Can the Reds rotation be as good as it was last year?

Starting pitching was a strength for the Cincinnati Reds in 2019, but could the rotation be just as good (or better) this year?

The Cincinnati Reds broke a streak of four straight 90-plus loss seasons last year, finishing 75-87 and 16 games back of the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central. But they had a positive run differential into September, and in a broad sense pitching was a strength.

The Reds finished eighth in all of baseball in staff ERA last year (4.18), with a starter’s ERA of 4.12 (ninth). Luis Castillo (15-8, 3.40 ERA, 10.7 K/9) and the resurgence of Sonny Gray (11-8, 2.87 ERA, 10.5 K/9) led the way, with Anthony DeSclafani (3.89 ERA in 31 starts) and Tanner Roark (4.24 ERA in 21 starts) coming in with solid contributions.

The Reds acquired Trevor Bauer from the Cleveland Indians at last year’s trade deadline. It didn’t go very well, as he posted a 6.39 ERA over 10 starts, but his FIP over that stretch (4.85) pointed to some bad fortune and his peripherals (10.9 K/9, 3.0 BB/9) were still good during that run. But there were signs of better things to come.

Over his first seven starts with the Reds (35 innings), Bauer posted an 8.23 ERA and a 3.9 BB/9 with eight home runs and 44 hits allowed as he only topped five innings twice. Over his final three outings, he had a 3.38 ERA with 13 hits allowed, 25 strikeouts and just four walks in 21.1 innings (1.7 BB/9). He also went more than six innings in all three starts.

Bauer’s excellent 2018 campaign with Cleveland was not repeatable, particularly a HR/9 rate of 0.5 that drove his ERA down to 2.21. But he’s clearly a better pitcher than he looked like early after being acquired by the Reds, and that pitcher surfaced over his final three starts.  Any continued struggles to keep the ball in the ballpark, as he allowed a career-high 34 home runs last year, aren’t great when projecting more starts in the bandbox that is Great American Ballpark.

Bauer is not afraid to tweak things, and he seemed to find something that worked in September last season. He was also pitching well before spring training ended (one run allowed in nine innings).

Among all 30 teams, the Reds’ starting rotation was fifth in xFIP (4.01) and ninth in fWAR (14.9) last year. In fWAR, the gap between them and the 10th-place Texas Rangers (11.9) was the same as the gap between the fifth-place Indians and them on the other end.

The Reds signed left-hander Wade Miley to a two-year deal this offseason. He had a 3.98 ERA over 33 starts with the Houston Astros last year, and will slot in as the No. 4 starter for Cincinnati.

DeSclafani had his trajectory derailed by an elbow injury in 2017, followed by an oblique issue in 2018. But he was pretty good as last year went on, with ERAs below 3.20 in June (3.08), July (2.78) and September (3.19), and perhaps most importantly he made 31 starts.

A full season of a better version of Bauer feels certain in 2020, and the balance of a solid lefty like Miley will be important. Add the prospect of DeSclafani pitching more like he did from June 1 on last year for the entire season, and the Reds’ starting rotation could be even better than it was last year.

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