CINCINNATI -- Those skeptical about the 2008 Reds will likely be quick to point to their rotation.
It's for a good reason. The team's chances at contending could very well rest on some pitchers with little or no Major League starting experience. If the young guys are as advertised, it could be an electric summer in Cincinnati. If they're not ready, it could mean lights-out again for any playoff aspirations.
How's that for pressure?
Cincinnati boasts just two established big league starters in ace Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo, and of the two only Harang is coming off a superlative year. The pool of candidates for the remaining three spots includes Matt Belisle, Jeremy Affeldt, Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto, Edinson Volquez and Matt Maloney.
Belisle has logged 37 big league starts, Affeldt has 42 and Volquez has 20. Bailey has just nine and Cueto and Maloney have zero starts in the Majors and a combined seven starts in Triple-A.
Reds general manager Wayne Krivsky doesn't view this as a problem and instead exudes optimism.
"We've got a nice bunch, especially the young guys," Krivsky said. "We've got four guys, 21-24, in Bailey, Volquez, Maloney and Cueto. With Jeremy, Belisle and the rest of our guys, we've got some depth."
Once again, the rotation begins with the consistent Harang, who is coming off back-to-back 16-win seasons. He was 16-6 with a 3.73 ERA and a career-high 218 strikeouts in 231 2/3 innings last season, while ranking among National League leaders in starts (34), innings and strikeouts. His 39 wins since the 2005 All-Star break are fifth most in the Majors.
Indications of Arroyo's mixed 2007 season: He led the club with 22 quality starts but also in losses with a 9-15 record and 4.23 ERA in 210 2/3 innings. He was victimized five times by blown saves. It was a disappointment for the right-hander that was an All-Star and 14-game winner in 2006. In one May-June stretch of nine starts, Arroyo was 0-7 with a 7.28 ERA.
The Reds will need Arroyo to match Harang's consistency. Because after the top two, the rotation carries several "X" factors.
Belisle had a bumpy conversion from reliever to starter last season. The 27-year-old was 8-9 with a 5.32 ERA, 26 homers allowed and one complete game in 30 starts and 177 2/3 innings. The season also included a two-week demotion to Triple-A Louisville in August.
"I did a lot of things that I could and should have done better," Belisle said in December. "But I did a lot of things well and I'm proud of that. I'm not complacent by any means and I'm super excited because my focus is to be behind Harang and Arroyo and to win a lot of ballgames for this club this year. I want to eat up a lot of innings and be a stable force in that rotation."
Affeldt, who was a reliever with the Rockies last season, signed a one-year, $3 million contract with Cincinnati with the purpose of competing for a rotation spot. The 28-year-old was once a promising starter with the Royals but his record wasn't pretty.
In 42 games and 216 1/3 innings as a starter, Affeldt was 8-17 with a 5.41 ERA, 127 strikeouts and 96 walks. Limited to using a 92-94 mph fastball and a curveball as a reliever, he will have to perfect a changeup as a third pitch during camp with pitching coach Dick Pole.
"We're hoping Jeremy can adjust to starting," manager Dusty Baker said.
Bailey, 21, still remains the Reds' top pitching prospect that has done all he can do in the Minors. But he has yet to establish himself in the Majors. In his nine starts with Cincinnati, Bailey was 4-2 with a 5.76 ERA and battled with a groin injury.
Although he can hit 96-98 mph often, improved control will be a big focus for Bailey this year. In his big league games, he allowed just as many walks (28) as he earned strikeouts.
The Reds liked Volquez enough to trade promising star Josh Hamilton to the Rangers for the right-hander on Dec. 21. The 24-year-old was the Rangers' Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2007 after working through three different levels and the Majors. Combined at Class A, Double-A and Triple-A, he was 14-6 with a 3.67 ERA and 166 strikeouts over 144 2/3 innings. With Texas, he was 2-1 with a 4.50 ERA in six starts.
Scouting reports praised Volquez's 92-94 mph fastball, a hard curveball, an above average changeup and decent mound presence. Like Bailey, he's topped out in the Minors and needs to show he can stick in the Majors.
Combined at Class A Sarasota, Double-A Chattanooga and Triple-A Louisville, the 21-year-old Cueto was a combined 12-9 with a 3.07 ERA in 161 1/3 innings. At just 5-foot-11 and175 pounds, some observers knock the right-hander's size to be durable enough as a starter. But he's believed to have as good or better stuff than Bailey and successfully worked an additional 31 innings in Dominican winter ball.
Krivsky has indicated he'd like Cueto to get more Triple-A seasoning and the same could be likewise for Maloney. The left-hander, acquired in July from the Phillies for Kyle Lohse, appears to be a steal.
Combined at Double-A and Triple-A last season, Maloney was 13-10 with a 3.64 ERA. After the trade, he struck out 62 batters compared to just nine walks.
With six pitchers vying for three rotation openings, competition should be one of the most interesting subplots when Spring Training opens Feb. 16 in Sarasota, Fla.
"They don't have the track record yet but they have stuff," said of his candidates. "They have the mental makeup. They've got the physical ability to do it. We're talking about guys that have tremendous stuff and it's going to be fun watching them pitch this spring. You can only have five starters. We'll let the competition take care of it. I'd rather be in this situation having a few too many than not enough."