Once A Pitching Wasteland, Reds Are Now Deep In Arms
Mack Jenkins has been a Cincinnati Red for 23 seasons now. But if you ask him about his favorite season in the organization, he doesn't have to think about his answer.
"Hands down, it's 2010," the Reds pitching coordinator said.
It's not just because Cincinnati ended a 14-year playoff drought. It's not because the Reds topped 90 wins for the first time since 1996. It's because of how they did it.
When Homer Bailey went on the disabled list, Sam Lecure stepped into the rotation and pitched reasonably well. When Aaron Harang was sent to the DL, Matt Maloney popped up to the majors and gave up only four runs in two fill-in starts. Then at the start of July as Mike Leake started to wear down, Travis Wood came up to join the rotation and went 5-4, 3.51 over the second half of the season.
Whenever the Reds needed another starter to step up to Dusty Baker's rotation, they had someone ready to make the jump. They did it without having to search through the waiver wire or make a trade. At the same time, the Cardinals, their closest competitor in the National League Central race, were having to go out to acquire pitching on the trade market because they didn't have starters ready to move up from Double-A or Triple-A.
It's an amazing transformation for a team that five years ago was the worst in baseball at developing pitching.
A Pitching Wasteland
There was a time when the worst thing that could happen to a young pitcher was to be drafted by the Reds.
Black cats and broken mirrors didn't compare to a stint in the Reds minor league system. From Ty Howington to Chris Gruler, Bobby Basham to Thomas Pauly, well-regarded pitchers signed with Cincinnati, headed out to the mound and quickly took a detour to the hospital, usually to have a career-derailing shoulder or elbow surgery.
None of the aforementioned pitching prospects ever made an impact for the Reds. It shouldn't be a surprise because for nearly a decade, no pitching prospect made an impact for the Reds. From the day that 1995 draftee Brett Tomko was traded after the 1999 season (for Ken Griffey Jr.) until Johnny Cueto and Bailey arrived for good in 2008, Cincinnati developed only one homegrown pitcher who made more than 20 starts for the Reds. That was righthander Jose Acevedo, who went 16-21, 5.59 in his four years with the Reds.
If you want a reason for why the Reds missed the playoffs for 14 straight years, the lack of pitching development was the biggest explanation. In 2005, the Reds finished first in the National League in runs scored and dead last in the league in ERA. They won 73 games.
On that team, not one of the 162 games was started by a pitcher the Reds had signed and developed. Of the 22 pitchers who pitched an inning for Cincinnati that year, relievers Todd Coffey and Ryan Wagner were the only ones originally signed by the Reds.
Cincinnati is a mid-market team at best with a limited budget. When Cliff Lee or C.C. Sabathia hit the free agent market, the Reds were never going to be among the bidders. Even this offseason when Zack Greinke was available on the trade market, the Reds weren't among the teams in the running because they would have had difficulty fitting his salary into their budget.
This is not a team that is going to go out and buy frontline pitching. So Cincinnati has to either acquire pitchers through trade, sort through the second-tier free agent market or grow their own.
For years they had to go elsewhere because there was nothing coming through the system. That led to a lot of reclamation projects, and plenty of over-their-head pitchers being asked to make big league starts.
There were a lot of reasons why. For one, Cincinnati's scouting wasn't always very efficient and was sometimes chaotic.
"When we were scouting Gruler in high school, there were 10 Reds scouts at one game," one scout with a National League organization said. "That's poor mechanics of our job. All 10 of their people saw him the same way. Too many chefs spoil the soup."
It was no better on the player development side. The team lurched from idea to idea, trying to find some way to stop the pain. For a couple of years under general manager Dan O'Brien Jr., the organization went to tandem starters in the minors. At one point the organization went through three pitching coordinators in three years, while having three GMs—Jim Bowden, O'Brien and Wayne Krivsky—in a four-year span. In the best farm systems, there's a consistent approach year after year. Cincinnati's philosophies changed by the month.
In 17 seasons as a pitching coach at every level of the system, Jenkins had witnessed the team's problems developing pitching firsthand. As the team's Triple-A Louisville pitching coach from 2002-2005, he worked with rotations filled with minor league free agents and aging veterans. Few homegrown pitchers ever made it to Triple-A. And plenty of veterans were promoted to the big league club even though the team knew they had little chance to succeed—after all, someone has to make the start.
In 2003, the Reds had to use 17 different starting pitchers, as pitcher after pitcher was trotted out in the hopes that the team could find a surprise star.
In 2006, Jenkins was given a chance to try to fix things when he was promoted to pitching coordinator. Having coached at every level in the system, and having been around the team's rehabbing pitchers in Sarasota, Jenkins has the background to have some ideas on parts of the team's regimen he wanted to change. He also knew that he needed to show results.
"When I took the job, the No. 1 thing we had to do was to get to the bottom of this and correct the direction," Jenkins said.
In his new job, Jenkins quickly bagged the tandem starter idea. In his mind, if you want to develop a big league starter, it makes more sense to get him used to the routine of starting every fifth day.
"Part of developing a Travis Wood is developing a routine that begins as soon as he begins to play in pro ball," Jenkins said. "You can't do that when you start one week and the next week you're relieving.
"Over 100 minor league starts you endure so much. Coaching is important, but the game teaches you so much. Cold weather, warm weather, rain delays. All kind of X-factors, (and) if you're rushed you don't get those. We don't want you to experience these things for the first time in the big leagues."
The Reds also revamped their strength and conditioning program and tweaked their pitch limits, ditching hard-and-fast, across-the-board rules in favor of limits that depended on the pitcher.
"Each guy is different. On the same staff in Dayton we had Johnny Cueto, Carlos Fisher and Wood," Jenkins said. "All there workloads shouldn't be the same. Wood was a 150-pound high school pitcher from Arkansas. Fisher was coming out of college and he had a much more mature body. He could handle more pitches per game than Travis."
Whether it was the new approach or the end of a curse, the injuries soon stopped. The team that once turned pitching arms into porcelain now is stocked with enviable pitching depth. And the Reds have found consistency. Jenkins has been the team's pitching coordinator for five years now. Most of the organization's minor league pitching coaches have worked for the team for four years or more.
The New Wave
Bailey, the team's 2004 first-round pick, climbed the minor league ladder without ever going under the knife. So did Cueto. In 2011, Cueto should become the first pitcher signed and developed by the Reds since Tomko to make 100 major league starts.
After years of struggles, the Reds have figured out how to build a pitching staff through development. From 2000-2007, the Reds got 98 starts from homegrown pitchers. Last year they got 102.
Most of the current group should be around for quite a while. Seven of the Reds' nine pitchers to make starts last year were 26 or younger.
Cincinnati now has more starting pitchers than slots in its rotation. When Cincinnati heads to spring training in February, it will have Bailey, Cueto and Wood joined by veteran Bronson Arroyo, 2009 first-rounder Mike Leake and Edinson Volquez battling for the five spots. All six made at least 12 starts for the Reds last year, and none posted an ERA higher than 4.50. And as a point of pride for the Reds, Cueto, Leake, Wood and Bailey are all homegrown products.
Cincinnati still has steps to take. To keep up with the Cardinals and Greinke-infused Brewers pitching staffs, Cincinnati needs to see at least one of its pitchers—most likely Cueto, Bailey or Volquez—take the steps foward to become an ace.
"I think they have a lot of depth, but there are also warts to every pitcher and nobody overwhelms you," a front office executive for another NL club said. "It's a weird group. It's like they have four or five guys who are No. 3 type starters, a couple of No. 4 types and a couple of No. 5s . . . I think there is value in their depth because young kids typically are inconsistent."
It still isn't the perfect rotation, but considering where the Reds used to be, it's a massive step in the right direction.