I can't really recall a situation like the Reds face right now with their starting rotation. In my mind, they've got ten decent starters, both for the remainder of this year and in future years, but none of those guys really stand out as top of the rotation kind of guys. What should they do? Let's look at what they've got to work with. Several of the pitchers have some striking similarities, which, in my opinion, only makes it more difficult to figure out what to do.
Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang are the first guys to discuss. They've been around the block, and we know pretty well what we're getting with them. Both are free agents after this year, provided the Reds don't pick up their $13M options. (Cot's Baseball Contracts has some nice salary information which helped me put this together.) To this point, Arroyo has been worth 1.2 WAR and Harang 1.0 WAR this season, so they're not exactly living up to their current contracts at the moment. Despite that, they continue to give the Reds more or less average production, as they have for several years. They don't overpower guys; their stuff is basically average. In fact, Arroyo's fastball only clocks in at 88.0, which is faster than only a dozen or so qualified starters in the majors. Harang's is a more respectable, but still below average, 90.5.
I've always thought of each of them as "innings-eaters", but after looking at the stats, I can see that's only really true of one of them. Arroyo is working on a streak of five straight 200+ inning seasons and appears likely to get there this year as well. In looking at the stats, I was surprised to find that Harang hasn't been so reliable these last few years. Depending on how long his current back injury keeps him out, he could be looking at his third straight year of failing to hit 200 innings. I tend to think that Harang is more likely to give you a big game, while Arroyo is more consistent and less likely to throw out a stinker. The bottom line is, of all the guys on the staff, these two are the known quantities. They're basically average pitchers who are going to give you six innings and keep you in the game more often than not. Harang's inability to stay healthy at this stage of his career appears to make Arroyo the better bet going forward, both this year and in the future. I think it is pretty safe to say that Harang's option will be declined next year. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Reds try to bring Arroyo back on a two-year $16-18M contract or something like that.
The Established Youngsters
I tend to think of Homer Bailey and Johnny Cueto together. Both were hard-throwing hot prospects at one time, with Bailey expected to be the staff ace. Then Cueto came to spring training in 2008 and looked great while Bailey struggled and was sent back down. They both pitched very well at times in 2009, and Bailey put together a really nice stretch late in the season, leading many of us to think that he might be ready to assume the mantle as the staff ace. Of course, he also threw a lot of pitches in that stretch, and now he's hurt. He was only OK when he did pitch this season, and now we're still waiting to learn when (or if) he'll return this season. Cueto's pitch counts were managed much better last year, and hecould be in line for his first 200 inning season this year. He has been solid but not spectacular this season. His FIP is 3.91, which is certainly respectable, but barely cracks the top 50 among qualified starters in the majors. Other than Travis Wood's small sample size though, it is the best on the team.
I'd propose that Johnny Cueto is probably the ace of this staff right now. That said, he's never thrown more than 175 innings before in a season. If the Reds go to the playoffs, and Cueto is one of the guys at the top of the rotation, he could soar past 200 innings. I wouldn't be surprised if he wore down at the end of the year, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Reds regret it next year if they have to ride him hard to get to the playoffs this year. I'll go out on a limb here though, and say that Johnny Cueto will not only be one of the five guys in the rotation the rest of this season, but that he'll be the opening day starter in 2011 (barring a trade to get a top of the rotation starter before then).
Homer Bailey, I'm less optimistic about. It's not a good sign that he's still out, and I'm expecting that he's probably done for the year at this point. Even if he's not, I think there are too many guys performing too well to justify letting him back in the rotation. I suspect that he'll either be traded this year or he'll come back next season and earn a spot in the rotation. If he does come back this season, he'll be a bullpen arm. I think that Dusty Baker's heavy use of him last year was pretty telling though. Dusty views Homer as a future staff ace who can eat innings, so he worked him hard. For whatever reason, he didn't work Cueto the same way. I suspect that Dusty will continue to overwork Bailey in the future. If so, a move to the bullpen or a trade to another team may be best for Bailey's career (assuming it isn't already too late).
Mike Leake, Travis Wood, Sam LeCure, and Matt Maloney have all shown promise at times this season. Wood and Maloney are the lefthanders, while Leake and LeCure are rightys. Only Leake started the season in the rotation, but each of them have made starts for the Reds this season.
Wood is the hot prospect who nearly threw a perfect game in his third start in the majors. He lost the fifth starter battle to Mike Leake, then floundered a bit in AAA to start the year. He heated up though, and over the eight starts prior to his promotion, he posted a 1.59 ERA and struck out 56 against just 11 walks. He's continued pitching well since his call up, and I expect that he'll continue to get some chances as the season progresses.
Maloney has been a fringe prospect without overpowering stuff for years, but he's been unable to stick in the majors. He pitched OK in a short stint last season, but struggled to keep the ball in the park. In his two games so far this season, he's struggled to strike anyone out. In AAA, his numbers were good this season, but he wasn't all that hot prior to his call-up. He'll get a chance to work on that though, as he was just sent down today to make room for Edinson Volquez on the 25 man roster. He'll continue to be in the mix as one of the first call-ups in future years, but I expect that we won't see much more of him this season.
Everyone knows Leake's story. He's been excellent this season despite the lack of minor league seasoning. His stuff is only OK, but he's been very efficient in general. These last few weeks, he's shown some vulnerability though and his ERA in July is over 5. He's also thrown nearly 110 innings already, and the Reds will look to limit his innings as the season continues. I'm not sure what the limit will be, but I can't see Leake starting games down the stretch. I expect that he'll stay in the rotation for another handful of starts, won't pitch as well as he has so far this season, and then he'll transition to the bullpen for the stretch run. He'll be back as a starter next season though.
Sam LeCure is the odd man out here. I suspect that his cup of coffee this year which had him face off (and generally hold his own) against some of baseball's best will likely go down as his career highlight. He's been hurt since being sent down, and I'm not sure if he's back pitching yet or not. I'd look for him to be part of the Louisville's rotation next year, whether he spends any time there the rest of this year or not.
The Wild Cards
There are two more pitchers that figure prominently in the Reds plans, especially in future years. Edinson Volquez has been dominating in his rehab starts, and he brings that to the big club tonight. Volquez is the best bet to really see the rotation improve the rest of the season, but he's also a risk coming back from injury as he is. I suspect he'll be a fixture in the rotation this season and next. He's got the highest upside for the remainder of the season, but also the greatest uncertainty.
Meanwhile, Aroldis Chapman promises to be the ace of the future. Both have electric stuff, but Chapman hasn't really shown the kind of control that's going to get it done in the majors. The Reds are trying to prepare him to come up in the bullpen later this year, so he's not in the discussion for starting this season. Next season though, he's got to be in the mix for a rotation spot.
The Reds have a lot of average pitchers, but nobody at the top end. The rest of the way, I expect to see Johnny Cueto, Bronson Arroyo, Edinson Volquez, Aaron Harang, and Mike Leake as the five man rotation, with Travis Wood getting the ball until Harang gets back and then once again when Leake's innings limit kicks in. That leaves Homer Bailey sitting out the rest of the year, Aroldis Chapman working from the pen, and Matt Maloney and Sam LeCure honing their skills in AAA.
Next season, I expect Harang to be gone. I expect Cueto, Arroyo, and Volquez to be locks for the rotation. I also expect Bailey, Wood, Leake, and Chapman to battle for the two remaining rotation spots, with the decision not being made until Spring Training. Maloney and LeCure will be in AAA.
I expect the Reds to try to make a move to clear some of the starting pitching surplus while also addressing the need for a top of the rotation starter. Maloney and LeCure won't command much in return, but are more than replaceable. I think Bailey is likely to be moved at some point, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Reds wait until they get him back on the field first to generate some interest. I would hope that a package of Bailey and either Wood or Leake (with maybe a decent position prospect) ought to be enough to secure a starter that is clearly better than the options currently on the table. The question is, do the Reds go for it this year (with Dan Haren probably the best target available) or wait to see who's available in the off-season and what kind of progress the younger guys make over the rest of the season? Whatever they decide, this is a good problem to have.