Starting pitching depth looked like it could be an issue for the Cincinnati Reds in 2014, but Alfredo Simon has proven the doubters wrong early on this season.
The expectations for the veteran were low, but he has been nothing short of sensational.
Mat Latos had surgery to remove bone chips in his arm shortly after the 2013 MLB season ended, and he spent the whole offseason rehabbing. However, a knee injury at the beginning of spring training put his status for Opening Day in doubt.
When it became clear that Latos wouldn't be ready to start the season, Simon was the next man up. Cincinnati was hoping that Simon could make one good start in the rotation and that Latos would return after that. When Simon dominated in his first start, he had fans clamoring for more.
Critics can find ways to take credit away from Simon. They can point out that he has faced the New York Mets and the Chicago Cubs and that he has only pitched at Great American Ball Park once this season.
It doesn't matter who he has pitched against or where he has pitched. For a pitcher who hasn't started since 2011, he has blown past the expectations.
Here are his numbers through three starts:
|April 6||at New York Mets||7||4||1||1||0||1||6||79||W, 2-1|
|April 12||vs. Tampa Bay Rays||8||5||1||1||1||1||4||102||L, 1-0|
|April 18||at Chicago Cubs||6||4||1||0||0||2 (1 IBB)||3||101||W, 4-1|
Those numbers have led to a 2-1 record and a 0.86 ERA.
The team's rotation has been one of the best in baseball. Outside of Johnny Cueto, no Reds starter has been as dominant as Simon. It's not easy to replace a pitcher like Latos, but the Reds have lucked out thus far.
What exactly does Simon's hot start to the season mean for the Reds in 2014?
It's certainly a good sign for the Reds, but it doesn't mean the veteran is going to be in the role for an extended period of time.
Simon's early success has even caused some fans to plead for him to stay in the rotation when Latos returns and put Homer Bailey in the bullpen. Spoiler alert: That's not happening.
The Reds gave Bailey a six-year, $105 million contract this past offseason. He has two no-hitters to his name. He has always been a slow starter, and the Reds aren't going to move him to the bullpen because one pitcher has looked good for three starts.
Don't forget that Simon has been a starter before. He posted a 4.96 ERA in 16 starts with the Baltimore Orioles back in 2011. He has obviously come a long way since then, but Bailey has the better track record.
When Latos returns, Simon will go back to the bullpen. As good as the rotation has been with him in it, the bullpen has been just as bad without him.
Due to injuries to its closer and two setup men, Cincinnati's bullpen has been a major weakness.
As of April 20, the Reds' bullpen ranked 28th in baseball with a 5.57 ERA and a 1.62 WHIP. Since Simon came to Cincinnati, it has finished first and seventh in the majors. Simon, who has served several roles in the bullpen, posted a 2.66 ERA in 2012 and followed that up with a 2.87 ERA last season.
Simon was brought in before the 2012 season to be the team's long man. Every bullpen needs a reliever who can eat innings when a starter leaves early, and Simon was more than adequate in that role. His pitching was so good that it led to former manager Dusty Baker using him in clutch situations last season.
Manager Bryan Price has had to piece together innings late in games. Now that Jonathan Broxton and Sean Marshall have returned, the team should get much better performances out of its relievers. However, the Reds need to be careful not to overuse Marshall or Broxton as they look to stay healthy.
Cincinnati should be thrilled about what it has gotten out of the 32-year-old so far. His early success has allowed the club to not rush Latos back from multiple injuries. It has also limited the workload of the relievers.
When Simon does go back to the bullpen, it will allow Price to feel confident in sending out a reliever for more than one inning. Simon has shown that he can shut teams down for more than one inning and let other relievers rest, which will come in handy when the team goes through stretches without a day off.
Between the injuries this team suffered before the season even began and its brutal schedule, the Reds could have dropped out of contention early. Luckily, Simon has stepped in and done his job to give his team a chance to win in each of his starts despite not having much room for error.
Simon's success means a couple of things. He will tremendously help the bullpen once Latos is healthy, and he also gives the Reds a reliable option should another pitcher go down with an injury. Also, should the Reds need to make a move at some point this season, Simon's trade value has soared with his excellent pitching. He might be attractive trade bait, but a team can never have too much pitching.
The Reds probably didn't expect Simon to average seven innings per start or have an ERA below 1.00 after three starts, but he has given the team everything it has needed. With Simon pitching at such a high level, Cincinnati will be able to overcome Latos' injury and stay in contention.
*All stats are via MLB.com