The Reds and Playing It Too Safe

Over the winter, the Reds remade their starting rotation, trading away both Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon, getting younger and cheaper players back in return for a pair of arms headed into their walk years. However, they declined to go into a full rebuild, keeping both Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake despite the fact that they’re also pending free agents; the Reds wanted to take one more shot at winning with their current core, especially given that they’re hosting the All-Star Game this year.

Now, the Reds actually pulling off this contend-while-kinda-rebuilding plan seems like a bit of a longshot. We currently have them projected for 75 wins, last in the NL Central, with just a 2.7% chance of winning the division and a 5.9% chance of capturing one of the two Wild Card spots. And it’s not like we’re out on a limb here; Bovada has the Reds over/under at 77.5. Baseball Prospectus is slightly more optimistic, pegging them at 79 wins, matching Clay Davenport’s projected win total.

So, in general, the pre-season forecasts peg the Reds as something like a 75 to 80 win team, meaning they need to find an extra dozen or so wins in either surprisingly strong performances or sequencing luck in order to sneak into a playoff spot. It definitely is possible, especially if the team gets strong bounce back performances from Jay Bruce and Joey Votto, but the Reds are going to need to get a few breakthrough performances from unexpected sources. When you’re starting from this position and trying to win, you need to take some gambles and have them pay off.

That’s why I was somewhat taken aback yesterday when I saw Bryan Price’s comments about how the Reds rotation is going to shake out.

“The thing is, we’ve got veteran guys like Marquis and Maholm and we don’t want to use them one start,” Price said. “If they’re going to be on our team, the hope is they’re on our team for the entire season if not longer. That’s how we have to look at it. You can back-and-forth a young guy. He can start a game or two, go down the minor leagues or go into the bullpen and help as a long guy.

“Marquis and Maholm are looking more like long-term, start-to-finish options for us.”

Yes, that’s Jason Marquis and Paul Maholm, a pair of replacement level veterans who are essentially the antithesis of upside plays. At their best, they were solid back-end inning sponges, but Marquis’ last good season came six years ago. He didn’t even pitch in the majors last year, and was pretty lousy in 50 innings for the Phillies Triple-A club. He’s 36, while anything is theoretically possible, Jason Marquis providing 200 good innings for the Reds is about as likely as Billy Hamilton leading the league in home runs.

Maholm is slightly less bad, having last been useful as recently as 2012, but he was atrocious for the Dodgers last year, and showed no signs of figuring out how to get right-handers out. He’s a lefty specialist miscast as a starter, and any team with a few decent RHBs will pretty excited to see him take the mound. At 33, it just seems very unlikely that Maholm is going to figure out how to get righties out now, and without that ability, he just doesn’t posses the tools needed to be a valuable starting pitcher in the big leagues anymore.

Now, let’s be honest, any team that’s even considering breaking camp with Paul Maholm or Jason Marquis — much less both of them — is not exactly swimming in pitching depth. The decision to go with two mediocre veterans came at the expense of moving Tony Cingrani to the bullpen, and while Cingrani is interesting, he’s also a one-pitch lefty with big platoon splits and a history of health problems. The other younger candidates for the rotation including Anthony DeSclafani and Raisel Iglesias, neither of whom look like anything super special; the ZIPS forecast for Iglesias based on his Cuban numbers is particularly awful.

But with Cingrani, Iglesias, and DeSclafani, there’s a variance that just doesn’t exist with Maholm and Marquis. We don’t know if Cingrani can stay healthy enough to remain a starter. We don’t know how well Iglesias’ stuff will translate to the big leagues. We don’t know if DeSclafani is ready for the big leagues after just 12 starts in Triple-A. There’s a lot of downside with all three, and all of them could be particularly awful. Counting on these guys to give the team quality innings at the back end is a big risk, and if they perform poorly, the Reds season is likely sunk, no matter what everyone else on the team does.

But it’s probably a necessary risk, because it’s difficult to see where else the Reds are going to find a dozen extra wins. Our 75 win forecast already includes a solid +4 WAR season from Joey Votto, so even if he returns to MVP-form, you’re looking at a couple extra wins there. Our projections have Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco maintaining their above-average performances, so unless you think either one is going to turn into an elite player, there’s probably not more than a couple of wins worth of upside there either. Jay Bruce is probably the biggest variance play, and he could make a real difference, but even if all four of those guys hit at their highest level possible, this still looks like a mid-80s win team.

To make the playoffs, the Reds need value from the back-end of their rotation. The rest of the roster just isn’t good enough to give 400 innings to replacement level scrubs. Their stars just aren’t starry enough to carry this much dead weight, so in reality, the Reds probably need to take some gambles in those spots and come up on the good side of a big bet.

Jason Marquis and Paul Maholm are not big bets. They’re hedges, the kinds of stop-gaps you lean on for a few weeks while you wait for your real solution to get healthy. There’s a higher floor with both, as we’re pretty sure they can at least throw strikes in the big leagues, but these are the lowest of low-ceiling arms still hanging around big league rotations. If Marquis and Maholm have big rebounds, they’re probably each +1 WAR pitchers, and the Reds still fall a bit short of a playoff spot. And that’s a good outcome for those two.

With Cingrani, I’m generally inclined to give the team the benefit of the doubt that they know something about his health that we don’t know. There’s just too much inside information not available to the public to question a team when they limit a guy’s workload for medical reasons. And it’s quite possible that DeSclafani and Iglesias aren’t any better than Maholm and Marquis, and maybe the Reds really are going with their two best guys given their available options.

But if that’s true, then the Reds are already screwed, and they should be planning on what they’ll get for Johnny Cueto in June or July. It’s almost impossible to see this team winning if Marquis and Maholm are “start to finish” rotation guys for the Reds this year. The Reds don’t have the luxury of playing it safe with low-upside veterans. Given their competition in the NL Central and the impending decision they have on Cueto and Leake come the trade deadline, this isn’t even a team that can afford to get out of the gates slowly. If Jason Marquis and Paul Maholm are still pitching for the Reds in June, then I’d guess it’s pretty unlikely that Cueto or Leake will be pitching for them in August.

When you’re not a great team and you’re still trying to win, you have to take big risks. If the Reds really are going to roll with two replacement level veterans, they probably aren’t going to find those dozen extra wins they need in order to be this year’s Royals. At least with the young kids you can hope for the unexpected. Based on this plan, I’m not really sure what Reds fans are left hoping for now.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Bryan Price
9 years ago

Proven Failure > Unknown Quantity

Kennesaw State University
9 years ago
Reply to  Bryan Price

So BJ Upton > Kris Bryant! I like your thinking! 😀