Cincinnati Reds: It’s a make-or-break offseason for Vladimir Gutiérrez

GOODYEAR, ARIZONA - FEBRUARY 23: Starting pitcher Vladimir Gutierrez #76 of the Cincinnati Reds (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)
GOODYEAR, ARIZONA - FEBRUARY 23: Starting pitcher Vladimir Gutierrez #76 of the Cincinnati Reds (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images) /
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Vladimir Gutiérrez is facing make-or-break time with the Reds.

Vladimir Gutiérrez has had high expectations since signing with the Cincinnati Reds for nearly $5M in the fall of 2016. The Cuban right-hander, who signed at 21-years old, was looked at a guy who could advance quickly through the minors, although he was still raw in some areas. As the Reds flip the calendar to 2021, what does the future hold for Gutiérrez?

Vladimir Gutierrez sat in the mid-90’s with his fastball and also could drop down an advanced curveball and a developing slider and changeup. This was a guy, at just age 18 in the Cuban National League, put up a 2.45 ERA while averaging nearly a strikeout per inning while coming out of the pen.

The Reds clearly showed they wanted to make him a starter by handing him the equivalent of high first-round pick bonus money to sign. Gutiérrez came stateside in 2017, an was assigned to Advanced-A to pitch for the Daytona Tortugas. He pitched in 19 games (all starts) and finished with a 7-8 record, a 4.46 ERA, and 8.2 K/9.

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Certainly, in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, those numbers are not anything crazy. But, in his first year in the U.S, pitching in a league where the average age was over two years older than him in his age-21 season, it was a decent starting point.

Vladimir Gutiérrez followed up his 2017 performance by showing signs of improvement in the Southern League with Double-A Pensacola in 2018. Gutiérrez lowered his ERA to 4.35 in a better hitting league than the FSL, and pitched in 27 games, showing good durability. His K/9 shot up to 8.9. Across the board his numbers varied.

Gutiérrez showed elite control in 2017, walking less than two batters per nine innings and it jumped up to nearly 2.5 in 2018, although that still puts him in solid territory. It wasn’t a drastic improvement, but it did look like Gutiérrez was improving slowly and perhaps had the celling of a mid-rotation starter.

Everything that he had positive going for him into 2019 evaporated with a starting assignment with the Louisville Bats; the Reds Triple-A affiliate. He finished with an ERA of 6.04 in 27 starts, and without a good final month, that ERA would have been significantly higher.

Gutiérrez’s WHIP jumped from 1.2 to 1.4, and he allowed a full hit more per nine innings from 2018 to 2019. His walk rate rose over three walks per nine innings, and Gutiérrez’s strikeout rate dropped below 8K/9. Most alarmingly was his strikeout-to-walk ratio, which sat at 4.95 in 2017 and fell off a cliff to 2.44 in 2019.

Granted, Triple-A was using a livelier baseball in 2019 which could certainly speak to some of Gutiérrez’s struggles as well as the fact that Triple-A hitters were the best competition he had faced to date. Gutiérrez then pitched in the Dominican Winter League, and was very good. He had a 3.21 RA in seven starts, although his walk and strikeout rates dropped once again.

Gutiérrez was certainly looking to improve his numbers in 2020 before COVID-19 hit and the minor league season was ultimately cancelled. Gutiérrez likely was going back to Triple-A Louisville to hopefully improve on those numbers, and would have faced a tough time getting a promotion with really zero holes on the Reds starting pitching staff.

Then, in June, Vladimir Gutiérrez was suspended for 80 games for testing positive for the PED Stanozolol. Gutiérrez will not be eligible, with a regular minor league season, to pitch until late June at the very earliest, putting a 25 year old, with little success above the Double-A level in complete no-mans land.

With the Cincinnati Reds bringing in new personnel with the changing of their pitching staff these past couple years, you have to think could Gutiérrez be on the outside looking in. After Dick Williams stepped down, whoever is brought in to replace him could very well bring in a lot of new player personnel.

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Time will only tell for Vladimir Gutiérrez, who will be 25-years old until late September. Maybe a move to the bullpen could help him, but the Reds will have to stick with him throughout the entire suspension to even have that thought. He is not on the 40-man roster, so it could truly be make or break time in his potential limited action in 2021.