CINCINNATI - Looking for a reason for hope for this Reds season? While the pundits' forecasts are as bleak as the January weather, there’s one path to returning quickly to competitiveness.
That would be to follow the New York Mets' plan.
The Mets shocked the baseball world by getting to World Series. They did it largely on the strength of their young pitching.
No one expected the Mets to challenge the Washington Nationals in the National League East at this time last year, let alone get to the to the Series. But Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz all pitched like aces most of the year.
The chances of the Reds replicating that are remote. But that’s the best hope for accelerating what looks to be a long rebuilding process.
Spring hopes eternal and all that.
Hopes for the Reds lie in getting quality from quantity.
Since the rebuild began, they’ve put an emphasis on stocking young arms. They’ve added Anthony DeSclafani, Jonathan Crawford, John Lamb, Brandon Finnegan, Cody Reed, Keury Mella and Rookie Davis since the end of 2014. Pitching had already been a strength of the system with Raisel Iglesias, Robert Stephenson, Nick Travieso and Amir Garrett in the fold before the rebuild job began.
Developing an ace is one of the more difficult things to do in baseball. The Reds are an example of the that. Johnny Cueto was first true ace to be developed by the Reds since Cueto's mentor, Mario Soto. Soto’s career ended in 1988.
Again, quality from the quantity is the hope.
“We’ve got a number of guys who could develop into a No. 1,” President of Baseball Operations Walt Jocketty said. “DeSclafani, Iglesias, Cody Reed, Stephenson.”
When you’re seeking an ace, you’re looking for what scouts refer to as a “high ceiling.” That is largely based on what kind of stuff they have. Stephenson and Reed have the best skill set of the aforementioned pitchers. Travieso is another one scouts mention.
J.J. Cooper, of Baseball America magazine, which covers player development, puts Stephenson and Reed at the top of the potential ace list.
“It depends on how you define best shot,” Cooper said. “Robert Stephenson has the highest ceiling of any of the Reds' pitching prospects. If he puts it all together, he has a well-above-average fastball, changeup and curveball. On the other hand, Stephenson’s struggles at the upper levels are very reminiscent of Homer Bailey’s, as is his stuff. Cody Reed’s combination of stuff and control is more big league-ready than Stephenson’s right now and he is a lefty, so if you are asking who has the most likely shot of being a future No. 1, I’d say it’s Reed.”
Reds manager Bryan Price hasn’t seen much of the aforementioned pitchers.
“But I hear a lot of great things,” Price said. “I hear great things about Cody Reed, Robert Stephenson and Sal Romano, Travieso.”
Who will develop is impossible to know.
“Aces kind of define themselves,” Price said. “They come in different shapes and forms. Some are big and strong and throw hard like Randy Johnson, John Smoltz. We’ve seen that with David Price. Some are short and stocky and really know how to pitch, like Johnny Cueto or Greg Maddux. Or even a Jamie Moyer, who was a 220-inning guy who would win between 15 and 20-plus games.
“They look different. So how do you define them? It’s really how they define themselves.”
Reed, the 23-year-old left-hander, came over with Finnegan and Lamb in the Cueto trade with Kansas City. His stuff was always good, but the results are just now showing.
Assistant pitching coach Mack Jenkins has studied Reed on video.
“It looks like he has an elite breaking ball,” Jenkins said. “We won’t know until he sees major league hitters. But those guys have high ceilings. You try to find as many guys like that as you can, guys who impact the game.
“He looks like that guy. It will be nice to see him up close and personal this spring.”
Baseball America rates seven pitchers among the Reds’ top 10 prospects. Stephenson is the No. 1 prospect, followed by Reed and Garrett. Travieso is rated seventh. Mella, the right-hander obtained in the Leake deal, is eighth. Romano is ninth and Terry Mahle is 10th.
Minor league results aren’t always an indicator of what a pitcher is going to do in the majors. Look at the Mets’ young studs for instance. deGrom went 7-7 with a 4.51 ERA at Triple-A in 2013. He was the National League Rookie of the Year in 2014. Syndergaard went 9-7 with a 4.60 ERA in Triple-A in 2014. He went 9-7 with a 3.24 ERA in the big leagues in ’15.
Price arrived in Cincinnati as pitching coach in 2010. The Reds were in much the same position they’re in now: They had many young, unproven pitchers with lots of potential.
“We had Homer Bailey, Edinson Volquez, Cueto, Travis Wood and Mike Leake,” Price said. “You’d be hard pressed at the time to say who was going to be the best. Everyone thought Volquez. He had been an All-Star. Homer was the top prospect. Leake had been the No. 1 pick. Woody was coming off a great year in Triple-A. And Cueto was this young stud who threw really hard.”
We all know now who emerged as the ace.
“When the smoke cleared, Cueto was at the top,” Price said. “You couldn’t have said that at the time. They all had nice careers. But it’s hard to define who that No. 1 guy is going to be.”
Cueto went 9-14 with a 4.81 ERA his rookie year and 11-11 with a 4.41 ERA his second year. But then things clicked. His command got better — he refined his pitches, learned his craft and his confidence grew. From 2010-2014, his ERA was second to Clayton Kershaw's in all of baseball.
Even if none of the young arms develops into a true ace, you can have a very good rotation with five solid starters. Cueto went 19-9 with a 2.78 ERA in 2012. But the four behind him were very effective as well. The five starters combined to start 161 of the 162 games that year, going a combined 64-43 with a 3.64 ERA and threw 1018 innings.
“When we had Cueto throwing so well and we also had Bronson (Arroyo) and Leake and Homer and (Mat) Latos, you really didn’t feel like you had a day when you didn’t have at least an equal share in a chance to win that game,” Price said. “Even when you had a young Mike Leake going against someone’s ace, you knew Leake had a chance to throw a really good game and you could win that game.
“That’s really what you’re looking for. The Dodgers had (Zack) Greinke and Kershaw. They’re awesome. But a lot of success comes from what the three, four and five starters give you.”
But having that top-of-the-rotation guy is a luxury every team wants. With the number of quality arms the Reds have, there’s a chance it will happen.
“I think some of the young guns they’ve got, should their development continue just at a steady pace, I think it’s possible,” Triple-A pitching coach Ted Power said.
But Power says being an ace goes beyond stuff.
“It takes a special personality,” Power said. “I think of the aces I played with, guys like Randy Johnson, Doug Drabek or Mario Soto. They all had that extra intensity and that confidence in their stuff.'
Power says scouting reports aren't everything and a team also has to coach up intangibles.
"Pump them up, give them confidence and let them use their stuff,” he said.
That’s what Cueto did. The Reds hopes for 2016 and beyond depend largely on finding another Cueto. If that happens, maybe the results won’t be as bleak as the forecast.
John Fay is freelance sports columnist. This column represents his opinion.