To put it delicately, Dusty Baker has a conflicted history with starting pitchers. There was that decision on the final day of the 1993 pennant race to give the ball to a rookie named Salomon Torres. Or handing the game ball to Russ Ortiz when he removed him with a lead in Game 6 of the 2002 World Series. Or letting Mark Prior rack up some astronomical pitch counts back in 2003.
You see, Baker has options. Most managers are forced to make a decision only by a certain string of events -- one player gets hurt, you go with your next-best option or whomever management calls up from Triple-A. You rarely even see position battles in spring training anymore. But for Baker and the Reds, it's not that simple. Once you get past Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos and Mike Leake, the Reds have four options for the rotation: Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey, Aroldis Chapman and Jeff Francis. Having options is a good thing, of course. But what makes those four players so intriguing is that any of the four could work out; any of the four could blow up.
Here's a review of the four:
Bronson Arroyo: After winning 17 games with a 3.88 ERA in 2010, the Reds' inexplicably gave him a two-year extension through 2013 at $23.5 million. Bronson did have a good year in 2010, but he was still a home run-prone pitcher with a declining strikeout rate. Among 92 qualified starters that year, he ranked 82nd in K's per nine. In 2011, he ranked 86 of 93 ... and his home runs allowed skyrocketed to 46, the third-highest single-season total ever. So while there's a very good chance he's done, he's also owed a lot of money. And he's a veteran. Dusty loves those veterans. He hasn't pitched well this spring -- nine innings, two home runs, three walks, three strikeouts.
Homer Bailey: The seventh pick in the 2004 draft, we've been hearing about Bailey ever since, first as a prospect and then as perennial disappointment. His ERA didn't reflect it, but he did make some progress in 2011, cutting his walks to 2.3 per nine while maintaining an acceptable strikeout rate (7.2 per nine). I penciled him as a good breakout candidate. He hasn't pitched well: 11.1 innings, three home runs, six walks, three strikeouts -- although he did pitch four scoreless innings in his last outing.
Aroldis Chapman: The big Cuban with the 100-mph fastball is being given a chance to start again after spending 2011 in the Reds' bullpen, where he was unhittable (.147 average allowed) but Ricky Vaughn-esque (41 walks in 50 innings). Does he have the stamina to last as a starter? In seven innings in big league spring games he's allowed just one walk with seven K's.
Jeff Francis: Signed to a minor league deal, the veteran left-hander has looked good this spring with no walks and eight strikeouts in 13 innings.
What does Baker do? Bailey is out of options so has to remain on the roster. He could go to the bullpen but the Reds are already seven deep there. Chapman could be sent down to Triple-A to get more starts under his belt, although that would deprive Baker of a big bullpen weapon. Francis has said he'll report to Triple-A if required.
The easiest solution is probably to send Chapman down and let him make at least a few starts in Triple-A. The issue there: What if he's better than Bailey? What if Arroyo can't curb his gopherball issues? How long do you stick with either guy? The Reds don't project as a powerhouse, so every game could be crucial to making the playoffs or just missing the playoffs.
The spotlight is intense on Baker. I can't wait to see what he and GM Walt Jocketty decide to do.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.