg we have a whole 3 innings of work to go by.
The strength of the 2014 +Cincinnati Reds is their starting rotation.  All five project to be solid starters, even if none of them can really be said to be an Adam Wainwright-level ace.  Mat Latos projects the best of the bunch, and had the 2013 season by most measures.  But it's close to a toss-up between he, Johnny Cueto, and Homer Bailey for the title of best pitcher on the staff.  I also think it's neat to see that each has a bit of a different style: they all throw their fastballs about the same rate (some favoring four-seam fastballs, others favoring sinkers), but Latos plays off his breaking pitches, Cueto plays off his change-up, and Bailey is somewhere in between (he uses a splitter instead of a change).

At #4 we have Mike Leake, who has long been a favorite of mine.  He mixes six different pitches, focuses on avoiding walks and getting decent ground ball rates, and has become a reliable innings-eater despite not having stuff that induces a lot of strikeouts.

Tony Cingrani is perhaps the most interesting of the bunch.  His approach just seems nonsensicle.  Yes, he's left-handed, but he threw his 92-mph fastball more often than just about anyone in the majors (82% of his pitches last season were fastballs!).  He has three other pitches, but last year, at least, he didn't use them much, preferring instead to focus on his fastball.  It reportedly has very good movement, and that accounts for his outrageous strikeout rates.  But I think it's an open question whether that approach will continue to work in the big leagues.  If he stops fooling people and sees that strikeout rate decline, his walk rate is going to get him into trouble quickly...unless he can simultaneously get that under control.  I listened to Craig Fehrman's interview on Effectively Wild Wednesday night, and he made the comment that he'd believe in Cingrani until it stops working.  That's probably the right attitude to have.

As good as our top-5 look, the Reds' biggest challenge is that they don't have much depth.  The kid they acquired this offseason in exchange for Ryan Hanigan, David Holmberg, doesn't look ready--at least not according to the projections.  Holmberg's strikeout rates have not been impressive in AA thus far, and I'd certainly like to see him pitch in AAA before bringing him up.  The best of the veterans looks to be Jeff Francis.  Francis may have gotten hammered in his time with the Rockies last season, but Coors Field will do that to you in 70 innings.  He also posted 8 k/9 last season, and has posted xFIPs between 3.79 and 4.29 each of the last four seasons when he has had the chance to pitch in the majors.  Yes, his career ERA is 0.7 runs higher than his career xFIP, so maybe he's a guy for whom DIPS theory doesn't work very well (in a bad way).  Still, I see him as the Reds' 6th best starter right now, even though I get the impression that he's about 8th in line.

The final option is Alfredo Simon.  The projection above is for Simon as a reliever.  If we apply generic rules to convert his projection to starting, we would bump up his ERA (and similar stats like FIP) by least a half-run, which puts him in the mid four's.  Simon has thrown a full complement of pitches in his time with the Reds, including a splitter, a fairly slider-like cutter, and a curve ball to go with his fastball.  Therefore, I think he's the kind of pitcher who shouldn't be unusually bad at making this transition.  Over the short term, I think he can be an ok backup.  But if he starts to log substantial innings due to injuries to our starting 5, the Reds will likely be hurting.