Jeff Brantley and Tom Browning got off the Reds Caravan bus in the snow Saturday morning, walked through a backdoor of the Air Force Museum and started talking baseball.
More specifically, the topic was Cincinnati’s formidable starting rotation.
“The biggest asset this club has is their pitching,” said Brantley, a Reds broadcaster and former relief pitcher. “Sometimes that gets lost in the want to have a new free agent, a new big bopper outfielder, the center field situation, whatever it might be.”
The expected five-man rotation is Johnny Cueto, Matt Latos, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake and Tony Cingrani, all familiar and comfortable names for the Reds fans who gathered in Dayton and later in the day in Hamilton. It is a group approaching its athletic prime. All are between the ages of 24 and 28.
“If they stay healthy, they can be as good as anyone in the big leagues,” Brantley said. “They have the arms to do what they need to do. It’s just a matter of putting points on the board.”
The difference between this year and last is the absence of veteran right-hander Bronson Arroyo. He is a free agent, and it is unlikely the Reds will re-sign him because of the financial cost.
Arroyo didn’t miss starts and pitched a lot of innings. His spot goes to left-hander Cingrani, who was 7-4 last year with a 2.92 ERA in 18 starts. Most of those starts were filling in for Cueto, who was limited to 11 starts because of an injury after a 19-win season in 2012.
“I’m going to assume that Johnny’s going to get himself ready,” said Browning, a member of the Reds Hall of Fame. “Johnny’s a prideful guy. It killed him last year.”
Cueto, Latos and Bailey, who has pitched two no-hitters, are three starters Brantley and Browning say could be No. 1s on a lot of teams and have Cy Young Award potential. But Brantley says not to forget Mike Leake, who won 15 games last year and could have won more with more support.
“I give the guy a lot of credit,” Brantley said. “He’s not a big, huge guy, but he knows how to pitch. He’s got a little something in his belly that most guys don’t have.”
The other significant change for the starters is that Bryan Price has moved from pitching coach to manager. Price in control brings back the question of whether closer Aroldis Chapman will ever be a starter.
“I think the curve has kind of turned on that,” Brantley said.
The next question is whether Price will ask Chapman to pitch more than one inning and pitch the next day, something former manager Dusty Baker was hesitant to do.
“Part of being a closer is being available every time that the club has a save situation,” Brantley said. “That’s part of your job. Sometimes you’ve got to go out there without your best stuff and get the job done. He has to learn that that’s what’s expected of him. It’s not that he can’t do it, it’s just the expectation. He’s got to expect to do it himself because they’re going to expect it of him.”
The Reds will also welcome back now-healthy set-up men Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton to bridge the gap between the starters and Chapman. Browning doesn’t see a weakness in the staff.
“This is the kind of team that I don’t think would go through a 10-game losing streak,” he said. “The pitching’s too solid. You can win those 1-0 games with this staff.”
The Reds have played in three of the past four postseasons but have not advanced. Browning hopes a bigger step is made this season like happened in 1990 when he pitched for a World Series champion.
“I was a Reds fan before I became a player,” he said. “I pull for these guys, I want them to do well. I think they have a purpose, I think it’s overdue. How cool would it be to be a world champion and host the All-Star Game the next year.”