Reds' rotation demands tough choices

November, 18, 2011
11/18/11
1:00
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Johnny CuetoJoe Robbins/Getty ImagesJohnny Cueto heads a promising Reds rotation ... assuming he can stay healthy.

One of the reliable tropes about both general managers and managers is that everybody’s good at something. Some managers might be exceptionally good with getting the most out of a veteran roster, and some GMs might be especially effective in adding that talent. Certainly, in Cincinnati a win-now hook was part of the rationale behind enabling Walt Jocketty’s palace coup when he took over the Reds from Wayne Krivsky at the start of the 2008 season. That was certainly part of the reason why they’d already put Dusty Baker in the dugout as well.

And to some extent, you can call the last four seasons in Cincinnati a modest success. Through 2011, payroll had only grown 17 percent (before inflation). The Reds have significantly raised their performance margins within the old Bill James “Plexiglass Principle”: Instead of ping-ponging between 70 and 80 wins as they had during the Aughties, they’ve won 78, 91 and 79 games the past three years, a much happier range to be bouncing around.

And for all that, they’re about as exasperating a team as you could imagine, because Jocketty and Baker are supposed to deliver. Last season’s climb back down below 80 wins from their 2010 Central Division title was all the more disappointing because so many questions remain unanswered. Perhaps first and foremost among those questions is their rotation -- deep, talented and immensely frustrating.

Before the 2010 season, you could be understandably excited about the Reds’ rotation depth. In the abstract, a list with Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Homer Bailey, Edinson Volquez, Travis Wood and Aroldis Chapman on it is supposed to make you excited about a team’s near-term future.

Unfortunately, that was before so many things went wrong. For all that talent, the Reds rotation averaged a Game Score of 50 on the season, better than just four teams in the league. Cueto’s shot at winning the National League ERA title was squelched by shoulder woes early and neck problems late in the year. Chapman was sent to the pen, struggled with his command, and shipped to the minors, remaining in relief role after his return. Bailey landed on the disabled list twice, and it was his right shoulder both times, making it three times in two years that’s happened. Wood gave them 10 quality starts in his first 16, but the Reds were frustrated and shipped him to Triple-A for two months anyway. A couple of weeks later, Volquez followed him to Louisville, sporting an unintentional walk rate of 5.6 BB/9 while allowing 15 homers in 85 innings pitches.

That is not to say the picture’s entirely bleak. Bailey managed to notch quality starts in more than half his turns (13 out of 22), a career first for him. When healthy, Cueto is the ace they need to contend again. Leake turned in a fine sophomore season.

However, the FIPs for Bailey (4.02) and Leake (4.19) don’t suggest they’ll join Cueto at the front of the rotation. That’s also not any better than Wood (4.03 FIP), if the Reds are willing to give him a second chance. Volquez might not get even that; his name shows up in trade rumors, and despite the poor performance arbitration is only going to make him more expensive to employ the next two seasons.

Sorting out the Reds’ rotation to pick their best five guys is going to require judgment. But you could have said that about them last year too, only to see them wind up resurrecting Dontrelle Willis. Whatever the basis on which those choices are made -- scouting, stats or both -- the challenge for Jocketty this winter will be picking his ponies and then having Dusty watch them run. That sounds easy enough, but the problem is whether or not you can reasonably hope for the Reds to pick the right guys.

Take the Reds’ recent big-picture decisions, and the most recent developments. Last winter, Jocketty gave Bronson Arroyo a three-year, $35 million extension to be the rotation’s veteran workhorse. They were rewarded with a 46-homer season, the second-highest single-season tally in National League history. Sure, it’s clever to defer payments to lower the contract’s annual average value below $10 million per year, but it’s still a massive multi-year commitment to Bronson Arroyo, a nice mid-rotation innings-eater at the best of times. Unfortunately, the deal was to keep him around for his age-34 through age-36 seasons, which weren’t likely to be the best of times, and haven’t been.

Any hopes that the Reds might move Chapman back to the rotation any time soon are on hold after he came up with a sore shoulder in the Arizona Fall League. As a result, they scrapped plans to let him start in winter ball.

Cueto, Bailey and Chapman, all top young pitchers, all coming up sore-armed on Dusty Baker’s watch? Even if Baker is being more careful with young pitchers than he was with another talented trio in Chicago, we’ve certainly been here before.

And then there’s the Reds’ rumored interest in Jair Jurrjens of the Atlanta Braves. Jurrjens is also someone most statheads expect to see take a tumble in 2012, by as much as a full run given a 3.95 FIP to his 2.96 ERA. That’s assuming that the right knee that has shelved him three times in two years holds up, and that’s without getting to an additional pair of DL stints in the last two years for injuries to an oblique and a thigh.

On paper, adding another body to their rotation depth would seem like the last thing the Reds should be worrying about -- they already have seven guys for five slots, and they’re struggling to identify which ones are their real keepers. It certainly doesn't reflect well on their current crew, although teams willing to trade for any of the non-Arroyos wouldn't be hard to find. If Jurrjens is the solution, maybe it's the decision-making process that tells the Reds to go after him that is the problem.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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