Way back in 2012, the Reds had one of the best rotations in baseball with Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo, and Mike Leake all making at least 30 starts. Those were the days. On the backs of those arms (what?), the Reds won 97 games and a division championship. Fast forward three years later, and the Reds rotation looks much different. Mike Leake will likely play for another team next year, leaving only Homer Bailey on the 2016 roster from that illustrious group, and Bailey may not return to full strength until 2017.

Cueto and Bailey are arguably the cream of that crop even if there is a clear separation between the talents of Cueto and Bailey. They have both become great pitchers. It’s easy to forget how far these two have come in their careers though. In fact, they both struggled for years as they adjusted to the big leagues, which is important to remember right now as we watch our current group of Redleg starters.

As a minor leaguer, Homer Bailey was one of the best pitching prospects in baseball. Baseball America listed him as the 5th best prospect in all of baseball before the 2007 season. Baseball Prospectus had this to say about the big Texan:

“Cocky and talented, Bailey`s the classic Texas amateur power pitcher. Consistently delivering heat in the mid-90s and touching 98 MPH, he also features a sledgehammer 12-to-6 curve and a solid change. Bailey was handled carefully in his first two years as a pro, and Krivsky followed suit last year, resisting the temptation to bring him up into the middle of a faltering stretch drive. Bailey will get a good look in camp. Bet on his making the rotation before the All-Star break.”

Bailey was as can’t miss as pitching prospects get. When he debuted in 2007, he was heralded as the savior of an organization that had long lacked effective starters. And then something happened to Bailey that happens to many talented, cocky young men: he was humbled. Bailey’s first five seasons looked like this:

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But as we can see from his strikeout and xFIP numbers, Bailey was slowly learning how to pitch as the big league level. He didn’t improve as quickly as we all thought or hoped, but he began to flash his enormous potential in 2010 while striking out over 20% of batters and lowering his xFIP numbers. Then, Bailey took off.Bailey really struggled in his first three seasons. His elite fastball wasn’t enough to get hitters out at the highest level. And thus, he failed to meet the enormous expectations placed upon him. He also faced a number of injuries that kept him from pitching full seasons as he never pitch 150+ innings in any of his first five seasons

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It took three to four years for one of the best pitching prospects in the game to figure it out and become an effective pitcher.  Bailey always had the stuff, but he needed time to harness it. His last start of 2012 was one of the greatest pitching performances I’ve ever seen. In game 3 of the NLDS, Bailey struck out ten Giants over seven innings and allowed one hit. The Reds should have won that day, and we know the pain involved in the rest of the story. But Bailey was lights out. As he was getting shelled in 2007 and 2008, Bailey didn’t look like someone who would eventually dominate in an important playoff game. But that’s exactly what Bailey developed into. In 2014, injuries slowed Bailey some, but his peripherals suggest a full season of work would have yielded similar results to 2012 and 2013.

Johnny Cueto didn’t come with as much fanfare as Bailey, but he similarly shot through the minors at a young age, pitching only 299.1 innings in the minors from 2006-2007. In 2008, the Reds put the 22 year old into their major league rotation.

After a sterling debut, Cueto struggled mightily in 2008 while pitching 174 innings. He had a 4.81 ERA and 4.31 xFIP. While he struck out over 20% of batters, he also posted what is still the highest walk rate (8.8%) of his career. Cueto had always succeeded in the minors, so this was new territory.

In 2009, Cueto pitched only marginally better. In 171.1 innings, Cueto had a 4.41 ERA and saw his strikeout rate dip to 17.8%. His xFIP was actually worse in 2009 (4.51) than the previous season. Then Cueto took a big step forward in 2010 and since 2011, he hasn’t posted an ERA above 2.82 while seeing his strikeout rate rise to 25.2% in 2014. Cueto’s 2014 is one of the greatest seasons by a Reds pitcher in the history of the franchise.

Cueto had one of the best four or five year stretches in Reds history, but he struggled for two seasons before figuring it out. Many thought he would never figure it out. But Cueto had stuff, and the Reds gave him time.

After the Cueto trade, the Reds current rotation consists of three rookies: Michael Lorenzen, Raisel Iglesias, and Anthony Desclafani. They have a ridiculously talented group of starting pitching prospects playing at the high A level or higher. Here are some of those players:

  • Robert Stephenson
  • Jon Moscot (injured)
  • John Lamb
  • Brandon Finnegan
  • Cody Reed
  • Amir Garrett
  • Nick Travieso
  • Sal Romano

They are also retrying the whole Tony Cingrani starting thing. Stephenson is the class of the group and a potential ace according to prospect analysts.  But they all, including the three currently in the rotation, have the potential to pitch well as starters in the major leagues. Out of those 11 players, the Reds need at least four of them to become effective starters to pair with Bailey. With that much arm talent, I like the odds.

But, just as the last group of starters needed time to develop, this group will need it as well. We are already seeing the growing pains of Lorenzen, Iglesias, and Disco. We will likely see more of the same from others.

The timeline for pitchers to reach their potential is different for everyone. It took Bailey three or four seasons. Cueto two+ seasons. Jose Fernandez of the Marlins went from AA to dominate major league pitcher in the blink of an eye, but that’s certainly rare.

What Bailey, Cueto, and many of the Reds young pitchers have in common is good stuff. And that stuff is something to get excited about.

Keep in mind that Lorenzen was a centerfielder/closer in college and only started 34 games in the minor leagues before making his major league debut. He’s still learning to pitch, but he has the stuff, averaging over 94 MPH on his fastball and seemingly improving his off speed pitches each start.

Iglesias was a reliever in Cuba and had a lost season last year, but he also has excellent stuff that could translate into a number two or three starter. He continues to tease with dominate stretches.

Stephenson continues to dominate when he commands his pitches, striking out over 27% of batters in AA this season before earning a promotion to AAA. His stuff is considered the best of all of the Reds pitching prospects. He showed off a little in his last AAA start by striking out ten over eight scoreless innings.

And the list goes on. Lots and lots of arm talent. But they will need time to develop. The rookies who have pitched this year have gained valuable experience toward the next couple of seasons. We may even see one or two of them take a big leap forward next year, but we must be patient as they progress.

So when you see Lorenzen fall victim to Coors Field, or Stephenson walks four or five guys during one of his first starts in the big leagues, remember: that was Cueto and Bailey once. They had those struggles and eventually became important pieces in one of the best rotations in Reds history. With all of the talent the Reds are developing and acquiring, we should eventually see a rotation like that again. Let’s hope it’s sooner than later.