Johnny Cueto

Great article today by Jayson Stark on the front page of ESPN’s baseball section about some players who are turning heads in Spring Training, including “the buzz-master champion of the entire state of Florida,” Johnny Cueto:

How can you tell when a pitcher has inspired a scout to awaken from his somnambulant spring-training state?

When he bolts to attention as his radar gun begins to rattle. And, especially, when he then feels the need to start texting the gun numbers to his disbelieving friends.

“94-mph 2-seam … 96 4-seam … 96, 95, 94, 95, 94 … 95 fb, 88 sli (slider), 87 sli, 96, 88 sli, 86 (change).”

The vignette we just described is true. Those text-message excerpts? Also 100 percent true. The scout will remain nameless. The pitcher who provoked this text-a-thon? He will not remain nameless.

That name, for future reference: Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto. Remember it. We’ll help you remember it, in fact, by naming him the 21-year-old captain of our 2008 Spring Training All-Eye-Popper Team.

So what did a guy need to do this spring to qualify for this team? It wasn’t too complicated:

Just have himself a spring training that blew up the stat sheet, woke up every scout in the ballpark and even caused a fan or three to stop leaning against the tiki bar.

High praise, indeed. But wait! There’s more:

Cueto has been putting on a show from day one, blowing mid-90s fastballs past good hitters, freezing them with his dive-bombing slider, throwing invisible changeups on any count and doing it all with a presence and command that makes it tough to believe he’s still only 21.

“His stuff speaks for itself,” said catcher Paul Bako. “But for me, what’s even more impressive is just where he is as a pitcher at a young age, and the way he commands the ball. He’s got three ‘plus’ pitches, and the way he can pitch with those pitches has impressed me much more than his stuff.”

“You see so many guys this time of year throwing [their fastballs] in the high 80s and low 90s,” said one scout, “that when a guy comes along who throws it 94-97, to both sides of the plate, down in the zone, and complements that with a hard upper-80s slider and a changeup that goes straight down — all for strikes — let’s just say it catches your attention.”

Well, he’s got our attention, anyway. All he has left to catch at this point is a spot on the Reds’ roster.

Wow.

Lest you think Cueto is the only Red raising eyebrows this spring, enjoy this about Edinson Volquez:

A scout we know announced to a large delegation of onlookers the other day: “The best trade this winter was Edinson Volquez for Josh Hamilton.”

And after that Josh Hamilton riff a few paragraphs to the north, you would probably agree — except that this scout meant it the other way around. That’s how dazzling Volquez has been this spring.

That news might shock people who saw Volquez go 3-11, with a 7.20 ERA, in three different passes through Texas. But this spring, at age 25, he has totally clicked it into gear. In fact, he’s tied with the Mets’ duo of Johan Santana and John Maine for the lead in the whole sport in strikeouts.

But it isn’t the number of whiffs that has stood out. It’s how this guy has piled them up.

His first three March outings, in order, went: four punchouts in 2 1/3 innings against the Red Sox, eight K’s in four innings against the Yankees and six strikeouts in five innings against the Phillies. And that’s three of the four best lineups in baseball we’re talking about.

“Unbelievable movement,” said a coach of one of those teams. … “Electric stuff,” gushed one scout. … “His changeup is really, really, really dirty,” said Bako.

Now, former Red (and Redleg Nation favorite Josh Hamilton is another on Stark’s list, along with a few other guys. Regardless of where anyone stands on the trade of Hamilton, I’m pretty happy to have Volquez here.

When I think of Cueto, Volquez, and adding Homer Bailey into that mix, I’m astounded at how good the Reds rotation could be for the next few years. Get excited, Cincinnati.