CINCINNATI -- The basic foundation upon which the Reds hope to complete their Great Rebuild is young pitching. The assumption was -- and really still is -- that Robert Stephenson and Cody Reed would go from the top of the prospect list to the top of the rotation.
No one puts a firm timetable on such things, but Opening Day 2017 seemed like a reasonable arrival date.
Then this year happened.
Reed was 0-7 with a 7.36 ERA in a 10-start trial with the Reds. His Triple-A numbers are respectable -- 6-4, 3.08 ERA. But his stuff did not work in the majors. He allowed 67 hits and 12 home runs in 47 2/3 innings.
Stephenson was good in two spot starts for the Reds. He won both, including a seven-inning quality start in the second outing. His numbers in Triple-A, however, have kept him from earning a return trip. He's 7-9 with a 4.58 ERA for Louisville. He's walked 68 and struck out 113 in 129 2/3 innings.
After a two-inning outing in which Stephenson allowed six runs and walked four, Louisville manager Delino DeShields lit into him over his inability to throw strikes.
"This is what we've been going through with this kid for the last three or four years," DeShields said. "Until he makes an adjustment, it's going to continue. It's not going to get better. It's on him. He's been told what he needs to do and what he needs to work on by numerous coaches and staff members. It's up to him to make those adjustments. If I was him, I'd be embarrassed."
It’s rare for a minor league manager to call out a player, particularly the organization’s No. 1 prospect as Stephenson was entering this year. Stephenson, by the way, has been very good since DeShields said what he said. Stephenson went 13 innings and allowed three runs on seven hits with six walks and 14 strikeouts in two starts since.
But it’s telling what DeShields said, as were Reed’s numbers in the big leagues.
"You want them to do well every time out," Reds general manager Dick Williams said. "Any time they don't, you have concern. But look back at the track record of the Homer Baileys and the (Johnny) Cuetos. Guys all went through periods in their development where they had challenges.
"What's important to remember with Robert and Cody is how young they are compared to a lot of pitchers breaking into the big leagues. It's a waiting game sometimes."
Both Reed and Stephenson are 23.
Bailey made the big leagues at 21, and he struggled. He went 4-2 with a 5.76 ERA his first year and 0-6 with a 7.93 ERA his second year. He struck out 46 and walked 45 in those two seasons. And he spent both years riding the I-71 shuttle.
Bailey didn't arrive permanently until he was 24, in fact.
Cueto made the team out of spring training as a 22-year-old. He never went back to the minors. He was 9-14 with a 4.81 ERA as a rookie and steadily improved to where he was an ace.
The Reds have been patient as a rule. Joey Votto, Todd Frazier, and Zack Cozart were 24 or older when they got to the big leagues. Jay Bruce was the exception. He came up at 21, but he was the No. 1 prospect in all of baseball.
Ted Power, formerly the Louisville pitching coach and currently the Reds' bullpen coach, said with Stephenson it's a matter of throwing strikes.
"Consistently, throwing strikes," Power said. "Some of his starts have been really good, where he's locked in and he throws a lot of strikes with all of his repertoire. Then he'll hit a bump in the road where it seems like he can't find the strike zone and everything is up, up, up."
Power said Stephenson has to trust his stuff and not always worry about throwing a perfect pitch.
"With everything he has in his toolbox, I think it's a matter of not just throwing strikes, but quality strikes," Power said. "Not the highest of quality, but just quality. You hear people talk all the time about you get behind 3-1 or 3-2, you don't have to pinpoint a slider. Just throw a quality slider."
Power spent 13 years in the big leagues as a pitcher. But he was in the middle of his 11th year with Louisville when he was promoted to the Reds' staff in July.
He's been struck by what a big jump it is from Triple-A to the bigs for pitchers.
"I have to be honest, I didn't think there was that much difference," Power said. "But now that I've been here for six weeks, I've seen there's a huge difference. These hitters who come to the plate are some of the biggest, most-fit athletes you're going to see. They can do with the bat what most guys in Triple-A can't."
To my uneducated eye, that was what led to Reed's struggles. Pitches he was usingto get ahead in the count in Triple-A were getting crushed in the big leagues. Batters hit .536 with a 1.063 slugging percentage off him on the first pitch in his time in the bigs.
Just because Stephenson and Reed started the year atop the Reds prospect list doesn't mean they'll be the best pitchers. Prospect lists aren't always right. Baseball America listed Bailey as the Reds' No. 1 prospect in 2006. Four other pitchers -- Travis Wood, Rafael Gonzalez, Tyler Pelland and Travis Chick -- were on the list as well.
Cueto didn't make the top 10 -- and Votto was No. 9.
In fact, I think a lot of scouts would put Amir Garrett atop the Reds list. Garrett, the 24-year-old left-hander, was 5-3 with a 1.75 ERA in Double-A. He's 2-4 with a 3.32 ERA since being promoted to Triple-A. Garrett played college basketball until 2013.
"He's taken huge steps forward," Williams said. "He's also young, not in just his numerical age, but his baseball age because of the late start. But the numbers he's put up, the mound presence and competitiveness, I think a lot of people in the organization think he's elevated himself into that conversation."
The Reds are still counting on young pitching to lead the rebuild. It's just not as certain that it will be Stephenson and Reed.
John Fay is freelance sports columnist. This column represents his opinion.