Reds Might Be on the Verge of Something Big

After watching the Reds for a week, we could be onto the start of something big, remembering that the path is long between the start and something big. But the start of something big is a start --

Jerry Dowling

After watching the Reds for a week, we could be onto the start of something big, remembering that the path is long between the start and something big. But the start of something big is a start — six or seven starts, actually — and that's something good.

Only Reds fans could truly appreciate what happened last week at Great American Ball Park. They're much too familiar with a franchise that hasn't produced a solid starting pitcher since Tom Browning came up in 1984, and not even a starting pitcher of mediocre distinction since Brett Tomko began his long journey with the Reds in 1997.

The Reds haven't mixed with young pitching since the end of Bob Howsam's second tour in 1984. Some time in the early 1980s, Sports Illustrated ran an article with photos showing how young Reds power pitchers emulated the form of their Hall of Fame teammate Tom Seaver. The Reds thought Frank Pastore, Bruce Berenyi and Jeff Russell would pave the next championship.

Browning began his pro career in 1982 as a ninth-round pick out of college. The left hander started at the bottom, learned a screwball and breezed through the minor leagues as a strikeout artist. Browning joined Mario Soto, another Reds creation, in front of the big league rotation.

Pastore, Berenyi and Russell couldn't stay in the plan.

Since then, the Reds have begged, borrowed and stolen for pitchers, but they haven't signed and developed any. When the Reds kingdom learned that Jim Bowden was especially lacking in that respect, ownership canned him and went for a new approach in 2003.

Subsequent general managers Dan O'Brien and Wayne Krivsky might have been the agents of different owners, but they agreed on developing young pitchers and probably knew a little more about it. On Bowden's departure, the Reds immediately began trading — astutely, as it turns out — for young pitching suited to the major leagues.

So the procession of starting pitchers for the Reds last week truly seemed to mark the turning point on a long road and the start of something big — only the start, but still the Reds' best inventory of young pitchers in more than 20 years. However the Reds are going to win some day, pitching will have a lot to do with it. The transformation is starting before our eyes.

On March 31, Aaron Harang stayed about even with Arizona's Brandon Webb, giving up two earned runs in six innings while striking out six. On April 5, Harang gave up two runs in seven innings against Philadelphia's powerful order. Two good starts.

The Reds acquired Harang from Oakland for Jose Guillen as the interim regime held a fire sale right after Bowden's ouster. Harang led the National League last year with 16 wins, reaching that mark for the second straight season. He also led the National League last year in strikeouts (216), starts (35) and complete games (six).

Harang isn't 30 yet, and the Reds have him signed for the long term. If you were to go around saying Harang is one of the two or three best pitchers in the National League, people wouldn't look at you funny.

On April 2, Bronson Arroyo labored through five innings with 97 pitches but gave up only two earned runs and struck out five. He struggled again April 7, surrendering four home runs to the Phillies in five-plus innings.

Arroyo qualified as a steal in 2006, when the Reds took him from Boston for outfielder Wily Mo Pena during spring training. He won 14 of 35 starts with a 3.29 ERA in 241 innings.

But Arroyo's laboring ways wore him down last season, to say nothing of Jerry Narron's belief that it was better to squeeze him for a few more pitches than to call the bullpen. Arroyo slumped to 4-12 before the All-Star break, then pitched more efficiently in the second half, winning five of his last eight decisions.

Meanwhile, Johnny Cueto, 22, appeared April 3 for his major league debut, pitched seven innings, struck out 10 and allowed nothing but a home run to Arizona's Justin Upton. Cueto kept it down, changed speeds and ruthlessly confused the Diamondbacks.

When the Reds renovated their scouting department under O'Brien in 2004, the first year post-Bowden, the first kid they signed in the Dominican Republic was Cueto. The Reds moved him slowly for three years, but he developed a changeup learned from Soto and locked up hitters in three levels of minor league baseball last season.

We'll overlook the Josh Fogg start on April 4 and move forward to April 6, when 24-year-old Edinson Volquez made his Reds debut. Acquired last winter from the Texas Rangers for outfielder Josh Hamilton, Volquez showed how he handled hitters at four levels of pro baseball last year. He gave up one run in 5 1/3 innings, striking out eight against the Phillies.

Krivsky should win a prize for making two trades in which he moved disposable outfielders — albeit five-tool talents — to pick up two rotation quality pitchers ready for the major leagues. Apparently Krivsky values young pitching more than some other general managers. In that respect, deals netting Arroyo and Volquez show that he's doing what the Reds hired him to do.

A year ago, one couldn't talk about young Reds pitching without mentioning Homer Bailey. Now that last year's fling with Bailey as the messiah has died down, he's still only 21. On April 3, he pitched seven innings for Louisville at Syracuse, allowing five hits and one run. He took a 2-0 loss.

Here's another one: Daryl Thompson pitched six innings, allowing three hits and no earned runs for Chattanooga at Montgomery on April 3.

It's still asking too much of the Reds to win the National League Central this year. Young pitching is painfully inconsistent, and the Reds' defense is just painful. But it could be that the Reds are starting to win a division somewhere down the line, maybe in 2009 or 2010, around the day when young pitching becomes young veteran pitching.

The growing pains will test patience and commitments. We've often said Krivsky would err on the side of pitching. We've seen him take that approach in trades. Now that the goods are arriving, we'll see how he rides out the pleasures and pains.

The ride could end with something big.

Contact Bill Peterson: [email protected]