So, I’m standing at the checkout of the 9/11 Memorial gift shop at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, when I see my brother talking to a stranger wearing red.  I saunter up and discover this “stranger” is Nick Masset’s uncle.  It’s May 17th, mere hours after a numbing loss to the Mets, a game where the Reds held what felt like a commanding 4-0 lead — a game that should have been remembered for Joey Votto’s drone strike of a blast off the facade of Citi Field’s Pepsi Porch — but instead left me wondering about Logan Ondrusek, and to a lesser degree, Aroldis Chapman.

Both had come into the game riding remarkable streaks that saw them both the proud owners of flatline ERAs of precisely 0.00.  By late afternoon, Ondrusek suffered an unfortunate tete-a-tete with David Wright and Chapman saw his Grove City fastball surprisingly insufficient for the first time all year.  Hence my question to Nick’s uncle:

“How soon can we expect Nick back?”

Despite how much we fuss and agonize over the OBP in front of Joey, most of us would agree that the Reds’ fortunes rest first and foremost in their arms.  Votto aside, the Reds sit atop the Central because of the bullpen and their starting rotation, one that as of a week ago, was one of only three remaining in the majors that have used the same starting five thus far.

How long can that go on?  And, how long can the bullpen continue to perform at this level?

It’s an important question because while the media chose to focus on beer and fried chicken, the epic fold of the Red Sox last season had more to do with a starting pitching rotation that collapsed than it did with Terry Francona’s marital problems.  Daisuke Matsuzaka blew out his elbow in May.  Clay Buchholz succumbed to a bad back in June.  Josh Beckett and Erik Bedard missed starts in September.  When the rosin bag dropped for the last time, Boston had seen 10 different pitchers start games.  How long can any team, no matter how large the payroll, survive that kind of attrition?

The Braves collapse was every bit as staggering. Starters Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson went down late in the season.  Dusty Baker’s favorite pitcher, Derek Lowe, found himself spent, posting a 8.75 ERA in 5 starts in September.  But, what I most remember about the burning of Atlanta last fall was the way Craig Kimbrel suddenly started blowing leads under the weight of a large workload that finally caught up with him.

The very same thing could happen to the Reds bullpen as the innings pile up, the race tightens, and Baker begins relying more and more on guys who can routinely get him outs and Ws.  Which makes the return of Bray and Masset key to the success of the Reds after the break.

It may also force Walt Jocketty to address the lack of depth within the rotation, reverse his decision to leave Mr. Chapman in a role that is suddenly producing diminished returns—and get him back on the road to developing his repertoire of pitches and once again striking fear in the heart of the rest of the National League—beginning in the first inning.

Or not.

Baker doesn’t want Chapman in the rotation, IMO.  Perhaps it’s too late for Mr. 106 to make the transition and provide meaningful innings as a starter.  And the front office could choose to take solace in the fact that rotations do occasionally remain healthy for 162 games.  Four pitchers for the 2010 Giants made every start that season and Madison Bumgarner, after being brought up from the minors in June, was a fixture in the rotation thereafter.  The Phillies got 30 or more starts from 4 pitchers in 2008.  It can be done.

Does anyone think this Reds staff will do anything approaching that, much less be similarly effective?

A fresh Nick Massett and Bill Bray could keep Ondrusek, Arredondo and Marshall from suffering from a Craig Kimbrel-like meltdown later this year.  More importantly, it gives the team some wiggle room with Chapman and the rotation, if they can wrap their collective heads around that possibility.

Mat Latos may improve significantly as the season goes forward and turn into the dominating second starter the Reds will absolutely need in October.  Bailey may continue his newly found confidence and consistency.  Leake may finish 2012 they way he finished 2011.  Betting on all of this happening is a major roll of the dice.

The Reds need to develop a back up plan soon–as soon as Bray and Masset show they are major league ready.

Anything else is nothing less than baseball malpractice on what has up to now been a promising season in Cincinnati.