Thursday, February 28, 2013

A preseason preview of the Reds bullpen

Broxton is making closer money, but will he hold the
closer's role all season?
By: Scott Eddy
Staff Writer

Today we take a look at the Cincinnati bullpen entering the 2013 season. There's a lot of solid names here and only so many spots to go around. The 'pen is undoubtedly where the hardest decisions of the spring will come for the front office.

Key Losses: None of last year’s regular contributors are gone, although you could certainly count Aroldis Chapman as a loss if he indeed does begin to transition into a starting role. Gone is longtime Red Bill Bray, who elected free agency and signed with Washington. Though Bray had been an important member of the bullpen for several seasons, the left-hander was limited to just 8.2 innings with the Reds last year due to injury. Ryan Madson, last season’s never-was closer after undergoing Tommy John surgery prior to the start of the year, signed with the Angels.

Key Additions: LHP Manny Parra, RHP Clay Hensley. Nick Masset will hopefully be available at some point after missing all of last year due to injury.

Other Additions: RHP Greg Reynolds, RHP Yohan Pino, RHP Kevin Whelan, LHP Loek Van Mil, LHP Wilkin De La Rosa, RHP Jeff Stevens.

Chapman's role impacts the entire 'pen.
While the majority of the position players are locked into roles before Spring Training ever begins, giving the Reds the type of certainty heading into the season that most teams envy, there remain several question marks in the pen. Perhaps the biggest question mark revolves around the back of the bullpen and the will-he-start-or-won’t-he  Chapman who blossomed into perhaps the game’s best lock down closer a season ago. To give the team a replacement option and allow himself to open the door for Chapman’s transition to starting, general manager Walt Jocketty re-signed Jonathan Broxton to a three-year, $21 million contract in November. With the type of money given to Broxton, it certainly seems as though Jocketty sees him as the team’s new closer, even though manager Dusty Baker may not necessarily see things quite the same way. Though the back of the pen may be weakened with the move of Chapman, the rest again seems as strong as any in baseball as the Reds will inevitably, barring injury, be forced to send a very qualified reliever to AAA to begin the season due to the numbers crunch.

Before we go much further let’s just underscore the fact that there are a bunch of guys fighting for spots this spring and the actual bullpen roster on Opening Day could go one of several different ways.

Jose Arredondo, Jonathan Broxton, J.J. Hoover, Sam LeCure, Sean Marshall, Logan Ondrusek, Manny Parra, and Alfredo Simon all have a claim to spots in the pen and recent signee Clay Hensley has much major league experience, but unless the Reds pull something truly crazy, all nine guys won’t be heading north at the end of Spring Training. To further cloud things, you can toss the names of Chapman and Mike Leake into the fray as well because no one knows for sure what the Chapman plan is at the moment, and his situation greatly influences the approach the Reds will take with Leake. To further complicate things, and why not, the Reds’ bench seems packed and could cause the team to consider taking just 11 pitchers north, although that seems an unlikely scenario.

If depth is strength, then the Reds are undoubtedly strong in the pen to start the year. If Baker, Jocketty and Co. were looking for an easy solution to setting the Opening Day roster, well, they may be out of luck.

Nick Masset can likely be crossed off the Opening Day roster as he’s certain to start the season on the DL as he continues his way back from shoulder injuries. The news on Masset lately hasn’t been good. While we should expect him at some point during the year, there’s absolutely no certainty that he will pitch for the Reds this season after declaring himself “a long ways away” following setbacks after arthroscopic shoulder surgery last September.

Sam LeCure was good for more than his 'stache last year.
Marshall, LeCure and Broxton are locks. Broxton will almost certainly be handling the closer’s duties, and while he’s certainly not at Chapman’s 2012 level, his numbers with Cincy last year were good – 3-3, 2.82 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 25 appearances, and built on his 2.27 ERA and 23 saves in 27 opportunities for Kansas City pre-trade. There are a couple ways to look at Broxton as closer – glass half full points to his strength last year after the trade deadline deal brought him to the Reds while the glass half empty approach looks at how things crashed and burned for him in LA. While I don’t expect that type of fall this season from him, closer may be the spot on the team I am most nervous about entering the year.

Marshall (5-5, 2.51) will be the primary eighth inning guy this season, basically taking over Broxton’s late season role from a year ago. LeCure (3-3, 3.14) isn’t going anywhere after seemingly finding his niche in the pen. Formerly just a long man, LeCure may slide into more important situations this season based on his strong campaign last year.

That seventh inning role becomes a big question mark. Marshall held it down last year after the closer experiment didn’t work, but he’ll likely be the eighth inning man this time around. I’d presume Chapman to take many seventh and eighth innings in the early season – chances are very small that he begins the year in Louisville. The Reds are going to find use for him somewhere. I believe, and hope, they take the “Kris Medlen approach” with him this year. It seems that the most prudent approach to take with the fireballer would be to stretch him out in the pen – perhaps using him for six outs in many appearances – while limiting his innings the first part of the season. Then, some time after the All-Star Break, jump him to the rotation with few enough innings pitched to be able to go strong for the stretch run.

Parra nearly certainly will find a role as a LOOGY and also allows fellow lefty Tony Cingrani to pitch as a starter in Louisville. A former starter with Milwaukee, Parra pitched exclusively from the ‘pen last year (2-3, 5.06 in 62 appearances and 58.2 innings). Lefties batted just .229 against him, and his ERA lowered to 1.88 vs. left-handed batters last season, giving Cincy their much-needed second south paw in the pen.

Hoover was impressive last year, but it be
enough to earn a spot on the Opening Day roster?
The other roster spots are a bit less clear. Arredondo is extremely close to being a lock, leaving Hoover, Ondrusek, Simon and Hensley fighting for two slots. Just looking at the numbers, and taking the eye test, it is very difficult to believe the Reds will head north without Hoover (1-0, 2.05) who was simply outstanding in 30.2 innings as a rookie. Any missteps in spring, though, and that may be how things are going – a two-year deal signed in the off-season might lock up a spot for Ondrusek (5-2, 3.46), much to the dismay of many fans. It would be shocking to see Arredondo (6-2, 2.95), a Baker favorite, not make it. A late season swoon left Arredondo looking unfavorable to most fans, but in two years with the Reds he’s posted a 3.09 ERA – though the 1.39 WHIP leaves some room for improvement, certainly.

I’d expect Simon to make the roster considering his lack of options. The former starter was a whipping boy for fans early in the year before settling nicely into the long man’s role with some impressive numbers – 3-2, 2.66 with 52 strikeouts in 61 innings. Working against him is the fact that LeCure could easily fill the role if the Reds aren’t eyeing a later inning role for him. There’s also the bit about his 1.46 career WHIP, although his stuff says that he might just be one of those guys who puts things together later in his career. Still, unless a potential trade arises, it is very unlikely the Reds would just let Simon go as Baltimore did last year following spring training.

Hensley, 33, is a MLB veteran with 271 major league appearances under his belt with San Diego, Florida and San Francisco. With the Giants last year he went 4-5, 4.62 in 60 appearances. He had a great 2010 with Florida (3-4, 2.16 in 68 games) before dropping off the map in a terrible 2011 (6-7, 5.19). His signing as a non-roster invitee to spring training likely comes as a result of the bad news on Masset and he serves as added depth in case of any other injuries. It will likely take an injury or two for him to ever pitch in Cincinnati, but he’s there if needed. 

Likely Opening Day Bullpen:

LHP Manny Parra
RHP Jose Arredondo
LHP Aroldis Chapman
RHP Sam LeCure
RHP Alfredo Simon / Logan Ondrusek
LHP Sean Marshall (SU)
RHP Jonathan Broxton (CL)

Overall Position Grade: B+

Personally I wouldn’t let the season begin without Hoover on the roster, but I’m afraid that’s the way things are lining up as he appears to fall victim to the roster crunch. The last spot could go one of three or four directions and until we get some more games under our belts it’s too early to call. Either way, the Reds should have the luxury of two or three major league ready guys being available in Louisville. Removing Chapman from the closer role takes a lot away from the pen, but if he’s used like I described, the late innings are still as solid as any team’s pen in baseball. Guys like Arredondo and Ondrusek have proven reliable arms in the past, and they’ve also proven to be shaky at others. Still, every team has middle relief questions at this time of the year. All told, the Reds – even with the questions of their own – are better off in the pen than the majority of teams. 

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