It’s so tempting when discussing the Reds rotation to gloss over the front end in favor of Aroldis Chapman. He’s definitely the dominant storyline with this team, but whether he becomes a dominant starter is far less clear. Thankfully for the Reds, they aren’t counting on him to lead the rotation, just to fall in behind Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos, who are underrated as a top-of-the-rotation pair. There are a few pairs I like better – Clayton Kershaw/ Zack Greinke and Stephen Strasburg/Gio Gonzalez chiefly among them – but the Reds are hardly wanting for quality with those two.
Waiting in the Wings
This is a really good rotation and it starts with Cueto at the top. His second consecutive season with an ERA under 2.80 and a WHIP under 1.18 was impressive enough to net him a fourth-place finish in the Cy Young Award voting, but it hasn’t really brought him the same level of respect in fantasy. Consider the current ADP of the three players who finished ahead of him (via MockDraftCentral)
R.A. Dickey 89
Clayton Kershaw 18
Gio Gonzalez 80
Kershaw is clearly the favored son as the first pitcher taken in most drafts, the other two are falling off the board in about the same area, but Cueto falls another two rounds in most drafts. He’s a rate stat monster, and that alone justifies him as a good pick, but the relative lack of strikeouts is what keeps him from being an elite option. His increased changeup usage last season helped push his strikeout rate up over 7.00 per 9, something owners will look to have happen again. Nevertheless, it’ll be a secondary source of value simply given how good he is at keeping runners off base and keeping those on base from scoring.
Coming from San Diego to Cincinnati, Latos might have struggled with his new hitter-friendly digs, but he was impressively resolved. His home runs did go up, he did strikeout fewer hitters, but neither changed so much as to become problematic. An increase in his groundball rate went a long way to helping Latos keep runners off base and the home runs he did give up from being more damaging.
There’s little doubt in my mind that Cueto is the better pitcher of the two objectively, but for fantasy purposes, I might tap Latos as the better bet. Both have a low WHIP, Cueto gets the slight nod for ERA, but Latos has a noticeably better strikeout rate. The last factor in Latos’ favor is his age: At just 25, he’s definitely still improving and having a year in the bandbox under his belt should help him find the aggressiveness with hitters that boosted his strikeout rate in San Diego.
Whatever happens with Chapman, I don’t see him being an abject failure this season, which makes me more willing to take the gamble on drafting him. His ADP of 138 puts him in the same area as Matt Moore, Brandon Morrow, and Glen Perkins, which feels about right. He’s more talented than they are, but with substantially higher risk because of his move into the rotation.
The worst case scenario for owners is that he just can’t quite hack it in the rotation, hits the DL with a fatigue injury, then is eased back into bullpen work by taking two weeks or so in a set-up role before moving back to closing. He’d lose about a month’s worth of value. Outside of that, I think he’s either an effective starter or moves back to the bullpen relatively quickly; either option gives him a steady source of value.
My biggest concern with Chapman is the aforementioned fatigue injury. I’m wary of making comps because of the relative paucity of players who have done what Chapman is doing by moving into the rotation. Even so, I thnk the case of Chris Sale, another closer-turned-starter, is somewhat instructive as to the kinds of issues Chapman will face. Sale needed extra rest on multiple occasions last season even if he did avoid the DL. He still threw nearly 200 innings, so there’s nothing about skipping a few starts suddenly turns a pitcher into junk. Like Sale, Chapman will be under the care of a solid medical staff, but it will be incumbent on both the field staff and medical staff to notice small issues before they become larger injuries.
On the other side of the risk spectrum is Arroyo, who has failed to throw 200 innings or more in a season just once since 2005 and in that shameful season he threw a paltry…199 innings. He’ll be 36 this season, but has been better than league average in three of the last four seasons though never by more than 10 percent. As the four or five in the rotation, he’s a really nice back-of-the-rotation option, but mixed league players can probably make him a waiver wire pick rather than use a draft pick on him as he’s only being taken in about 27 percent of drafts.
Last season was Bailey’s first full season as a starter and while it looks as though he’ll never reach the potential that made him a top-10 pick in the 2007 draft, he was finally a solid contributor for the Reds. I like Bailey fine, but his current ADP laughably overvalues him. At 162, Bailey is going ahead of Doug Fister, Mike Minor, Jarrod Parker, Brett Anderson, and about a dozen other pitchers I think he’ll struggle to outproduce.
If Bailey were traded out of Cincinnati, I would instantly be more interested in him if for no other reason than just how brutal his home/road split is. Last season, Bailey allowed hitters an .874 OPS at home, resulting in a 5.16 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP; on the road, opponents posted just a .559 OPS against him, which gave him a 2.32 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP. Sadly, he’s probably too good overall to be a streaming option, but having to live with that downside is a serious price to pay for his good starts. If he slips in a draft, maybe he becomes a better option, but there are better pitchers out there going two or three rounds later.
The depth options for the Reds aren’t awe-inspiring – no one is going to secretly hope that Chapman moves back to the bullpen so that Galarraga gets consistent major league starts – but they are experienced and there’s something to be said for that. Leake will get the first call if they need a spot starter, and he’ll be a functional fill-in. If they do need a long-term option, whether because of a serious injury or because Chapman resumes closing, Cingrani could be the one who steps in. He’s a future piece of the rotation, was up in September last year, and should be ready for a full-time job in the majors in the next couple seasons.