The 2013 Cincinnati Reds bullpen is a great example of the “good problem” conundrum. It seems as though we have a wealth of MLB-ready pitching on our hands. A couple of years ago, in the infancy of Great American Ballpark, Reds fans would have killed for a situation like this. Instead of arguing about which player was the worst, now fans are in arms about which arms are good enough to make the Opening Day 25 man roster.
Of course, this particular situation all rests upon the great question. Aroldis Chapman: Starter or Closer? I wish I could tell you that I knew the answer to the question we’ve all been asking for the entirety of the off-season, but as April grows closer, we’re seemingly moving further and further away from the truth.
The bullpen situation isn’t as messy as some might think. In fact, there are more “locks” than there are players on the outside looking in. Barring injury, you’ll see Jonathan Broxton, Sean Marshall, Jose Arredondo and Alfredo Simon in the bullpen on opening day. This is due to a mixture of them being clearly the best bullpen arms (Broxton and Marshall), and being out of minor league options (Arredondo and Simon). In my opinion, Arredondo and Simon make the bullpen anyway.
Traditionally the Reds carry 12 pitchers on the final 25 man roster. If you’re keeping track at home, we’re already at 9 (the five starters and the four mentioned above), leaving only three spots left.
Another spot goes to the loser of the Chapman/Mike Leake battle. If Chapman is moved back to his closer role to start the season, which I have a hunch will be the case at least for the beginning months of 2013, he easily becomes the biggest “lock” for the ‘pen. If Chapman begins the season in the rotation, I would be surprised if Leake didn’t find his way into the pen as an insurance arm, or as part of the “plan” for starting Chapman. I’ll be dealing with this problem in a future article.
Now we’re down to two spots. This is where the fan opinions start to differentiate. You would think Sam LeCure would have a spot, based on his usefulness in almost any situation. And in this scenario, LeCure gets the nod, leaving multiple quality pitchers left for that last spot: The familiar Logan Ondrusek, the lefty Manny Parra, and the young J.J. Hoover. Let’s break down these three and find the best fit for the ‘pen.
I’m a huge Ondrusek fan. When he’s on, he’s really on. Early on in the 2012 season (through 11 innings pitched), he sported a 0.00 ERA. 42 batters faced, six hits, four walks and ten strikeouts. I was excited to see if Ondrusek could deliver throughout the regular season, and was very disappointed when he didn’t.
Ondrusek was my personal biggest disappointment of the 2012 season. In a year where most of the players on the roster showed serious progression and had average-to-career-high seasons, Ondrusek was moving in the opposite direction. He finished the season with a 3.46 ERA and opposing hitters hit .244 off of him. Projections for 2013 see him regressing even more, most seeing a 4.00-4.50 ERA. The lanky guy was fun to watch for a while, and was a staple in the Red’s building process, but there just isn’t a place for him in a bullpen that has a realistic chance to be the league’s best.
New to the Reds in 2013, Parra provides a second (or third, depending on the Chapman situation) lefty arm to the bullpen. Dusty, and most traditional baseball thinkers, prefer to have multiple left-handed pitchers in the ‘pen. I definitely don’t think it hurts, but with today’s bullpen arms getting better and better (and lefty/righty splits becoming more and more even), lefty/righty balance in the ‘pen is slowly starting to become non-important. Just look at the 2012 Reds, who didn’t have a set-in-stone LOOGY. Sean Marshall was, for the most part, comfortable and effective pitching against righties and lefties, and we all know how dominating Chapman was.
So, why Manny Parra? He’s a familiar face to die-hard Reds fans, having pitched for the Brewers since 2007. The lowest ERA he’s managed to achieve in that time was a 4.39 in ’08, which exploded into a 6.36 ERA in ’09. He has since leveled off and has hovered around 5.00 for the past couple of seasons.
Add this to the fact that he has faced nearly three times as many right handed batters than left handed batters over his career, and the reasons to keep Parra around become even more limited. He has managed to keep opposing lefties to a .261/.349/.417 slash (compared to .285/.371/.438 for righties), but these numbers still don’t give the common fan much hope.
Perhaps the biggest testament to the possibilities of Parra working out with the Reds is Alfredo Simon. Simon was new to the Reds in ’12, and was perhaps even worse than Parra with his previous team. Granted, Simon used to pitch for the Orioles and regularly had to face the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays, but he had only managed a career-low ERA of 4.9 in 4 big league seasons before posting a 2.66 ERA with the Reds last season.
Simon’s situation speaks volumes to the potential of a change of scenery. Simon was a completely different pitcher for the Reds than he was in the Orioles organization. Again, a move from the AL to the NL was sure to see his numbers increase a little bit, but perhaps the coaching staff and clubhouse was more of a factor than we know. And perhaps Manny Parra could benefit from the same factors.
And this leads me to my pick for the final bullpen spot for the Reds in 2013…
The Rookie Hoover was phenomenal for the good guys in 28 games last season. Sporting a nasty 9.10 K/9 and a very good 2.05 ERA, Hoover was not only effective, but he was fun to watch. He was a big reason why the Reds bullpen was considered one of the best in the National League. Of course, history shows that Hoover probably won’t be able to maintain those fantastic 2012 numbers (projections see his ERA increasing to the 3.00-3.50 range), the potential is scary for opposing teams.
A former starter in the Brave’s organization, Hoover was brought to the Reds in a trade for out-of-shape third baseman Juan Francisco, one of the really, really good early 2012 acquisitions for the Reds. Cincinnati converted Hoover to the ‘pen, and he took off.
If there’s a knock on Hoover, it’s his experience (or lack thereof). And this is a big knock when it comes to any team managed by Dusty Baker. We’ve seen Baker time and time again go with a veteran over an emerging young star. Although highly contested in the fan base, you can’t argue with the win totals he’s been racking up lately. However, I think this is a case of the best pitcher winning the spot. And in my eyes, the best pitcher is J.J. Hoover.
Ondrusek, Parra and Hoover have each pitched in 4 games so far in spring play. And although Spring Training statistics might not be the most telling, here is where these three stand through Monday night:
The lack of statistics show why decisions like these aren’t based solely on who’s pitching the best in Spring. It seems as though Hoover is pitching best now, however, as is the case with the beginning of every season, the decision is not in our hands, and will most probably surprise a lot of us. Also be on the lookout for the likes of Clay Hensley and Armando Galarraga. Although these two are definitely on the outside looking in, stranger things have happened in the days leading up to Opening Day.