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Reds searching for better back end

Reds searching for better back end of rotation

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SARASOTA, Fla. -- During the mid-20th century, the Braves' rotation was famously labeled "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain."

One writer once joked that the early 21st century Red Sox had "Pedro and Lowe and pray for snow."

Like those two staffs, the Reds are fortunate to have strength at the top two spots of their rotation in Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo. Both men were among the National League's top pitchers last season and easily surpassed the 200-inning benchmark.

Who comes after that? For now, plenty of question marks. Since there aren't any good weather rhymes that click with "Harang and Arroyo," the Reds would gladly take dependability instead from their other three starters.

"That's three-fifths [of the rotation]," Reds manager Jerry Narron said. "So that's important."

"That's where it all starts, your starting pitching and going out and giving your team a chance to win," Reds starter Kyle Lohse said. "If you get good years out of each one, you'll obviously do some damage and win ballgames."

Lohse and Eric Milton are already locked in to follow Harang and Arroyo. But both pitchers, each a year away from free agency, are far from sure things. They are trying to resuscitate their resumes after some bleak recent seasons.

Signed to a three-year, $25.5 million contract before 2005 to be Cincinnati's No. 1 starter, Milton hasn't come remotely close to having No. 1 starter's results. Two years ago, the lefty struggled with an 8-15 record, a 6.47 ERA and an NL- high 40 homers allowed. The results were somewhat beter last season, when he turned in an 8-8 record and 5.19 ERA.

Milton, 31, had glimmers of positive moments in 2006 but wasn't able to sustain them over the long haul. Following two quality outings in three starts to begin the season, he had surgery on his left knee to repair cartilage damage -- the third procedure on that knee since 2002. In September, a sore elbow required season-ending arthroscopic surgery.

Declaring that he's healthy again, Milton has another shot at turning it around. He threw 201 innings with the Phillies in 2004 and had three straight 200-plus inning seasons with the Twins from 1999-2001.

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"Conceivably, you can get 200 innings out of me and Kyle," Milton said. "That's a best-case scenario. You never know. If you can have three or four guys rack up that amount, it's going to help the whole staff."

Five years ago, Lohse was hailed as one of the many young future stars routinely churned out of the Twins' vibrant farm system. Scouts raved over his stuff and how he used all his pitches well.

The right-hander turned in a 13-win 2002, his first full big-league season, and followed that up with 14 wins and 201 innings pitched in 2003 as a third starter. Both were playoff seasons for Minnesota.

Lohse had back-to-back 9-13 seasons in 2004-05, including a 5.34 ERA in a miserable '04 campaign. A rough start last season and a clash with the coaching staff got him removed from the Twins' rotation and briefly demoted to Triple-A.

On July 31, the Reds took a chance and sent a Minor League pitcher to Minnesota to get Lohse. The 28-year-old then went 3-5 with a 4.57 ERA over 12 games with Cincinnati, including 11 starts. He was 5-10 with a 5.83 ERA combined in 2006.

A strained right hamstring Lohse suffered in Friday's spring debut wasn't expected to be serious, but if the injury lingers, it could affect his readiness to begin the season.

Even though he hasn't been consistently effective for three straight seasons, Lohse's ability still leaves the Reds optimistic.

"Stuff-wise, he's as good as anybody," Narron said. "Just watching him throw on the side; his changeup is outstanding. He can probably get away with throwing fastball-changeup. The big thing for him is getting ahead in the count and just using a few less pitches. They're very effective."

Last season, the rotation's fifth spot was a revolving door among Dave Williams, Elizardo Ramirez, Joe Mays, Justin Germano, Chris Michalak or Sun-Woo Kim. Stability did not reign from that collective group.

"It would have been nice to plug someone in the fifth spot there the last couple of weeks, the last month," Narron said. "We tried to scramble and scratch and get anybody we could."

To intensify competition, Reds general manager Wayne Krivsky added a cornucopia of fifth-starter candidates. Trade acquisition Kirk Saarloos, waiver pickup Bobby Livingston and non-roster invite Victor Santos joined in-house arms such as Matt Belisle and Ramirez. Former ace Paul Wilson, back with a Minor League deal, is also in the mix and has a strong chance. Because of shoulder surgery and rehab complications, Wilson has not pitched in the Majors since May 2005.

The wild card, of course, is top prospect Homer Bailey. The 20-year-old right-hander and his 96-98 mph fastball are expected to begin the season at Triple-A Louisville. A good start, combined with someone faltering at the big-league level, may earn Bailey a quick promotion. A promotion of Bailey could add zest to the starting five, in a similar way that Francisco Liriano and Justin Verlander helped the Twins and Tigers, respectively, last season.

"I think you see the competition Wayne has brought in and you have to be pretty excited," said Lohse, who signed a one-year, $4.2 million contract on Jan. 17. "I feel we have a real good staff. Milton has had some really good years, when he's healthy. I'm planning on being able to step up and give the team a lot of quality innings. Whoever wins that fifth spot will be doing pretty good, because a lot of guys are in competition. They'll be coming off a good spring."

For the Reds to have a real chance, the back three-fifths of the rotation must bolster the top two-fifths with a good summer too. Then praying for wins might not be necessary.

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

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