The Cincinnati Reds have not been a very good team recently. Three straight losing seasons from 2014 to 2016 coupled with a 36-48 record halfway through 2017 has put them in the NL Central’s basement. While issues were evident across their roster, a primary culprit behind the Reds’ recent struggles has been a lack of quality starting pitching.
A steep fall from grace
The recent trajectory for Reds starting pitching is a lesson in why its important for MLB front offices to avoid complacency with organizational depth. Only four years ago the Reds were the envy of baseball with an impressive cadre of young starters that included Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey and Mike Leake. In 2013, the youthful foursome were aged 25 to 27 and produced an ERA range from 2.25 to 3.71. The Reds had the 3rd best staff ERA in the majors that season and replicated the performance in 2014.
But then the wheels came off the bus. Mat Latos suffered from bone spurs that reduced his fastball velocity and was dealt to Miami during 2014 winter meetings. Bailey underwent Tommy John Surgery in May 2015. Cueto and Leake were both casualties of the 2015 trade deadline, the former being dealt to Kansas City and the latter to San Francisco. In the matter of a year, one of the most impressive young staffs in baseball was dismantled due to injuries and trades.
With the staff gutted, the Reds were left to rely on a patchwork rotation that included veteran journeyman “Fettuccine” Alfredo Simon and a hodgepodge of mediocre minor league arms like John Lamb and Tim Adleman. 2016 was an absolutely horrid year for Reds pitching overall, as they posted the worst team pitching WAR since 1890. While much of that performance was due to the 5th worst bullpen of all-time, the starters were also pretty bad, accruing a 4.79 ERA that was 25th in the MLB and 12th in the NL. The 2017 rotation, which features three starters with an ERA over 7.00, is even worse, with a league-worst 6.08 ERA.
Fortunately for Cincinnati, through some adept drafting, their prospect pipeline is stocked with a bunch of underrated yet high quality arms poised to make the jump to the big leagues. Most conventional prospect rankings value the Reds’ positional prospects, such as Nick Senzel, Jesse Winker and Taylor Trammell, at the top of the heap. But rapid development from previously under-the-radar pitchers like Luis Castillo, Tyler Mahle and Vladimir Gutierrez has vastly improved the hopes for Reds’ rotations.
Cincinnati acquired 24-year old right-hander Luis Castillo from the Miami Marlins over the offseason for solid MLB pitcher Dan Straily. The trade raised some eyebrows at the time, as Straily was one of the few decent pitching options on the 2016 Reds and was still fairly young. Castillo was coming off an okay but not great season in AA, posting a 3.86 ERA with a poor 1.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Castillo took a big step forward in 2017, absolutely dominating with Cincinnati’s AA affiliate, the Pensacola Blue Wahoos. Through 80 2/3 innings over 14 starts, Castillo posted a 2.58 ERA, 2.71 xFIP, 25.6% strikeout rate and minuscule 4.1% walk rate.
Castillo’s dominant performance earned him a call-up directly to the majors in late June. Since then he’s started three tough games: at Washington, home to Milwaukee and at Colorado. While the 4.41 ERA and five home runs surrendered are unsightly, the underlying performance is tantalizing. Castillo’s 98 MPH fastball (second fastest in the majors among starters) and wipe-out slider have combined to produce a 14.2% swinging strike rate and 30.1% strikeout rate. Castillo is also inducing groundballs at a generous 61.9% clip, which has a significant hand in his strong 3.53 xFIP.
Castillo’s 2017 season has gone better than anyone could have expected. The dominant AA performance, combined with a strong MLB debut and a devastating fastball/slider combination mean that Castillo could be one of the best young pitchers in the game moving forward.
Tyler Mahle, a righty drafted out of Westminster, CA in the seventh round of the 2013 draft, has had a steady ascent up the Cincinnati prospect rankings since he made his professional debut in A-ball in 2015 with the Dayton Dragons, where he posted a 2.43 ERA with a 5.4 K/BB ratio. Mahle replicated his success in 2016 with the high-A Daytona Tortugas, pitching to a 2.50 ERA in 79 1/3 innings, earning a promotion to AA Pensacola mid-year. Mahle struggled out of the gate and ended up with a 4.92 ERA with Pensacola, but his 3.60 xFIP showed that he pitched better than the traditional statistics showed.
The 22-year old Mahle took his game to another level with Pensacola in 2017. In his fourth start of the season Mahle hurled an 88-pitch perfect game against the Mobile BayBears. Mahle was able to sustain the success thereafter, as he didn’t allow more than three earned runs in any of his 14 starts with Pensacola. All told, Mahle produced a 1.59 ERA and 26.9% strikeout rate with Pensacola across 85 innings. He received a promotion to AAA on June 26th and has the following stat line over two starts: 13 IP, 3 ER, 15 K, 2 BB.
Despite Mahle’s consistent minor league success, scouts have been hesitant to hype him up, likely due to an unremarkable fastball that historically sat in the range of 88 to 92 MPH. However, reports have him hitting 93 to 96 MPH this season, and even scraping 99/ 100 MPH during his perfect game. That type of velocity, combined with his impeccable control, are ingredients that could make for a front-end MLB starter. Mahle also possesses a diverse arsenal that includes a curveball, slider and changeup, giving enough options to keep hitters off-balance.
Mahle is on the cusp of a call-up to Cincinnati. Expect him there shortly after the All-Star break, and expect him to stay for good.
Cincinnati has had success mining Cuba for high-octane pitchers, plucking Aroldis Chapman in 2010 and Rasiel Iglesias in 2014. They added right-hander Vladimir Gutierrez to the mix in September 2016.
No one knew exactly what to expect from the 21-year old Gutierrez heading into his first professional season in 2017. Reports had Gutierrez relying on a mid-90s fastball and a plus curveball, but without a true third offering. Fortunately, it seems like he’s started throwing a changeup more consistently since debuting with high-A Daytona earlier this season.
The results thus far are uninspiring on the surface but still show genuine promise. Gutierrez’s 4.68 ERA in 75 innings pitched, fueled by an elevated .341 BABIP and subdued 61.5% strand rate, doesn’t show well. However, his 80 to 16 strikeout to walk ratio (5 to 1) and corresponding 3.05 xFIP does. While the Florida State high-A league is definitely pitcher-friendly, Gutierrez’s performance places him in the upper rungs of the league, which is impressive considering that most of the pitchers above him are older.
Gutierrez likely won’t see MLB action until 2018, however the Reds have shown a willingness to promote pitchers early, although sometime to their detriment.
Not like last time
Reds fans have been fooled by hyped pitching prospects before. Their 2016 top five prospect list included arms such as Cody Reed, Robert Stephenson and Amir Garrett, all of whom crashed and burned miserably at the MLB level. While hindsight is 20/20, there were some obvious issues with Stephenson and Garrett based on their minor league performance. Stephenson had ERAs above 4.00 in AAA in both 2015 and 2016, along with high walk rates, while Garrett’s 2016 AAA stats showed a shiny 3.47 ERA, but a bad 1.74 K/BB ratio. Reed’s minor league stats were close to pristine, making his struggles at the MLB level a bit more perplexing. One obvious issue is a fastball that, while showing decent velocity, is very straight and gets subsequently murdered by MLB hitting. An unsustainable 30% HR/FB rate are also part of his struggles.
Castillo and Mahle, given their impressive pitch arsenal’s and outstanding 2017 minor league performance, profile as superior to the aforementioned bust trio. Gutierrez is a bit further away from the majors and more of a wildcard, but is performing admirably for a pitcher his age.