Will Cincinnati's Rotation Be Red-Faced Again?

VenomContributor IFebruary 9, 2009

We find ourselves once again at the cusp of spring training, and for Cincinnati Reds fans, it will be an opportunity to evaluate the Redlegs' starting pitchers, a recurring problem for the Reds for the last number of years until very recently.

Last year might have been a watershed year for the Reds, as the emergence of a pair of rookies gave this much-maligned aspect of the team something that has been missing for a long time: hope.

Johnny Cueto and first-half sensation Edinson Volquez showed Reds fans that the future could, indeed, be bright on pitching. Not surprisingly, both had their struggles as the season progressed, but they impressed more than a few in spring training last year and made their cases they should be in the starting five again this year.

While Cueto and Volquez offer some positives to the Reds' rotation, the positives generally end there. While there is an improving trend (thank you for coming to us, Walt Jocketty), no one should mistake that all the heavy lifting is done.

Bronson Arroyo, for one, had an abysmal season last year. His first year in Cincy has been his best—not just in this organization, but in his whole career. Since then, he has become stuck in a downward trend that hasn't shown much in the way of reversing.

While he can still throw a decent number of strikes in a season, his three-year WHIP of 1.33 has revealed a fair bit of inconsistency. That this figure is skewed heavily in the last two years to the negative makes it more troubling.

Aaron Harang, while also suffering from a dreadful season last year, is a bit more steady. Career-wise, he has shown much more control on his two primary pitches. Like Arroyo, he can be counted on as a workhorse to log many innings during the season, provided he can regain some of that stability.

Cueto was easily overshadowed by Volquez during the season. Leading up to the All-Star Break, it was hard to find a pitcher garnering more attention than Volquez, but Cueto performed admirably in his first season. From his first game, where he struck out double-digit batters, it was clear he had the stuff for the big leagues. Everyone will be looking to see if he can maintain focus during a full game.

In fact, if Cueto had an Achilles' heel last season, it had nothing to do with his pitches: It was his inability to regain composure after having a bad inning. He had a fair bit of difficulty in evening games at Great American Ballpark, specifically when the setting sun would glare directly in his eyes. This, invariably, led to some very long innings for him.

If Cueto is to improve on his rookie campaign, he will have to learn to shake off a bad inning—and maybe invest in a pair of sunglasses.

Volquez is the fourth confirmed starter, which he more than earned last year. If he can regain even half of his first-half display, the Reds will be pleased.

The real question mark at this juncture is for the fifth starter.

The Josh Fogg experiment is over, and while still in the mix, Homer Bailey's days of being a highly-touted pitcher are done.

For Bailey, it will take better control, a better assortment of pitches, and, perhaps most importantly, a better attitude before he is considered for a starter role again (at least Rob Dibble could throw a strike).

Perhaps greener pastures lie elsewhere for Bailey if he doesn't stay in Louisville. Wherever he goes, he will have to learn that he can't lean on his fastball forever, or he will continue to live up to his name.

Other candidates include Micah Owings, Ramon Martinez, Matt Maloney, and Daryl Thompson. Based on experience, one could argue that Owings has the inside track for the job, as he has two full seasons under his belt.

Martinez, Maloney, and Thompson are all rookies with a handful of games pitched combined last year. That may not dissuade Reds fans too much, who can look to the nurturing of Volquez and Cueto as proof that the farm system may produce a decent starter. But expectations should not be too high for any of these three.

At the end of the day, this rotation—with whomever is selected for the fifth spot—will face a tough battle against the competition. Divisionally, the Cubs and Cards continue to remain the class of the Central, and Reds fans should make no illusions that rebounds by Arroyo and Harang, as well as improvements by Cueto and Volquez, will unseat them.

What can be expected, though, should be upward movement by the organization to address this critical area. Baby steps might be underestimating what they can do, but for a team with almost 20 years since its last championship, it is important to keep emotions in check.