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One Big Question: Can Denyi Reyes’ command and sequencing make up for the lack of stuff against more advanced hitting?

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The classic battle between stuff and pitchability.

Kelly O’Connor; sittingstill.smugmug.com

Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one overarching question for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go one-by-one alphabetically straight down the roster, and today we talk about Denyi Reyes.

The Question: Is Denyi Reyes’ pitchability enough to make up for his lack of stuff in the high-minors, and beyond?

Heading towards the Rule 5 protection deadline last winter, there wasn’t a ton of anticipation around the Red Sox’ additions. It wasn’t that there weren’t exciting names, but for the most part we knew what they were going to do well before it happened. There were four locks on the list, with Michael Chavis, Darwinzon Hernandez, Travis Lakins and Josh Taylor being at least close to sure things. There was some debate on Taylor on the interwebs, but I don’t thin there was much in the front office. Many fans, myself included, though Josh Ockimey would be the last name to protect if there was one, but we were wrong. We weren’t wrong about there being another name on the list, we just guessed the wrong player. To the surprise of most — there were some, including here, who called this — Denyi Reyes was the last Red Sox prospect to be added to the 40-man roster.

Like I said, this caught a lot of people off-guard, as Reyes doesn’t really fit the profile of a player who is added to the 40-man roster, mostly because he has yet to pitch above High-A. Still, after a bit of thought it did make sense. Reyes was more likely than Ockimey to be taken by another team following a dominant season in the minors. Ockimey is a first base-only prospect with swing and miss issues and major platoon splits. That’s not easy to hide on an active roster for an entire season, particularly in an age where benches are shrinking every year. On the other hand, pitchers can be hidden on an active roster, particularly on bad teams. Reyes would not have been the first pitcher with his level of experience to be popped in the Rule 5 Draft, and those players can generally be relegated to mop-up duty for an entire year. It’s not an ideal form of development, but if a team believes in the talent they will take that chance.

Denyi Reyes with a camel
Kelly O’Connor; sittingstill.smugmug.com

That being said, Reyes doesn’t quite fit the profile of a guy who would be selected in this scenario. Players like him have been taken before, but more generally we see teams select players with big stuff and hope the command will come later. Reyes, Boston’s 2018 minor-league pitcher of the year, is the opposite. His stuff rates out as average-as-best, but scouts rave about his ability to command the strike zone and sequence his way through at bats to get around the relatively lackluster arsenal. So, now he is part of the future plans for the Red Sox by default, and since he’s already starting to burn minor-league options the organization would surely like him to move quickly. I don’t see them pushing him overly aggressively if he doesn’t show he deserves it, but the more quickly he makes the majors, the better. With that in mind, it’s fair to wonder how his style is going to play as he starts to face more advanced hitters in the upper minors.

For all of the legitimate concerns about Reyes against more advanced hitting, you can’t talk about him without mentioning that he has dominated every group of hitters put in front of him to this point. The 22-year-old has never pitched to an ERA above 3.00 in his professional career, and over that entire time he’s walked fewer than a batter per nine innings. Last season was the exclamation point on his young career, splitting the year between Greenville and Salem. Over 155 23 innings in his first season in full-season ball, the righty pitched to an incredible 1.97 ERA with 145 strikeouts and only 19 walks. To put it simply, he just doesn’t allow baserunners, and ended the year with a WHIP under 1.00.

Of course, that brings us to the elephant in the room and the reason he is still towards the bottom of the top 20 or worse on pretty much every major prospect list. He’s all the way down at 24 on Sox Prospects’ list. He’s 19 on MLB Pipeline’s, 17 on Fangraphs and Keith Law’s and 18 on Baseball America. Those aren’t rankings of a player for whom we usually get overly excited, but the stuff is a real issue. There isn’t a pitch that rates above average, and Sox Prospects only has two that are even average. Every report raves about his command and pitchability, but the lack of stuff obviously limits his ceiling and makes his margin for error very thin.

It is, predictably, hard to find great recent comps for Reyes here, because pitchers with his lack of standout stuff rarely make it up the ladder and onto the 40-man roster. Brian Johnson was the first thought that crossed my mind, though it’s not a great one. Johnson did get by with great command and pitchability in the minors, but he was also a former first round pick with better stuff than what Reyes profiles for. Johnson has turned into a solid swingman in the majors and could probably be a fine back-end arm on a non-playoff team. Hector Velazquez is a similar comp, though he didn’t come up through the minors so we don’t have the same frame of reference. Dedgar Jimenez is a current minor leaguer without big stuff and had a big season a couple years ago before faltering in the high minors in 2018. However, he also didn’t have the long-term success that Reyes has had over his career.

The smart money is likely on him needing to take a step forward with at least one of his pitches — likely his fastball — if he’s really going to become a consistent major-league starter. Some scouts see some potential improvement with the pitch given his size, though that’s far from a consensus opinion. If he sticks with what he has, there is still a chance he can succeed if the sequencing and command is as good as it has appeared to be in the lower minors, but there is almost no wiggle room moving forward. All of this makes the big righty among the most interesting players in the minors to watch in 2019.