CINCINNATI -- The struggles of the starting pitching have been a daily topic for the Reds this year.
The numbers are horrific -- a major league-worst 6.13 ERA, a major league-worst 4.93 innings per start.
Perhaps more troubling is the story behind the numbers. This was supposed to be the year that the young pitching started to come around. Instead, top prospects Cody Reed and Robert Stephenson have washed out once this year and been shipped to Triple-A, and top prospect Amir Garrett is pitching like he'll be joining them in the minors soon.
The three came into the season as the No. 2, 3 and 4 prospects in the system.
That's scary, not only for this year, but long-term because there's no big turnaround without homegrown pitching. The Reds aren't in a position to do what the Cubs did and buy most of a rotation on the free-agent market.
They need at least one of the aforementioned trio to be a top-of-the-rotation starter. All have the stuff to do it and all have been given ample chances, but they've failed to pitch well consistently.
There's time to correct things. Reed and Stephenson are 24, Garrett is 25.
Reed and Stephenson were sent to the Triple-A with instructions on how to get back.
"With rare exception does someone leave here without goals," Reds manager Bryan Price said. "They leave with a check list."
Stephenson was pitching in relief when he was sent down. He's being used a starter for the Bats.
"The biggest thing was having enough options down there as a starter," Price said. "We need that option and that depth. We want to get him stretched out. Secondarily, make those in-game adjustments, especially if he comes in and he's up in the strike zone. Make those adjustments.
"The other part is the addition of the slider, a pitch that's easier to throw as a breaking ball. I think he has a chance to have a really good slider."
Price likes what he saw from Stephenson for the most part.
"He did a lot of things well," Price said. "He improved how he controls the running game. He learned to throw his curveball for strikes. The last thing was to focus on being able to command the fastball with consistency."
Stephenson started for Louisville Sunday and threw four no-hit, no-run innings. He did walk three and strike out two.
Reed has made six starts for Louisville. He's 1-4 with a 3.23 ERA. He's allowed 34 hits in 30 2/3 innings. Most troubling? He has 20 walks to go with 30 strikeouts.
Reed does have a 2.12 ERA over his last three starts.
"He's getting better, trying to command his fastball better and build the confidence in the fastball," Price said. "Not that he has to throw it 95 percent of the time. But he was getting into a blend of more off-speed than fastballs. He's a 93- to 97-plus fastball guy.
"(When we got him), he'd pound the fastball into right-handers, then wrap the slider in. Pitch recognition was really hard. He'd get a lot swing-and-misses.
"The fastball command has to be married with that slider. The fastball command wasn't as good this year."
Both Stephenson and Reed are likely to get another turn in the Reds' rotation. If one or both can make the most of it, it would do wonders for the Reds in the near- and long-term.
"If we get enhanced performance from the rotation, we could very easily be one of those teams that busts out a long winning streak," Price said. "We know we have to get better in that area, giving ourselves the opportunity to take the lead and manage the late innings, which has been the recipe for success when we are winning on a regular basis.
"We've got to keep our eye on how to enhance that with the group we have and support that with the group we have in our system."
John Fay is a freelance sports columnist; this column represents his opinion. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.