Cincinnati Reds pitcher Michael Lorenzen will pitch this year, and as the devout Christian from California would say - his coaches, staff and teammates are singing and praising, “Thank God.” After an MRI on his elbow, the team announced Tuesday the pain that debilitated him during spring training was from a sprained UCL elbow ligament. Lorenzen dodged a bullet - the dreaded Tommy John elbow reconstruction, which would end his season.
It was a bullet the Reds fired themselves with their mishandling of Lorenzen. Lorenzen was primarily a center fielder for Cal-Fullerton until he was drafted by Cincinnati in 2013. The Reds felt his quickest route to the majors, and the one with the highest upside, was as a pitcher, so he dropped the bat and climbed the mound and was immediately the most major league ready player the Reds had drafted in years. It was syptomatic of a team that’s management of young talent and its farm system is lagging far behind the others in the best division in baseball
Knowing Aroldis Chapman’s exit was a certainty two years ago, Lorenzen was destined to be the future closer, but in 2014 he was converted to a starter despite the Reds farm system loaded with starting pitchers. He threw 120 innings that year, started 2015 in Louisville the next season throwing 43 innings before tossing another 113.1 with the Reds in the majors.
These numbers don’t sound too demanding, but Lorenzen’s highest inning output in college was around 30. He would typically pitch the last two outs of the ninth. After he was drafted, the hard-throwing and talented righty blew through four leagues in 2013, but only pitched 21 total innings.
Lorenzen was called up to the Reds in late April last year. He pitched in 14 games, giving up over three runs only once - then the bottom fell out, and the Reds kept digging to find bottom. It was obvious fatigue or another issue, but the Reds threw him the next four games. He pitched over five innings once, and his ERA went through the roof to 19.80.
Why the Reds let the beating continue for four starts is a mystery. He was sent back to Louisville in the middle of August for two weeks and was back in Cincinnati before the end of the month. He had a decent outing against the Brewers, but was roughed up by Chicago and St. Louis, the muscle of the division. He went back to pitching short duty and fared better to end the season.
Why Lorenzen wasn’t shut down competely? Whether the strain he has in his elbow is due to the workload from the year before, only the team knows. But risking such a high-talent prospect to ride out the late months of a 64-win season made no sense. When it comes to the future, the Reds often look to be driving at night with the headlights off.
The Reds window for winning slammed shut last year when they traded away much of their talent. The return wasn’t great, the team never got the best prospect from the other squad, despite giving up a Cy Young capable starter in Johnny Cueto, the hardest throwing reliever in history in Aroldis Chapman, and a power-hitting third baseman and team leader in Todd Frazier.
Optimists - which I counted myself as one - thought the team could quickly rebuild around it’s young pitching depth in the farm system and Joey Votto, the best hitter in baseball. It meant getting the missing pieces in trades, and cutting fat from the payroll. The team cut payroll, but never got the bats it sorely needed.
Not landing talented bats in those trades changed the team’s future because the Reds have been miserable at developing position players. The team has sought a left fielder for years. Billy Hamilton, who was promoted to the majors before he was ready, hasn’t grown into a major league hitter. While the broadcast booth and local radio has focused its wrath on Votto and his contract, the team has never put a priority on putting a player in front of him who regularly gets on base. Votto’s production equals almost any two other players in the lineup, so they should consider him a discount. The minor league teams rarely have hitters bat over .300 for an entire season.
If the Reds had developed the hitting they needed, contracts would have never been a problem, and needing to land a winning lottery ticket in a trade wouldn’t have been needed.
The facts are hitting is more important to develop than pitching. Six or seven years ago, pitchers throwing 95 or faster were a rarity. A scan through major league bullpens, you find pitchers tossing mid-90s and harder in middle relief. Pitching became dominant and plentiful and hitting became scarce. The Chicago Cubs realized this, and concentrated on drafting, trading and acquiring the best bats it could. What was once the worst franchise in the game, is now a powerhouse with a World Series window that could reach a decade.
The Reds never caught on - 22 of the top players in its farm system are pitchers. Granted, pitching wins games, but scoring runs occassionaly helps. Doing both wins titles. In another division, where you aren’t playing loaded teams with three of the best systems, rosters and front offices in the game, the Reds outlook would look much better. Right now that future looks strained, like Lorenzen’s elbow.
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