CINCINNATI - It's been a long time since the Cincinnati Reds headed into spring training feeling so good about their rotation.
Pitching has been their downfall for most of the decade, leaving them with six straight years of losing records. Things hit bottom in 2005, when the rotation finished last in the National League and the pitching staff was the league's worst overall.
As they prepare to open spring training in Sarasota, Fla., the Reds have committed more money to their rotation than at any time in their history. Right-handers Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo got contracts last week that will pay them at least $71 million over the next four years.
It's a good beginning.
"That's two-fifths of it," general manager Wayne Krivsky said. "At the same time, you're probably not going to get through the season with only five starters, either. That's pretty rare.
"So you need depth, you need other guys to step up when someone gets hurt. It's just myriad things that play into the equation. But having those two guys at the top is a nice start."
Most of the Reds' attention in spring training will focus on filling out the rest of that rotation, as well as figuring out who will finish games when the starters come through.
Harang and Arroyo gave the Reds one of top 1-2 starter combinations in the league last season. Harang led the NL in wins and strikeouts, while Arroyo led in innings. Together, they helped the Reds make a major improvement.
After finishing second-to-last in the league in 2004 and at the bottom a year later, the starting rotation improved to sixth overall in 2006. Most of the improvement could be attributed to Harang and Arroyo, who had all the club's nine complete games, the most in the NL.
The Reds are hoping that left-hander Eric Milton, who had his elbow cleaned out in September, can avoid injury in the final year of his three-year, $25.5 million contract. Milton will make $9 million this season.
"He had stretches last year where he pitched pretty well," Krivsky said. "I know he's determined to have a good year."
Right-hander Kyle Lohse went 3-5 in 11 starts and one relief appearance after the Reds got him from Minnesota last July. He'll make $4.2 million this season, with the opportunity to fit into the back end of the rotation. Right-hander Kirk Saarloos, obtained in a trade with Oakland last month, will get a chance to win one of the starting spots as well.
The most intriguing candidate is 20-year-old Homer Bailey, the seventh overall pick in the June 2004 draft. He dominated after a midseason promotion to Double-A last season, and is likely to begin at Triple-A this year.
If he's impressive in spring training and others struggle, the Reds might consider an even bigger promotion.
"We'll move him along a little bit this spring and see how it goes," Krivsky said. "We're going to do the right thing for his development. We're not holding him back, but at the same time he got only 70 innings under his belt at Double-A. We're going to be patient with him. He understands."
Bailey would like to stick around in camp and make it interesting.
"I want to make it tough on them," Bailey said. "That's all I can do."
After years of foundering, the rotation seems to be coming together.
"With me and Bronson in the top two spots, we just need guys to come in and work with us," Harang said. "It's going to be a huge opportunity for us to make a point that we're a top-notch rotation."
The bullpen is still a work in progress. Closer Eddie Guardado is recovering from reconstructive elbow surgery and isn't expected back until midseason at the earliest. Right-hander David Weathers (team-high 12 saves in 19 chances) and left-hander Mike Stanton could close games at the outset.
The everyday lineup is set, although there could be one intriguing twist in the outfield.
Center fielder Ken Griffey Jr. broke his left (throwing) hand in an accident at home in December, but is expected to be fully recovered. Manager Jerry Narron has talked to him about playing some games in right field during spring training, giving faster Ryan Freel more time in center.
Griffey hasn't spoken to the media since his injury. He hasn't started a regular season game in right field since Aug. 4, 2004, two days after he had returned from a stay on the disabled list for a torn right hamstring.
While making a sliding play in that game, Griffey tore the hamstring from the bone. He hasn't started in right field since then.
"We've had conversations with Junior," Krivsky said. "Everybody understands each other and is open-minded about the situation. We'll let spring training play out and see what makes the team better."