Man I am pumped about these three kids plus Matt Maloney.
Talented youngsters wait in the wings
Bailey, Cueto, Volquez looking for chance at rotation
By Mark Sheldon / MLB.com
SARASOTA, Fla. -- In an industry that constantly craves young pitchers to draft, develop or acquire, the Reds have had a rather woeful track record.
Both Homer Bailey and Johnny Cueto, the organization's top two pitching prospects, were two years from being born when Tom Browning made his big league debut for the Reds in 1984. They were in diapers in 1988, when he threw his perfect game.
The left-handed Browning, who retired in 1995, remains the last starting pitcher drafted and developed by the Reds to have long-term success for the Reds.
Maybe the tide is finally turning for Cincinnati.
Bailey and Cueto, 21 and 22 respectively, are two home-grown arms battling to break into the starting rotation. So is a third young gun, 24-year-old Edinson Volquez, a promising Rangers prospect the Reds traded Josh Hamilton to get in December. Lefty Matt Maloney, also 24, was acquired in a July trade with the Phillies for would-be free agent Kyle Lohse.
"It started when [former general manager] Dan O'Brien took over [in 2003]," Triple-A Louisville manager Rick Sweet said. "Our Drafts were good. Coming into my fourth year, I've seen us develop some pitchers. We've got some guys that are really ready. Even some of the guys we've traded for, that's a feather, too. We've picked up some pretty good pitchers. There's no doubt we've got some depth starting to build throughout the organization."
Bailey and Volquez have good chances of being in the rotation. With just a few Triple-A starts and no big league experience at all, Cueto is viewed to have an outside shot.
The battle tightened some more when veteran free agent Josh Fogg was signed on Thursday. Fogg will likely join Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo in the rotation. Matt Belisle has a year of starting under his belt and is a good bet for a spot. Lefty Jeremy Affeldt, who was signed over the winter and is trying to convert from a reliever to a starter, also has a strong opportunity.
That could leave one spot, if any, for the prospects to fight over. It's a lot to expect, but not unrealistic, to think that Bailey, Cueto and Volquez could all help the Reds at some point in 2008 -- and beyond.
"We have some very good arms out there," manager Dusty Baker said. "I'm liking what I'm seeing, not only for now but later. We may need somebody during the season. I know our pitching has been much maligned, but I see some rapid improvement from what I've heard to what I've seen."
As he catapulted his way through the Reds system, Bailey rarely -- if ever -- struggled against Minor League hitters. Despite an impressive June debut in the Majors vs. the Indians, success hasn't been immediate. In his nine starts with Cincinnati, Bailey was 4-2 with a 5.76 ERA. He also battled a groin injury and was sent down before a late-September return.
"Do I think I can have success? Yes," Bailey said. "No one would be here if they didn't think they could have success in this game."
"I think any time you do anything a second time, it should be easier," said Sweet, who managed Bailey in Louisville in 2007. "The first time you experience the big leagues, it's such a different experience. You're not quite prepared for it, as much as we try to prepare them for it both mentally and physically. Once you get there, the next year should become easier."
In the Minors, the 6-foot-4 Bailey could live on his excellent 94- to 98-mph fastball, but at times he was stubborn about using his other pitches. Control was an issue when he was with the Reds, as he walked 28 and struck out 28.
"I think when you've had as much success as he's had, [you think], 'Why do you need to make any changes or think about making changes?' " Sweet said. "One of the reasons Homer is so successful [is] he has so much confidence and belief in what he's doing. That's a positive, not a negative."
Many believe that Cueto, who is attending his first big league camp, has developed better stuff than Bailey. The right-handed Cueto was a combined 12-9 with a 3.07 ERA in 161 1/3 innings at Class A Sarasota, Double-A Chattanooga and Louisville. He also threw an additional 31 innings at winter ball in his native Dominican Republic, which is considered an important proving ground because of the intensity for winning.
"The arm is there. The stuff is there. It's a matter of time," said former Reds pitcher Mario Soto, an organizational instructor who works with young pitchers in the Dominican Republic.
"I saw him pitch in the Dominican -- he was pretty good," said new closer Francisco Cordero, who also is from the Dominican Republic. "I believe he's good, because every time we try to trade for someone, they always ask for Cueto. Something's going on."
Cueto senses how close he is to getting to the Majors.
"I feel already like I can be in the big leagues now," Cueto said through interpreter and teammate Jerry Gil. "I feel 100 percent with everything -- my pitches, anything. I think I have a good chance."
Listed at 5-foot-10 and 183 pounds, Cueto isn't a prototypical, big-statured pitcher like Bailey or Harang. What he lacks in size, though, he makes up with his pitches.
"There's a lot of guys -- Pedro Martinez and Greg Maddux -- that aren't that big," Sweet said. "There are a lot of guys that have had success that are average size. To me, Cueto is so free and easy. That's not something to be concerned about."
Few Reds fans were familiar with Volquez when he came over in the Hamilton deal. However, team scouts had been tracking him for a while and rated him as highly as Bailey and Cueto. After the trade, Soto watched Volquez at the Reds' Dominican academy and in some winter games.
"He has a really good fastball -- 95, 96 mph -- and a really good changeup," Soto said. "His curveball isn't bad, but he told me he fell in love with his fastball-changeup. The changeup is a really, really good pitch for him."
Combining his stats from Class A, Double-A and Triple-A, Volquez 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. He also had small tastes of the Majors in 2005-06.
"I didn't believe it. I was surprised," Volquez said of being traded. "I didn't think they were going to trade me, because I had one of my best years last year. But that's going to happen."
Exactly when Bailey, Volquez and Cueto will get to establish themselves in the Majors is up in the air. Baker has been known to favor veterans, and some of the recent transactions indicate that Cincinnati is not fully ready to turn it over to the kids just yet.
"Every manager prefers veterans because of their experience," Bailey said. "Being a young player, it's one of those deals that you have to earn their trust and respect. It doesn't come during one Spring Training. Sometimes it doesn't come for years. When he hands me the ball, I'll do my best. That's all I can do."
For much of this decade, the Reds have been known as a "hit first, ask questions about the pitching later" kind of team. They also haven't had a winning record since 2000. With three young starters poised for the Majors, and more on the way, the club could be on to a better formula for success.
No guarantees, of course.
"It's a work in progress for all of us," Bailey said.