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Loss of Tony Cingrani Would Put Cincinnati Reds' Rotation in a Lurch

Could Top Prospect Stephenson Be an Option?

Yahoo Contributor Network

COMMENTARY | After a back strain forced Cincinnati Reds lefty Tony Cingrani to shorten his start against the Arizona Diamondbacks on August 20, the Reds' starting rotation suddenly became muddled.

Cingrani had replaced Reds injured ace Johnny Cueto in the rotation for the better part of the past two months, during which time the Reds' rotation continued to excel to the point that the starters' ERA is second-best in the NL behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers, as of August 20. Also, the Reds' starters have the lowest WHIP in the NL and have pitched more innings than the starters of any other NL team.

Innings Limit Ahead ?

Cingrani has been sensational filling the void left by the injured Cueto. He has started 16 games in Cueto's stead, and overall (including five relief appearances) Cingrani has posted a superb 2.76 ERA in 97+ innings, which ranks him seventh in ERA in the NL for pitchers who have thrown more than 95 innings.

Besides his 97 innings for the Reds, Cingrani has also pitched more than 31 innings in the minors this year. His 129 total innings may factor into any decision to allow Cingrani to start for the remainder of August, especially if there is any concern that his back strain could worsen if he takes his next two turns in the rotation.

Cueto Status

The return of Cueto remains problematic, but time is running out for Cueto to take the mound for a minor-league rehab assignment. Cueto is scheduled for another MRI on August 23 to determine whether or not his strained lat muscle has healed enough for him to resume throwing. With the regular season dwindling, the Reds may opt to keep Cueto shutdown for the rest of the season, including the postseason. If that happens, the Reds will need Cingrani more for a postseason push than he is needed for the remainder of August. If Cingrani is knocked out of action in September, the Reds will have to scramble to produce an adequate replacement to help the team claim a third NL Central division title in the past four years.

Candidates to replace Cingrani

Cingrani's second scheduled start for the remainder of August could be filled by Mike Leake due to a scheduled off-day during the last week of the month. But if Cingrani can't pitch for his next scheduled start, a starter not currently in the rotation will have to be summoned.

The likeliest candidate to replace Cingrani in the short term is Greg Reynolds, who has posted a 12-3 record with a 2.42 ERA in 21 Triple-A starts this year. Reynolds made a spot start for the Reds in July but took a loss after giving up five earned runs in five innings. As a pitch-to-contact pitcher, Reynolds may keep the Reds in a game or two should he get the call for Cingrani, but if Cingrani's has to miss extended time, the Reds will need a better option.

Short of a waiver-deadline trade to bolster the rotation, the potentially most dominant starter in the Reds' farm system would be 20-year-old Robert Stephenson, who has thrown 103.2 innings in 19 minor league starts this year. The Reds' most promising pitching prospect has just one Double-A start in 2013 (on August 16) with the rest of his starts all coming in Class A. Given his age and inexperience, the Reds are likely to let him wait until 2014 before he is considered for a September call-up, but if the future is now and his arm is ready, Stephenson could be the one pitcher who could help the Reds the most should a replacement for both Cingrani and Cueto be needed in September.

Robb Hoff has worked as a freelance researcher for ESPN's production and news departments for the past five years. You can read his articles about the 2012 Reds' season here.

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