By HAL McCOY
CINCINNATI — It is foolhardy to play the age-old ‘what if’ game because there is never a definitive answer to ‘what if.’
Nevertheless, with what has happened to the Cincinnati Reds’ bullpen this year, it is apropos to ask it.
What if David Hernandez and Jared Hughes pitched this season the way they pitched last season? Where would the Reds be right now. Certainly they wouldn’t be drowning in the deep dive the bullpen has taken them this year.
The ‘H’ boys, Hernandez and Hughes, were true firemen last year, putting out on-the-field conflagrations after conflagration. Hernandez was 5-and-2 with a 2.53 earned run average in 57 appearances.
Hughes was 4-and-3 with a 1.94 ERA in 72 appearances, a real go-to and ultra-reliable guy with his sinker that induced double-play ground balls.
This season? More often than not they came into sticky situations and poured kerosene and lighter fluid on the fires.
And now both are gone.
Not long ago, Hernandez was placed on waivers and released. On Thursday, Hughes was placed on waivers and grabbed by the Philadelphia Phillies.
So the culture in the Reds clubhouse continues to evolve with more and more strangers showing up in major league paradise.
The latest? Joel Kuhnel, a 24-year-old right hander, called up from Class AAA Louisville Thursday. His rise through the Reds system has been meteoric. At this time last season the Goldsboro, N.C. native was pitching for Class A Daytona after pitching in 2017 at low Class A Dayton. And he wasn’t considered a top-shelf prospect after the Reds drafted him in the 11th round in the 2016 draft out of the University of Texas-Arlington.
He is one big hombre, standing 6-foot-5 and weighing 260 pounds, the appeareance of a milk wagon workhorse.
He began the season at Class AA Chattanooga and was 3-and-2 with a 2.27 ERA in 17 appearances over 35 2/3 innings. He was promoted mid-season to Class AAA Louisville and was 2-and-1 with a 2.00 ERA in 16 appearances covering 18 innings. Combined at the two stops he struck out 50 and walked 16 over 53 2/3 innings.
In addition, the Reds recalled pitcher Matt Bowman and dispatched Sal Romano back to Louisville.
As expected, Kuhnel was in near shock because standing in front of a big league locker talking to the media was totally unexpected at this point of his career.
“This actually was a surprise,” he said. “I got called into the manager’s office at Louisville and told I was being sent back to Chattanooga,” he said with a laugh. “I dropped a ball I was holding and then they said I was going to Cincinnati. So that was a sigh of relief.
“I am super happy, super excited to be here,” he said. “I couldn’t stop smiling. I called my fiance, my mom, my dad, everybody. I couldn’t believe it was actually coming true.”
They were all planning to be in Great American Ball Park Thursday night. His mother was scheduled to fly to Louisville Thursday, “But she quickly changed it to Cincinnati. And my brother, who is the videographer at Chattanooga, will be here.”
Kuhnel, who wasn’t on the 40-man roster, barely got a cursory look during spring training and manager David Bell said, “I’ve mostly seen him on video. We’ll ease him into things, but we think he has the potential to be a power arm in the back end of the bullpen.
“He has had a year where he has made a lot of progress, he has had great reports from player development. He has put himself into a position where we think he can help us,” Bell added. “We need the fresh arms now, but going into the future he is a guy with swing-and-miss stuff that is really important in today’s game.”
Kuhnel said his rapid ascent has been due to, “Working hard on developing all my pitches. I’ve been able to move forward by progressing with everything.”
As he stood near his clubhouse locker, he said he had never been in the room before and that he was in GABP only once and that was as a paying fan when he pitched for the Dayton Dragons in 2017.
“This has all happened so fast, but in a good way,” he said. “You expect stuff to happen, like continue to get moved up through the system. All of a sudden, here I am in Cincinnati.”
As soon as he heard the news, he packed his gear, jumped into his car and made, “The hour-and-a-half drive, the longest hour-and-a-half in my life.
“Walking into this clubhouse was incredible, just incredible,” he said. “There is nothing like this.”
And he knows there will nothing like it when he scrapes the GABP pitching rubber with his spikes for the first time, “Because I’ll be excited, super-excited.”
The make-up of the bullpen has radically changed since early in the season. Gone are Jared Hughes, David Hernandez, Zach Duke, Wandy Peralta, Sal Romano, Jimmy Herget, Cody Reed and Matt Wisler.
The bullpen currently consists of Raisel Iglesias, Amir Garrett (when he concludes his suspension), Lucas Sims, Matt Bowman, Kevin Gausman, Robert Stephenson, Michael Lorenzen, Joe Kuhnel and probably, before this season expires, some pitchers to be named later.