Reds' rotation has depth, youth, upside

The Cincinnati Reds have one of the deepest starting rotations in the National League -- seven-deep, in fact -- and of the seven, six of them are ages 23-27.

Edinson Volquez has shown flashes of being a potential No. 1 starter; Johnny Cueto already is a solid No. 2; Bronson Arroyo just wins 15 games and pitches 200 innings every year; Travis Wood has pinpoint control; Homer Bailey has the raw stuff to potentially become a No. 1; and Mike Leake and Sam LeCure are solid back-of-the-rotation arms. With one of baseball's best defensive teams behind this young, strong rotation, the Reds are built to be a World Series-contending team over the next several seasons.

Rotation depth should give them an advantage over the 162-game schedule. But the question remains: Can they compete in the playoffs? While the Phillies, Giants, Marlins, Rockies, Dodgers, Braves and Cardinals all have proven No. 1 starters, the Reds are hoping that either Volquez, Cueto or Bailey will develop into one. The hope is that they can compete with the likes of Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum and Josh Johnson come October in Games 1 and 7 of important playoff matchups. The potential is there.

Here is a breakdown of their starting rotation:

Volquez, 27, has an overpowering fastball at times (90-96 mph) with an excellent changeup, an effective curveball and a hard slider. He has quick arm speed out front with whip-like action. When he’s healthy, he’s shown he can be a strike thrower who goes right at hitters and pounds the zone. In fact, if you want to take a snapshot of his best pitching, it was the first half of 2008, when he went 12-3 with a 2.29 ERA and a WHIP of just 1.24. Some even nicknamed him "Mini-Pedro" for that short period of success. Since then, he’s had Tommy John surgery and a positive test for PEDs. The reality is he can’t control the baseball like he used to. In his past start, he walked five of the first 12 batters he faced. His WHIP is 1.6, he’s averaging seven walks per nine innings, and leads the league in walks with 33. Although he has the potential to be a No. 1, he looks more like a No. 3 starter, and the Reds are hoping the command and control come back sooner rather than later. The raw stuff is top-of-the-rotation talent.

Former Reds scout Johnny Almaraz recruited Cueto as an international signee . Cueto, 24, has a smaller frame with a powerful fastball in the 90-95 mph range. He’s aggressive and commands the fastball well. This has allowed him to realize getting outs on the ground can be as effective as strikeouts. He has a hard, tight slider that is deceptive enough to get him punch-outs out of the zone against even some of the league's better hitters. He has a plus changeup at times, and the cutter is also effective, especially against left-handed hitters. The Reds signed Cueto to a four-year, $27 million deal before spring training. Imagine the alarm when his shoulder started barking. But thanks to one of the best medical teams in baseball, led by Dr. Timothy Kremchek, they quickly put him on a strengthening program that has him healthy again and back on track to being a solid No. 2 starter.

Arroyo, 34, is one of the best No. 3 starters in baseball. He has won at least 15 games three years in a row and has pitched at least 200 innings every season since 2005. He’ll throw between 85-90 mph, with a big, slow curveball, an average slider with tilt, and an effective cutter. He varies speeds, plains, zones and really knows how to pitch. He’ll try to get you to chase, and he’ll try to fool you. He wins. He pitches innings. He has tremendous make-up and character and is the leader of this rotation. He is a straight shooter and a rock 'n' roller, with the hairdo, swagger and charm. Every fifth day the Reds can count on him keeping them in the game with a chance to win.

Wood, 24, is the lone lefty in the rotation. He is a competitor and a good athlete. His sinking fastball is mostly 88-91 mph with pinpoint control. He has an excellent changeup, a quality cutter, and his breaking balls -- a slider and a curveball -- have developed enough to be effective. His balls have late movement, and he keeps them out of the middle of the plate. He spent time in the offseason with Cliff Lee, working out and talking about pitching. Both Arroyo and catcher Ryan Hanigan rave about Wood and his ability to get outs with less stuff. Wood is a solid lefty who will always be referred to as a real estate pitcher, meaning location, location, location ... and late life.

Bailey, 25, has the highest ceiling of any of the Reds' starting pitchers. Like Cueto, Wood and Lecure, he was cross-checked and recommended by former Reds scout Jimmy Gonzales, who felt strongly Bailey would be a 15-18 game winner someday. Bailey had some minor injuries early in his career and used to be just a thrower. His stubbornness and inability to make adjustments due to immaturity frustrated the Reds' brass for years. However, last September, the maturity came, the light bulb went on, and Bailey is now ready to take off. His fastball is 90-96 mph with hard, arm-side sink. The pitch is so overpowering that at times he can throw it down the middle of the plate, tell the hitter it’s coming, and they still can’t catch up. When he was drafted, he had a big curveball that was his primary breaking pitch, but now his first breaking ball is a tight slider or cutter that is a lot more effective. His secondary offspeed pitch has improved dramatically; everything moves. He is a fierce competitor who is really coming into his own as he has learned how to pitch.

Leake, 23, the right-hander out of Arizona State, became the first player in a decade in the past season to make the major leagues without spending time in the minors. He rewarded the Reds in the first half by going 6-1 with a 3.53 ERA in 17 starts with a WHIP of 1.3 and was a ground-ball machine. Leake is not overpowering, but he used both sides of the plate and kept the ball down. The second half, however, was a different story once the innings racked up. Leake is now throwing out of the bullpen, but if there is an injury, he’ll be ready to step back into the rotation. At the back end of the rotation, he is certainly capable of winning 10-12 games.

LeCure, 27, went to school at the University of Texas and was academically ineligible to pitch in 2005. That didn’t stop the Reds from evaluating and drafting him after watching his bullpen sessions. His fastball can get up to 88-91 mph, and he commands his slider and changeup. LeCure is a tough kid with exceptional make-up, an over-achiever who can win at the back end of any rotation. He provides more valuable depth for the Reds.

The bottom line is that this is a really talented and deep rotation. If Volquez, Cueto and/or Bailey arrive at their fullest potential, the Reds may be celebrating at the White House and not just at Fountain Square in the Queen City or at one of Jeff Ruby’s famous downtown restaurants.

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