Although the bullpen has been touted as the biggest strength of the Cincinnati Reds in recent years, the starting rotation has been pretty darn good in their own right. Reds starters tallied the 5th-best ERA among all MLB rotations in 2012 and finished 3rd-best in 2013. This is especially impressive when you consider that ace Johnny Cueto spent majority of last year on the disabled list.
What's in store for the starting five in 2014? On paper, it looks like the staff is primed for another successful year. For starters, the Reds will get a shot in the arm by adding a renewed and healthy Cueto back to the mix. And despite a recent freak injury, Mat Latos should build upon the positive momentum he has built in his first two seasons in Cincinnati, as well.
Homer Bailey continues to make steady improvement as a starting pitcher and could potentially break through as a star as he approaches free agency. Meanwhile, the reliable Mike Leake is back for another go around and should serve as a solid back-end-of-the-rotation option. And after an outstanding rookie showing, Tony Cingrani looks to prove to everyone that his first season in the big leagues wasn't a fluke.
Here's a brief preview of the projected starters for the Reds this season:
Notable Losses: Bronson Arroyo (FA)
Notable Additions: Jeff Francis (FA), Chien-Ming Wang (FA), David Holmberg (Trade)
Johnny Cueto - The Dominican native would soon like to forget what transpired in 2013. Cueto was limited to just 11 starts during the regular season due to persistent ailments and was absolutely humbled in the Wild Card game against the Pirates (3.1 IP, 8 hits, 4 ER). It was a bitter pill to swallow for a man who went 19-9 with a 2.78 ERA and 3.47 K/BB just one season before. Now, at age 28, Cueto is hoping to get his career back on track and return to the pitcher Reds fans came to enjoy from 2010-12.
ESPN Projections: 26 GS, 11 Wins, 3.45 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 115 K, 154 IP
Mat Latos - Latos has been every bit as good as advertised since coming over from the Padres in the Dec. 2011 trade. Last year, he notched 14 wins, a 3.16 ERA, and 187 strikeouts in 210.2 innings pitched. Honestly, his win total should have been more in the 16-18 range, as he ran into some tough luck with run support and the bullpen not holding leads for him. Nevertheless, assuming he doesn't slip and injure his knee again, Latos should post similar numbers in 2014. The 26-year-old has been a workhouse for the Reds and we can only assume that new manager Bryan Price will ride Latos hard again this season.
ESPN Projections: 33 GS, 15 Wins, 3.57 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 191 K, 214 IP
Homer Bailey - Needless to say, no Reds starter has more riding on this campaign than Bailey does. And that could mean big dividends to the club overall. Players on the brink of free agency have historically produced huge numbers in the season leading up to signing big free agent contracts (i.e. Shin-Soo Choo). I expect the same to happen with Bailey. The right-hander has shown steady improvement each and every season since Cincinnati drafted him in 2004. He has certainly come along way since then. Could this be the year the native Texan finally breaks through and becomes a household name?
ESPN Projections: 33 GS, 16 Wins, 3.57 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 187 K, 214 IP
Mike Leake - The Arizona State product is coming off a terrific 2013 season in which he recorded 14 wins and a 3.37 ERA as the No. 5 starter in the rotation. I think any club in Major League Baseball would love to have their fifth start produce numbers like that. Will he be able to replicate that success in 2014? We shall see. In my opinion, Leake doesn't get nearly the credit he deserves, as he is often overshadowed by the other Reds starters. Leake is prone to having a really bad outing from time to time, but one thing we have come to expect from the right-hander is 100 percent effort every time he takes the mound. And that's something that shouldn't be taken for granted.
ESPN Projections: 32 GS, 11 Wins, 4.25 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 124 K, 197 IP
Tony Cingrani - By a show of hands, who honestly foresaw Cingrani having the kind of season he did in 2013? I know I didn't. Of course, it shouldn't be too surprising considering how dominantly he pitched in two seasons in the minors. But the fact that he was so good (2.92 ERA/1.10 WHIP/10.32 SO/9) in 104.2 innings during his rookie campaign took many by surprise. Without his performance filling in for Cueto, the Reds would not have been a playoff team, and that's just simply stating a fact. With the loss of Arroyo to free agency, Cingrani will be expected to pitch just as well in 2014, and I have confidence that he has the capability of doing so.
ESPN Projections: 29 GS, 10 Wins, 3.51 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 157 K, 154 IP
Pitchers we could see later in the season: Francis, Wang, Holmberg, Robert Stephenson, Michael Lorenzen
Group Grade: A-
Final Word: This is in no way a slight to the bullpen, but I firmly believe the strength of the 2014 Reds will be their starting rotation. There may not be a single All-Star appearance between the five, but that's destined to change soon, as the baseball world will soon know how good this collective group can be. The only variable is whether or not each of them can stay healthy. If they can avoid injury, I fully expect them to be among the top rotations, statistically-speaking, for the third straight season.
GIF: Cingrani (via SB Nation)