02/10/2006 8:00 AM ET

Pitching takes Spring Training forefront
Reds hope improved staff will lead to success in 2006
By Mark Sheldon / MLB.com

CINCINNATI -- Sure, every team talks about how having good pitching is the key for having a successful season.
But what if a team (namely the Reds) led their league in runs scored and home runs last year but still lost 89 games because the pitching staff posted the league's highest ERA while allowing the most hits, runs and home runs?

Well, then pitching really must be the key to any chance at success.

Barring the unforeseen from happening during Spring Training in Sarasota, Fla., Cincinnati will have a starting five of right-handers Aaron Harang and Paul Wilson and left-handers Eric Milton, Dave Williams and Brandon Claussen. The bullpen lacks a proven or established closer and plans to go with a closer by committee.

"It's pretty common knowledge that the pitching has to improve," new Reds general manager Wayne Krivsky said upon taking over this week. "That's one area that we're not satisfied with right now."

Of the starters, Williams is the only new addition after coming over in the Sean Casey trade with the Pirates in December. Attempts to lure an ace, such as free agent Matt Morris, were not successful. Harang, an 11-game winner, was the lone Reds starter that surpassed the 200-innings benchmark last season.

"We definitely would like to have more depth," Reds manager Jerry Narron said. "Somebody at the top of the rotation that's better than Aaron Harang and Brandon Claussen would have been great. But we don't. We have to do everything and get improvement with the guys we have.

"It's not that I'm knocking those guys, I'm like everyone else. I just want a starter who has a 1.50 ERA, or a chance to be a Cy Young Award winner. This team has never had a Cy Young winner."

Although a 10-game winner with Pittsburgh in 2005, Williams still lacks an established track record in the Majors.

"This is where I feel like my career will hopefully take off," said Williams, who was 10-11 with a 4.41 ERA in 25 starts over 138 2/3 innings in 2005, both career highs. "When a team says they're excited about having you, I've never had anything like that in my career."

The current pitching situation in Cincinnati could leave someone either cautiously optimistic or a bit worried, depending on how they view a couple of issues.

Wilson is trying to bounce back from rotator cuff surgery, the third major arm operation of his career. A healthy and successful return as the fifth starter would be a boost for the club.

Milton had a disastrous first season of a three-year contract with Cincinnati that will pay him $25.5 million. After giving up a club record and National League-leading 40 homers while posting an 8-15 record and 6.47 ERA in 2005, what will year two be like?

"My optimism comes from that we put together a good stretch from last August," said Narron, who posted a 46-46 record after taking the helm in June.

The rotation's ERA improved by nearly a run from the first half to the second half.

"I'm optimistic about the strides Aaron Harang and Brandon Claussen made," Narron continued. "I'm optimistic that Eric Milton will be much better than a year ago."

If Narron was optimistic, then Wilson was downright enthusiastic.

"We've got two righties and three lefties in there now. Oh my gosh, that's unbelievable," said Wilson, who was 1-5 with a 7.77 ERA in nine starts before cutting short his 2005 season. "I think we can win. I think we've got guys who can pitch. I think we have guys who pitch with their hearts and [souls]. That's what it takes."

The Reds may have determined the five likely guys that can start games, but they haven't settled on the one guy who can finish them. Former general manager Dan O'Brien and interim general manager Brad Kullman weren't successful at landing someone to take the ball in the ninth inning.

Veteran setup man David Weathers, who saved 15 games last season, will be looked to as a sometimes closer again. Narron indicated a variety of others, including Kent Mercker, Todd Coffey and offseason free agent signings Chris Hammond and Rick White could all be used to finish games. Having Weathers, Mercker, Hammond and White gives Cincinnati four relievers over the age of 35.

Well before the report date of Feb. 16, several Reds pitchers are already in Sarasota getting ready. Pitching coach Vern Ruhle, who joined the coaching staff when Narron took over last summer, cut short his offseason to work with the early arrivals.

While Kullman served as interim GM, he did not rule out that deals to add pitching could be sought as Spring Training went along. And if that's not possible?

"Somebody might step up that we don't know about yet and push their way on to the rotation," Narron said. "I don't want to see anybody win jobs by default. I want to see guys earning their way."

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