Youngsters have the right arms to raise franchise
BY JOHN FAY | JFAY@ENQUIRER.COM
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It's been no secret that if the long-struggling Reds franchise is to turn around - really turn around - it would have to do it with young pitchers.
It's way too early to tell if right-handers Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez will be the ones to do it. But it's not too early to say that the 22-year-old Cueto and 24-year-old Volquez have the stuff and demeanor to be top-of-the-rotation starters.
That definitely is the feeling in the Reds' clubhouse.T
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Minutes after Cueto finished what probably was the greatest big league pitching debut in Reds history - seven innings, one hit, one run, no walks and 10 strikeouts Thursday - veteran pitcher Kent Mercker said this:
"Volquez is just as good."
Volquez will make his Reds debut today against the Philadelphia Phillies.
Volquez and Cueto are built alike - Volquez is 6 feet and 200 pounds, and Cueto is 5 feet 10 and 183 pounds.
They throw alike - 95-96 mph fastballs, wicked sliders and good changeups.
They pitch alike, pounding the strike zone. Two days before Cueto's 10-strikeout, no-walk debut, Volquez struck out 13 and walked none in an extended spring training game. It was no picnic for the minor leaguers to face Volquez.
"They hate me," he said with a laugh.
The Reds obtained the two pitchers in very different ways.
They risked next to nothing to get Cueto. They risked a great deal to get Volquez.
In March 2004, Johnny Almaraz, then the Reds' director of international scouting and player development, was in the Dominican Republic, helping to set up the Reds' academy there.
"We were fielding a team in the Dominican Summer League," Almaraz said, "so we needed players."
Almaraz left most of the signing to his scouts. But a friend kept trying to get him to look at a little right-hander named Johnny Cueto who threw 90-91 mph.
"Nobody wanted to sign Johnny because they thought he was too small," Almaraz said.
Almaraz told his buddy the only time he had available to see Cueto was on his way to airport.
"I told him if he could get together a game at 7 in the morning, I'd look at the kid," Almaraz said.
The agent got the game together, and Almaraz signed Cueto for $3,500.
Cueto was 20 pounds lighter and didn't throw nearly as hard as he does now.
"He had that good slider," Almaraz said. "But I hired (former Reds pitching star) Mario Soto to run the academy. My plan was to have Mario teach all the young kids the changeup. Once Johnny got that third pitch, he took off."
In 2006, Cueto's third year of pro ball, he went a combined 15-3 with a 3.00 ERA for Single-A teams Dayton and Sarasota.
"Johnny's a self-motivated kid," said Almaraz, now the Atlanta Braves' director of international scouting. "Even in Dayton, he'd study his charts after the game. He wanted to know what was working and what wasn't. You root for kids like him."
The Reds took a much bigger gamble to get Volquez. They traded Josh Hamilton, a five-tool player who could have been their center fielder the next 10 years, to the Texas Rangers for him.
"I was adamant with Texas," Reds general manager Wayne Krivsky said. "If we were going to trade Josh Hamilton, Volquez had to be in the deal."
That's how much scouts liked Volquez's stuff. But his results were sporadic until last year when, in 19 starts at Double-A and Triple-A, he went 14-2 with a 2.55 ERA, struck out 128 and walked 40. That earned Volquez a trip to the big leagues, and he went 2-1 with a 4.50 ERA in six starts for Texas. He was 1-10 with a 9.20 ERA in two previous stints with the Rangers.
"I learned to control my emotions," he said. "I'm old now."
Today, Volquez faces a tougher task than Cueto did Thursday. The Phillies are a better hitting team than the Arizona Diamondbacks, and they saw Volquez twice during spring training.
Like everyone, Volquez was impressed with Cueto's outing.
"Ten strikeouts in your debut, that's pretty good," he said. "I hope he pitches like that every time. We pull for each other."