PLAYER TO WATCH
No National League starter was more dominant over the final six weeks of last season than Homer Bailey. The young fireballer's finish—he was 6--1 with a 1.70 ERA after Aug. 22—gave the Reds reason to believe that their 2004 first-round draft pick had finally arrived after three years of struggling to stick in the majors. "He was 21 when he came up, with enormous expectations on him, and he put way too much pressure on himself," says veteran righthander Aaron Harang. "Last year, for the first time, I saw him relaxed and comfortable."
For the Reds to end their run of nine straight losing seasons, they'll need Bailey to dominate over a full campaign and establish himself as a top-of-the-rotation pitcher on a staff whose starters were ninth in the NL in ERA (4.50). After a disastrous 2008 season in which he put up an 0--6 record and a 7.93 ERA, Bailey began to turn the corner last summer when he added a split-fingered fastball during a stint at Triple A Louisville. "You add that pitch to his 98-mph fastball and his big curve, and that's nasty," says pitching coach Bryan Price.
Cincinnati, which is loaded with promising young arms (top prospects Travis Wood, 23, and Mike Leake, 22, could bolster the rotation later this season), stunned the baseball world in January when it signed 22-year-old Cuban ace Aroldis Chapman for $30.3 million. He'll likely start the season in the minors; Bailey's time is now. Says Harang, "It's easy to forget he's still only 23. He's right on schedule."
The Reds' home-road home run differential last season, the largest in the NL. Cincinnati hit 94 homers at Great American Ball Park but only 64 away from it. So the Reds' offense was more dangerous at home? No. They scored 15 more runs on the road, 344--329.
The Reds are a sleeper in the NL Central, in no small part because they've assembled a deep and effective bullpen that, aside from closer Francisco Cordero, doesn't cost much. The Reds should exploit that depth to protect a young rotation that has lots of upside but needs to be managed carefully. They can get quality innings on any given day from Nick Masset, Jared Burton, Carlos Fisher, Arthur Rhodes and Danny Ray Herrera. When Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, the rehabbing Edinson Volquez or Cuban sensation Aroldis Chapman starts, Dusty Baker has to protect those young arms—not his strong suit—by using the bullpen to keep them from throwing too many pitches while still keeping the Reds in contention. After mismanaging Mark Prior in Chicago, Baker will get a chance to show he's learned from that experience how to handle young pitchers.
WITH 2009 STATISTICS
Manager Dusty Baker
3RD SEASON WITH REDS
*Minor league stats
JEANINE LEECH/ICON SMI (BAILEY)
HILLTOPPER Bailey must take charge as Cincy awaits Chapman.
HOWARD SMITH/US PRESSWIRE (MASSET)