Reds need wins, innings from starters

Reds need wins, innings from starters

CINCINNATI -- Reds starters are racking up high pitch counts and long innings as much as candy addicts rack up cavities and root canals. And that's been a big barrier in preventing the sweet taste of victory.

The Reds are the only team in the Majors without a win from its rotation. Their five starters have a 5.45 ERA that is ranked 13th in the National League. It was 3.11 before the just-completed 2-5 road trip began. Their starters' 37 are the third-most in the league. The entire pitching staff also leads the Majors in total pitches thrown.

On Friday, manager Dusty Baker and pitching coach Bryan Price held a closed-door meeting with the starters. The topic wasn't revealed, but it'd be easy to guess that throwing strikes was near the top of the agenda.

"Our starting pitchers are throwing way too many pitches," Price said on Sunday. "They're averaging just under 20 pitches per inning as a group. We're walking too many guys. Between walks and hit batters and a low first-pitch-strike percentage, we're just not doing everything we can to increase our chances of pitching more effectively. We've addressed that. However, we have to put it to work."

How rough was this past week of games? The only starter to have a quality start and complete seven innings was rookie Mike Leake, who did it in his second professional start. Aaron Harang, Homer Bailey and Johnny Cueto couldn't make it past five innings. Bronson Arroyo worked six innings in his two starts, but allowed five earned runs both times.

In turn, the bullpen is already spent from a heavy workload -- 24 innings in seven games -- that's trickled down. Baker and general manager Walt Jocketty contemplated calling up a fresher arm from Triple-A Louisville on Wednesday, but decided against it.

"It hasn't been fresh terribly often. That's one way to set yourself up for failure," Price said of the bullpen.

The Reds as a whole aren't beginning games the right way. They've been outscored in the first inning, 7-2. That's as much of an indictment of what's been a very lackluster offense to this point.

A few seasons ago, Reds pitching depth was so thin that the club would ride rough stretches out much longer because there was simply no one better to take the ball. The same can't be said this season, especially with a certain Cuban pitcher waiting in the wings 100 miles away.

At Louisville, lefty Aroldis Chapman has a 0.93 ERA through two starts with six hits and 10 strikeouts in 9 2/3 innings. In his last start on Saturday, he eclipsed the 100-mph mark four times. The red flag remains command with five walks, including four in the last outing.

The club is saying little about how long Chapman might continue to smooth the rough edges in the Minors. If he continues to perform better than the Major Leaguers, one has to imagine it would get easier for Jocketty to summon his 22-year-old phenom. Ditto for two other young lefties in the Louisville rotation who are having success early -- Travis Wood and Matt Maloney.

Bailey has a 6.97 ERA through two starts and 10 1/3 innings, but has the benefit of being out of Minor League options. No chance the Reds would expose him to waivers. On the other hand, Cueto has a 5.06 ERA and only 16 innings logged through three starts -- and has all of his options remaining. A demotion or a move to the bullpen would serve as an Arctic splash of water to the face.

Cueto seems to be repeating many of the mistakes from his first two seasons. He's prone to painstakingly long innings, such as the 33-pitch, three-run inning he had vs. Florida on April 12, and another 33-pitch first inning against the Pirates on Saturday. He was out of both games after five innings and more than 100 pitches.

Much of the Reds' hopes for success were tied to a turnaround for their ace, Harang, who lost 32 games over the last two seasons. Through three starts, Harang is 0-2 with a 7.88 ERA. His five home runs allowed tie him with Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter for the NL lead.

Harang is making $12.5 million in the final year of his contract and has a $12.75 million club option for 2011. It becomes a $14 million mutual option if he's traded. Fans clamoring for that to happen should sit tight. It's only 13 games into the season, and the Reds need Harang's arm in order to contend. If they are no longer in the race, the market won't really heat up until closer to the July Trade Deadline.

A series of offseason mechanical adjustments had Harang and Price optimistic that improvement was imminent. Harang's first start was borderline decent, save for two home run balls, and is second outing was sharp. His third start was less than stellar, with eight runs and 10 hits allowed over four innings on Thursday.

"His issues really have nothing to do with balls and strikes," Price said. "He's throwing a lot of strikes. His stuff is good. He's throwing 88-94 mph with his good slider. When push comes to shove, he really was a fastball-slider pitcher with two other really good pitches he really hasn't milked too much to this point. I'm trying to get him to institute his offspeed [pitch]. I think there will be immediate dividends when he does that.

"To get through a Major League lineup four times, you need some different avenues to get guys out. He has the tools to do that."

No one has indicated that changes to any of the starting five are imminent, especially just three times through the rotation.

"This is a short sample," Price said. "To me, this is not a sign of what the season is going to be like for our pitching staff. However, the sooner we get it turned around, the better chance we have to start lumping together some wins and winning the games we should win. Guys are busting their tails. I have no complaints with the effort. However, the results haven't been what we want."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.