TAMPA, Fla. -- Reds pitcher Matt Belisle knows exactly what he wants to do, and he has known it for quite some time.
"Right around the middle of last year, it just started hitting me," said Belisle, a middle reliever for Cincinnati last season. "I'd hit the bed at night thinking, 'I'm going to start,' and I really think that's where I see myself in my head."
Belisle was given two starts at the end of the 2006 campaign, and he looked pretty good with an 0.93 ERA, including six shutout innings in the second start at Pittsburgh. Coming off that audition late last season, the 26-year-old right-hander has done everything he could to position himself as a serious contender for the Reds' vacant fifth starter spot.
Over his career, Belisle made 125 Minor League starts and seven in the Majors. But he's yet to firmly establish himself in the big leagues since breaking in during the 2003 season.
Soon after the '06 regular season ended, Belisle went to Puerto Rico so he could make starts in winter ball. Although the competition wasn't considered as high as it is in the Majors, the results were positive enough to draw encouragement. Belisle posted a 2.53 ERA in eight games, including five starts, for Manati.
"I worked on all of my weaknesses," Belisle said. "I made sure that I met all of my goals down there, as far as working on all my breaking pitches, better in the zone for strikes where I want them. I threw the changeup a lot more, which is something I diverted from out of the bullpen.
"Utilizing my whole repertoire was what I really wanted to do. I wanted to be real comfortable and confident with all of [my pitches]. That's what I did. It was real successful for me, and I got a tremendous amount out of it."
The Manati team is owned by big-league player Jose Valentin, and his brother, Reds catcher Javier Valentin, also played for the team.
"I saw him being more confident with every pitch he made," Javier Valentin said. "He concentrated more. Every pitch he threw, he made adjustments. He threw a lot of strikes. He could throw anything at any time in any situation. He looked different than the Matt Belisle we saw last year during the season."
Belisle was 2-0 with a 3.60 ERA in 30 games in 2006, but he was limited to 40 innings because of a back injury that put him on the disabled list twice. At one point before going on the DL, his back was so sore that he couldn't sit down in the bullpen at Wrigley Field.
"We really felt last year when he came down with the back problems that he'd be better suited to be on a regular schedule than doing the bullpen thing," Reds manager Jerry Narron said.
After returning from the second DL stint in mid-August, Belisle got through the rest of the season without incident. More importantly, his back also held up under the rigors of starting, and preparing himself to be a starter, this past winter.
"I knew going to Puerto Rico I had to do that to test my back and make sure [to prove], 'OK, this is a viable option that this guy is a reliable every fifth-day guy,'" Belisle said. "To be in our rotation, we had to make sure about the back. The back wasn't a problem."
Looking to maintain the momentum from the winter, Belisle followed the advice of Manati teammate, and San Francisco Giants pitcher, Russ Ortiz. He never stopped throwing after the Puerto Rican season ended.
"[Ortiz] said you keep the edge from winter ball by not going into a lull with rest and then getting your arm back in shape," Belisle said. "It was good advice from a guy from a pitcher's standpoint."
It's not yet known if Belisle's offseason efforts benefited him. But it certainly didn't hurt him, either.
"I put stock in that he's played [winter ball]," Narron said. "His pitching has a chance to get better. Matt had 40 innings last year. That was a huge part of it. It definitely gives him a better chance of making the club this spring than if he wouldn't have had it."
Also not hurting Belisle has been his performances this spring. Through three games, he is 3-0 with a 1.00 ERA over nine innings. On Monday, he got his first chance to start. Belisle turned in his best effort of camp, allowing just one soft hit and one walk while striking out three over four scoreless innings against the Blue Jays. He used just 46 pitches and faced one batter over the minimum.
"He used all his pitches," Narron praised. "He used both sides of the plate extremely well with his fastball. He kept the ball down. He threw strikes. A lot of times it seems like guys don't want to throw a strike with their fastball. He did a great job. It was an impressive outing for him."
That still doesn't guarantee Belisle a rotation spot. While he was improving himself in Puerto Rico, the Reds were improving their depth and stockpiling arms like Kirk Saarloos, Bobby Livingston, Paul Wilson and Victor Santos. Competition has been fierce, with every candidate turning in mostly decent outings.
If Belisle doesn't earn a rotation spot, he could wind up starting at Triple-A Louisville since he has Minor League options remaining.
"Probably the best scenario would be for him to be a starter," Narron said. "[But] I'm not going to discount him as a long guy from the bullpen."
Belisle remains undeterred in achieving the goal he first formulated last summer.
"I'm not even worried about the chances," he said. "I don't know what's going on with it, to be honest. I'm just doing what I need to do and what I want to do and taking care of that. I've got more confidence and complete belief in my abilities, and solid preparation going after that, now than I've ever had."
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.