CHICAGO -- Johnny Cueto is gone from Cincinnati, but he's nowhere near forgotten.
On Wednesday afternoon in the cramped visiting clubhouse at Wrigley Field, Billy Hamilton and a group of his teammates watched the television intently as Cueto was trying to work out of a jam in his duel against Clayton Kershaw in San Francisco.
"Vamos, Johnny Cash,'' Hamilton said.
Hamilton and others worked along with Giants catcher Buster Posey in trying to call pitches as the former Reds ace faced Yasiel Puig. "Cambio, cambio,'' Hamilton implored before groaning as Puig laced a 1-2 fastball -- not Hamilton's suggested changeup -- into left field for a two-run single, pretty much putting the game out of reach against Kershaw.
It's understandable that Cueto remains on the mind of so many in Cincinnati, as to date, there has been no replacing him.
In the 661 days since the Reds dealt Cueto to Kansas City in one of 2015's most significant deals, they have used 25 starting pitchers, with none making more starts than Brandon Finnegan's 34.
Cincinnati starters are 68-110 with a 5.03 ERA post-Cueto. They've worked only 1,369 1/3 innings in 263 games -- an average of less than 5 1/3 innings per game.
No wonder Reds manager Bryan Price describes the rebuilding of a once-strong starting rotation as "a painful grind, a painful journey to get back to where we can compete."
You've got to start your way back somewhere, and for the Reds, that might just be with former St. John's basketball player Amir Garrett, who is making a high-profile start on Thursday afternoon against the World Series champion Cubs.
Garrett has only six Major League starts, so it's ridiculous to anoint him as a savior. But if everything clicks for the 6-foot-5 left-hander, he could be the ace that Cincinnati has been missing since Cueto departed in a trade that signaled the Reds' commitment to rebuilding.
"What I see is a guy who doesn't let the moment get to him,'' catcher Tucker Barnhart said. "From the first start against the Cardinals to the ones since, he seems in control of his emotions out there and just focused on executing his pitches. That's tough to do for a young guy.''
Garrett, ranked as the Reds' No. 2 prospect according to MLBPipeline.com, enters his Wrigley Field debut 3-2 with a 4.25 ERA, which spiked when he gave up three home runs to the Brewers on April 24 at Miller Park, including two to Eric Thames.
"He's kind of made it look easy,'' Price said. "You can take out the game in Milwaukee and his numbers are pristine, dominant really.''
Five of six starts have been smooth sailing for Garrett, including a 12-strikeout game against the Orioles. His ERA shrinks down to 2.20 when you discount the Brewers' game (9 ER/3 1/3 innings), with 27 strikeouts, 10 walks and only 21 hits allowed in 32 2/3 frames.
Garrett has baffled hitters at times, according to Barnhart.
"It's impressive how he's able to throw all three of his pitches in the zone and out of the zone when he's on,'' Barnhart said. "His slider, sometimes it breaks and sometimes it doesn't break, so you see some expressions from hitters as they either swing and miss at it or take it, whatever. They kind of seem confused.''
Garrett was a two-sport guy until 2014, when he decided his future was in baseball, not the NBA. His fastball has averaged 92 mph, but his success comes from getting outs with that slider and a much-improved changeup.
Price praises Garrett for working hard with pitching coach Mack Jenkins on his changeup in Spring Training.
"He didn't add the changeup, but he polished it,'' Price said. "It evolved into a reliable third pitch. I think that can really define a Major League starter -- the quality of the third pitch, not the [No.] 1 and the [No. 2]. If you only have those, you're probably a bullpen guy -- fastball-slider, fastball-split. It's the third pitch [that] defines the starter quite often.''
While a locker had been set aside for Garrett, he wasn't at Wrigley before Wednesday's game. The 25-year-old is returning from a two-inning stint at Triple-A Louisville, where he was sent as part of an organizational plan to limit innings in his rookie season.
Bailey, who has rarely been on the mound since 2014 after Tommy John surgery and a second procedure this offseason on his elbow, is on an "aggressive" throwing plan, according to Price, and on target to return in late June.
DeSclafani, out with a sprained ligament in his elbow, hasn't been cleared to resume throwing but will be checked next week when the Reds return to Cincinnati. Finnegan is sidelined with a strained trapezius muscle that will keep him out through at least mid-June.
The Reds have developed a deep bullpen filled with power pitchers like Michael Lorenzen and Raisel Iglesias, who are capable of pitching multiple innings, and Cincinnati showed even last year that its lineup is no fun for opposing pitchers.
"We've already made huge steps in the last 80 or 90 or 100 games we've played,'' Price said. "But the huge steps will be when we go out there and we can say every day that our starter is a certifiable, big league starting pitcher, and we're not there yet."
Garrett could wind up being a big part of the solution, and maybe even the Reds' first real ace post-Cueto.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.