Friday March 27th, 2009

SARASOTA, Florida -- If not for the carpal tunnel syndrome that makes it difficult for him to pinch his fingers closely together enough to hold a pick, Bronson Arroyo, the Reds pitcher heretofore known as much for his second career as a guitarist as for anything he's done on the mound, might be missing what has been going on across the Cincinnati Reds clubhouse this spring. If he could hold that pick, perhaps he'd be buried in his own locker, playing his guitar and stuck in a world all his own. Instead, he has been able to gaze across the clubhouse to the back left corner and see his fellow starters behaving the way a great pitching staff ought to behave: talking pitching, discussing strategy, and sharing secrets. Arroyo certainly likes what he has seen from his colleagues on the mound this spring, and he likes what he's seen off it just as much.

"It's funny," said Arroyo with a nod to where fellow starters Johnny Cueto, Edinson Volquez, Micah Owings, Homer Bailey and Aaron Harang sat just a few feet away. "There's such a short time between being unknown and being a superstar in this game. Who knows? By the end of the year, Johnny and Volquez could be going head-to-head for the Cy Young and all of us could be pushing 15 to 20 wins. Those things happen."

Not to the Reds they don't. If there's anything this franchise has been lacking lately -- and with no winning seasons since 2000, they've been lacking quite a bit -- it's quality starting pitching. Perhaps Arroyo can be forgiven for dreaming so big. After years of struggling to patch together a staff good enough to compete over a full season, the Reds may finally be on the verge of changing their fortunes. With Volquez, a 25-year-old who went 17-6 and made the All-Star team, the Reds at long last have the young ace they can build a staff around. With a pair of ultra-talented (but still inconsistent) 22-year-olds in Cueto and Bailey, the Reds are building a core of gifted young pitchers that may finally be their ticket out of irrelevancy in the National League.

In fact, both Arroyo and Harang, a two-time 16-game winner who has pitched for the Reds since 2003, called it easily the best staff they've seen in Cincinnati. To be sure, that's not saying much -- the Reds ranked 13th in the National League in ERA in 2008 -- but for a franchise whose last division title in a full season came almost two decades ago, that qualifies as a substantial improvement. Last year the Reds finished 74-88, in fifth place in the NL Central by 23 games.

If they are to build a team capable of competing in the NL Central, which they haven't done for a decade, it will be on the back of their gifted young rotation. It is a familiar rescue plan for small-market teams that have spent years craning their necks at richer rivals above them in payroll and in the standings, but for the first time in years, it might actually be showing signs of working. The Reds organization was ranked No. 7 by Baseball Prospectus in 2008, and its impressive crop of future talent was a big part of the reason that general manager Walt Jocketty signed on a year ago, after having spent the previous 13 years building the St. Louis Cardinals into a consistent power that culminated in the 2006 World Series championship.

The Reds, of course, are nowhere near that level of success, but if there's been a silver lining to their status as a doormat, says Harang, it's that, "You learn from your losses, you don't learn from winning."

If that's true, then the Reds are a team of Ph.D.s by now, weird facial hair included, and the students are just as willing to teach the teachers as they are to go looking for instruction.

"It's pretty cool that we have a lot of guys that want to help each other," says Bailey. "We're all right next to each other in [the clubhouse], but even when we're out there during games or stretching, we're still talking pitching, trying to help each other out."

Volquez in particular has already proven to be a valuable asset. Not only has he shown ace-quality stuff, he's managed to pass on some of his secrets to his older teammates. Arroyo began throwing his sinker with a different across-the-seams grip after noticing the way Volquez threw his changeup. After testing the ptich out with pitching coach Dick Pole, Arroyo used it to great effect in the second half of last season, when he shaved a full 2.50 runs off his ERA from the first half. Arroyo even joked that if he keeps up that improvement, "I might have to buy him a watch or something."

While Volquez, Harang, Arroyo and Cueto are locked into the rotation, the fifth spot remains up for grabs between Owings, a 26-year-old obtained from the Diamondbacks last August in the Adam Dunn deal who might be a better hitter than he is a pitcher, and Bailey, who has long been considered the top pitching prospect in the organization but went 0-6 in 2008. The likely leader this spring in Owings, who has yet to pitch for the Reds but whose surprisingly powerful bat earned him four ABs last season after the trade.

Still, his brief time with Cincinnati has already been beneficial. A minor arm injury was causing his arm to sag during his windup, and he wound up leaving too many balls in the middle of the strike zone as a result. Almost as soon as Pole saw him, he noticed the problem and began stressing to Owings that he slow down his motion to ensure that he stays on top of the ball through his delivery. According to Owings, the positive effects of the change were nearly instantaneous, though it remains to be seen if that will carry over to a live game situation.

Bailey, meanwhile, spent most of the winter working out in Austin, Texas, with, among others, tennis star Andy Roddick. The Lone Star State native began working with University of Texas pitching coach Skip Johnson at the recommendation of his agent, and the two worked on developing a more consistent approach to hitters. Bailey is already one of the more thoughtful players on the team -- he's one of the few big leaguers who prefers reading actual books in the clubhouse, his current selection being Undaunted Courage, a Stephen Ambrose book about the Lewis and Clark expedition. "I don't get to read it as often as I'd like," he says with a shrug.

That's partly because he spends every chance he gets going hunting. On his laptop are numerous pictures of his expeditions, and while he's neither Lewis nor Clark, he did proudly display a shot of him standing beside the 280-pound boar he shot with a bow and arrow earlier in the week on a pre-dawn hunting trip before arriving at the ballpark. "He was like a linebacker with teeth," Bailey said. "He'd have mauled me if he got the chance." Asked what would have happened if he'd missed, he said. "I don't know. Good thing I didn't."

That goes double for the Reds, who may yet need him at the back of their rotation if Owings struggles. Despite Bailey's difficulties last season, he's still one of the most highly rated prospects in the game. For each of the last couple seasons, Bailey's name has been bandied about as a potential savior of the Reds rotation. With a star on the rise in Volquez, and quality depth throughout the rotation, there is no such pressure this year. At long last, this may be Cincinnati's time to resume its own hunt: the hunt for a Red October.

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