With much of the talk at the Winter Meetings being that the Reds are looking to improve their bullpen, and probably rightfully so, the best alternatives still might be internal candidates.
At those same meetings, manager Bryan Price also mentioned that the role that young arms Cody Reed and Robert Stephenson might be utilized for are as relievers.
Having seeing the first four rotations spot locked up, barring health issues, putting the duo in the bullpen makes sense on both an experience and skill set level for the Reds. Anthony DeSclafani, Homer Bailey, Dan Straily, and Brandon Finnegan will be in the rotation if they are healthy and do not implode in the spring.
That leaves just one rotation spot with several candidates, both internal and a possible free agent, vying for. That combined with the struggles that Reed and Stephenson saw last season, the bullpen is likely the best option unless they breakout of the 2016 slump in February and March.
Stephenson was the first of the two to get an opportunity in the big leagues, with a couple early season spot starts. While he was good in those two appearances, command issues haunted the right-hander nearly all season long. In 24 starts with Triple-A Louisville, Stephenson posted a 4.7 BB/9. Additionally, his strikeouts dropped by 1.5 per nine innings from the season before.
Even with the positive starts early with the Reds, Stephenson made a few more at the end of the season with the same poor control trends. For the season, he started eight games and walked at least two hitters in six of those outings. In his final start on October 2, Stephenson walked a season-high five against the Cubs.
Reed also struggled with command with the Reds after dominating Triple-A. However, his command issues meant getting too much of the plate and allowing hard contact to hitters. In 10 big league starts, Reed allowed 67 hits and 12 home runs. In nearly twice as many innings with Louisville, he allowed 71 hits and just six home runs. Reed was eventually optioned back and ended the season on the DL.
Reed showed the stuff to be a successful Major League starter prior to getting called up. Whether it was nerves, the fact that he just wasn’t ready, or even tipping some pitches, he struggled. Getting him big league innings in 2017 will be huge for development and it may be best to throw him in relief as well.
Both of the hurlers had their issues, but to reiterate, the ability to get hitters out is certainly there. If they are asked to do so in smaller spurts, the duo could be much more successful and gain the necessary confidence to continue that success.
This is not saying that Stephenson and Reed are destined to be relievers forever, but for the time being, they make the team better in that role and also get some service time. That experience would help them down the road, even if starting is in their future.
The conception that the two have to start based on how they were acquired is insane. Stephenson was a former first-round pick and Reed was picked up in the Johnny Cueto deal. Just because the Reds have invested a lot in the two, doesn’t mean that they are key holed into starting.
As relievers in 2017, the two could give the Reds one of the most versatile bullpens in baseball if they are successful. Mixing with former starters Raisel Iglesias and Michael Lorenzen, the Reds would have four young pitchers who can throw multiple innings. That reduces the burden on the starters in both stress and innings levels. If Reed is in the bullpen, it also gives the team a second hard-throwing lefty with Tony Cingrani.
Though this plan assumes that everyone is healthy, it seems to be the best short-term solution for everyone involved. The team improves due to the flexible bullpen and also it gets two young arms big league experience. Relieving may be an adjustment to two pitchers accustomed to starting, but the reward certainly outweighs that.