FOR MORE than 20years now the Reds have been waiting for the next Mario Soto. Not since thehard-throwing righthander anchored the rotation in the early- to mid-1980s hasthe pitching-bereft franchise produced a homegrown ace. Early one morning inspring training, however, as he watched a pair of Reds-bred prospects, HomerBailey and Johnny Cueto, hum fastballs from adjacent mounds, Soto himselfsounded convinced that the wait was over. "They are future aces, two guysyou build a team around," said Soto, at 51, a Reds pitching instructor,"but we're not talking about them making an impact two, three years fromnow. We're talking about now."
Since relocating toGreat American Ball Park in 2003, the club has lived by the long ball(Cincinnati and the Yankees are the only teams to hit 200 home runs each of thelast three seasons) and whiffed on free-agent pitchers, such as $25 millionbust Eric Milton. But Cincinnati's nucleus of young major-league-readystarters—Bailey, 21; Cueto, 22; and righthander Edinson Volquez, 24, (acquiredfrom Texas for outfielder Josh Hamilton)—is the reason the Reds could make thebig jump that the Rockies took last year.
Cueto was thebiggest revelation in camp. As part of a renewed commitment to internationalscouting, which was virtually nonexistent for a decade, Cincinnati signed the5'10" righthander as a free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2004.After blowing through three minor league levels last season, his third as apro, Cueto quickly became the subject of infomercial-like testimonials in hisfirst big league camp. "The way he throws changeups, with the same armspeed as his 98-mph fastball, it's like Pedro Martinez out there," sayscatcher Javier Valentin.
Offered Philliesoutfielder Geoff Jenkins, after facing Cueto in an exhibition game, "Greatpoise too. We're going to be hearing from him a lot."
Similar enthusiasmwas heaped upon Bailey last year, but after dominating at Triple A Louisvilleearly on, Bailey stumbled through a rocky four months in the majors. He hadonly one quality start in nine appearances; suffered a pulled hamstring thattook 5 to 7 mph off his fastball; and earned a reputation for being aloof inthe clubhouse. This year is different, though, say teammates. "Last year hewas scared to throw all his pitches," says Valentin. "But thedifference is his changeup—he'll throw it anytime now."
How new managerDusty Baker handles his young hurlers will be closely scrutinized. Criticizedas skipper of the Cubs for his overuse of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, Baker alsohas a reputation for favoring experience over youth; he appears to be committedto Cueto and Volquez—a righty with a mid-90s fastball—in a rotation anchored byveterans Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo. Meanwhile, Bailey could start theseason in Louisville, but he'll be in the bigs by the summer.
The bullpen has anew closer, Francisco Cordero, 32, a free agent whom the Reds overpaid ingiving him a four-year, $46 million contract in the off-season. Still, heinstantly improves a group that blew 28 saves last season.
With the inevitablearrival this summer of two top hitting prospects, rightfielder Jay Bruce andfirst baseman Joey Votto (box, below), the Reds should also see an improvementin run production. Last year Votto vowed not to watch any Reds games—or evenhighlights—until he made it to the Show because he wanted to see Great AmericanBall Park for the first time in person. He hit .294 with 22 home runs and 92RBIs in 133 games in Louisville, then went 3 for 3 with a home run in his firststart in Cincinnati on Sept. 4. "It was great to get my feet wet abit," says Votto, who hit .321 and slugged .548 during his 24-game stint."But I'm looking forward to making a regular impact on the team."
For Votto and therest of the young Reds, that time has come.
PROJECTED ROSTER WITH 2007 STATISTICS
MANAGER DUSTY BAKER FIRST SEASON WITH CINCINNATI
Francisco Cordero (New acquisition)
Jeremy Affeldt (New acquisition)
New acquisition(R) Rookie B-T: Bats-throws
*Triple A stats
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 62)
a modest proposal...
The pairing ofveteran-friendly manager Dusty Baker with a roster of high-ceiling rookies,like the Reds', is a curious one, but there can be no doubt here: Cincin
nati should startthe season with Jay Bruce as its everyday centerfielder and Joey Votto (left)as the regular first baseman. Bruce, who turns 21 on April 3, is the bestprospect in the game; he has excellent gap power that will translate intohigher home run totals as he gets older. Votto, 24, inexplicably criticized byBaker in early March for not swinging enough, has done just fine with hispatient approach; he hit .289 with a .385 OBP and a .476 slugging percentage inthe minors and .321/.360/.548 in a brief '07 call-up. Every day these twoplayers spend out of the Reds' lineup—or in the minors—jeopardizes anintriguing team's chances to play in October.
Stolen bases bysecond baseman Brandon Phillips, a strikingly high number considering he alsohit into 26 double plays—tied for the third most in the majors last year.Phillips became the first NL player to account for as many as 30 steals and 25double plays in the same season. Only two AL players, the Royals' John Wathan(36 steals, 26 double plays in 1982) and the White Sox' Ivan Calderon (32, 26in '90), have done it.
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APRIL 12, 1976
"I CHERISH thefact that I'm considered the most complete player in the game," Morgansays. "The 'best' is always a matter of opinion, but the 'most complete' isright there on paper. I'm blessed with the ability to do more things than otherpeople can. I'm not the best power hitter, not the best hitter for average, notthe best fielder, not the best base stealer. But when you put all those thingstogether, no player in baseball can do two of them better than JoeMorgan."
Free access to allReds stories and photographs from the SI archive, plus video clips.
WELCOME CHANGE Cueto's ability to mix a filthy changeup with a 98-mph fastball reminds one batterymate of a young Pedro.
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HEINZ KLUETMEIER (COVER)