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Scouting Pitchers: Cincinnati Reds

James Benkard

James Benkard

James Benkard writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

The Reds have been one of the NL's surprises, with their 37-33 record good for second in the NL Central. Although their team ERA (4.57) is just 23rd in the majors, they have as many good young power pitchers as any team. USA Today has covered the Reds extensively in the past week, from this story linked here to a cover feature in Sports Weekly. This week, let's take a look at the Reds' current rotation, as well as some of their hopes for the future.

While Mike Leake isn't a hard thrower, he and Jaime Garcia have been the NL's best rookie pitchers. Leake is coming off of a season at ASU in which he went 16-1, 1.71 with a 162-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio, but no one expected him to bypass the minors completely. Leake throws 87-90 mph sinkers and cut fastballs, as well as low-80s changeups and sliders. He has some pretty good movement on his pitches, and isn't afraid to pitch inside. Numerous scouts have raved about his pitching sense, and he can field and hit as well. Leake does a pretty good job of keeping the ball on the ground (1.14 G/F), but I imagine that he will become a moderate flyball pitcher after hitters adjust to him.

Cincinnati.com's John Erardi points out that although the Reds are going to be cautious in how much they allow Leake to pitch for the rest of the year, while he is efficient enough (15.4 P/IP) to pile up some more innings in his rookie year.

I've always like Johnny Cueto, and he has made some strides this year despite a rough June (7.15 ERA). Cueto's stuff remains strong a 92-95 mph fastball and mid-80s sliders and changeups. He is on track to touch 200 innings, which he hasn't done before, while walking a reasonable amount of men. Cueto seems to be getting a lot of outs on his fastball this year, rather than just turning to the slider when he's in a jam. As has been the case in his career, right-handed batters are faring much better against him (.287) than lefties (.218) off Cueto. I don't know how to explain this, other than he doesn't have a cut fastball and hangs his slider too often.

Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman has pitched pretty well thus far at Triple-A (5-5, 4.11) and will be ready for the rotation in 2011. Chapman has walked 40 in 66 innings, including 15 in his four June starts. After seeing video of him in the World Baseball Classic last year and in camp this year, it seems wise to keep Chapman in the minors for refinement. It will be fun to see him when he is ready fastball at 92-100, mid-80s slider, a changeup, and a cut fastball that the Reds didn't even know he threw until this spring. The ingredients are there for him to be a top-of-the-line starter.

Chapman's delivery is a bit stiff, as he pauses his arm mid-way through before completing his motion. His arm trails behind his body a little, which hints of potential elbow trouble. I still think his control rather than his motion will be what determines whether or not he stays healthy. Obviously, he is on a steep development curve learning English and American society all at the same time. Chapman didn't even know major Cuban or American baseball players upon his arrival here, and some questions were raised about his passion for the game. Still, it has been a very promising rookie year of sorts for Chapman, and I look for him to become a No. 2 starter in time.

Edinson Volquez, whom I profiled along with Cueto in 2008, is on the comeback trail from August 2009 Tommy John surgery. He is throwing 92-95 mph already and will return to the Reds' rotation on July 7. That seems awfully soon to me, as Volquez has made just two rehab starts, totaling eight innings. Volquez was also suspended 50 games earlier this year for use of PED, but he was able to serve this suspension while on the DL.

Before his injury last year, Volquez was pitching pretty well (4-2, 4.35), limiting hitters to a .191 average. He had walked 32 in 50 innings after giving out 93 walks in 196 innings in 2008. His funky motion probably doesn't help his control, as he has a lot of moving parts. Volquez' best off-speed pitch is his diving 80-85 mph changeup, and he also throws a curve and slider. Despite his great stuff, Volquez has gradually improved his efficiency, and his 17.0 P/IP mark in 2009 was a career best. While his future is still bright, I wouldn't expect much out of him in 2010.

Another young gun, Homer Bailey, was shut down indefinitely two weeks ago due to right shoulder inflammation. An MRI has shown no structural damage, but something is clearly not right with him. A best-case scenario is that Bailey returns for a few innings in September. He wasn't making huge strides in 2010 anyway, but was rounding into form in mid-May when he went down. I profiled Bailey last year here. Bailey throws 91-95 mph with an 82-85 mph slider and a mid-70s curveball. He added an 83-86 mph split-finger last year, and I can't help noting that this injury came soon afterward. I'm not saying the two are definitely related in Bailey's case - I'm just not a fan of young starters throwing a splitter. Older relievers, sure.

Also in 2008, I took a look at the Reds' highest-paid player, Aaron Harang. One can't blame Great American Ballpark for his struggles, as he has a 6.58 ERA on the road this year. Basically, Harang's stuff has flattened out dramatically over the last three years, during which he has gone 17-38, 4.73. While he used to reach 94 with his four-seamer, Harang now is at 90-91, and his low-80s slider is a strikeout pitch only against weak hitters.

Bronson Arroyo has aged more gracefully than Harang by doing a better job of keeping the ball down. Arroyo throws in the high 80s and can crack 91. He has a slow (70 mph) curveball, and he can tuck a low-80s slider underneath right-hander's hands now and then. Arroyo has always been efficient, and his 15.7 P/IP is excellent for a wily veteran in a hitter's park.

The Reds have a host of lesser prospects who will have a kick at the can until Volquez and Chapman are ready. Sam LeCure has the No. 5 spot now. He throws 89-91 mph with a little movement, and can get in under batters' hands. LeCure's main off-speed pitch is a 74-78 mph slurve. He has a pretty ugly motion, but he has stayed healthy enough to log 600 innings in the minors over the past four and a half years. He profiles at best as a long reliever.

Lefty Travis Wood is the organization's top pitching prospect, and he has done his part this year by going 4-6, 3.40 through 14 starts for Triple-A Louisville. His 88 strikeouts are third in the International League. Wood is the prototypical undersized and crafty left-hander, as he throws 89-91. He will get a shot later this year. Yet another Triple-A lefty starter is Matt Maloney, who is also in a good position for a 2010 callup. He is 6-3, 3.27 with 55 strikeouts in 63 innings, and presents more of a four-pitch mix than Wood.

While the Reds have a lot of questions about their outfield and bullpen, their strengths in the infield and starting pitching are formidable. They are obviously in good shape for the future. Leake, Cueto, Volquez, and Chapman are four young starters on whom they can count. If Bailey doesn't come around, they have Wood and Maloney. Joey Votto and Jay Bruce are good young hitters. The club will hopefully address their catching situation for good by signing Yasmani Grandal, their first-round pick this year. They still do need to find a young shortstop.

The big question is whether the Reds have enough to win in 2010. Several of their veterans are on the decline, and won't be around once their young rotation peaks in a few years. They don't have a young hitter who can come up and give them a spark, unless Yonder Alonso can play the outfield. Obviously, their rotation and infield need to stay healthy. At the end of April, I gave the Cardinals and Cubs the only chance of winning the NL Central. That short-changed the Reds, who clearly have a chance. I'd give the Reds, Cubs and Cardinals an even chance of winning that division.

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