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Reds loaded with young talent for '08

Reds loaded with young talent for '08

Over the last two seasons, we've seen Arizona's "Baby Backs," Colorado's "Generation Next," and the Los Angeles Dodgers' "Baby Blues" all shock the baseball world by making it to the postseason with a roster dotted with rookies.

We saw similar remarkable success last year with a Cleveland Indians club where several farmhands were unexpectedly propelled to center stage during the pennant drive and playoffs.

Even the World Series champion Boston Red Sox not only featured the American League Rookie of the Year in second baseman Dustin Pedroia, but saw fellow rookie Clay Buchholz pitch a no-hitter in his second big league start.

And we can still recall the 2005 Atlanta Braves, who stunned the masses by rolling to a National League East title with a roster that featured, at one time or another, a mind-boggling total of 18 rookies.

In other words, "young" is in. So who will have the best young'uns in 2008? And more specifically, who can ride that kiddie corps to similar postseason success?

At first glance, no organization seems to be heading into 2008 with the same overwhelming corps of impact rookies coupled with a shot at the postseason that the aforementioned sextet of teams could boast.

But several teams have got a remarkably strong "big three," or even "fabulous four," when it comes to potential early-odds Rookie of the Year candidates who could help propel a shot at sticking around in October.

Of that group, the one that could make the biggest strides might be the Cincinnati Reds, who compete in an up-for-grabs NL Central.

The Reds finished '07 at 72-90, mired in fifth place in a six-team division. But they are in the enviable position of having their top four prospects all very much in the picture to have an impact in Cincinnati at some point in '08. Whether it's enough to overtake, say, the defending division champion Cubs or the increasingly tough Brewers remains the question, but these four guns could make a big difference.

The crown jewel of the system is outfielder Jay Bruce, who was voted No. 1 in MiLB.com's recent Top 50 Prospects package by scouts and fans alike (all four of the Reds prospects mentioned here landed in the Top 50).

Bruce, the club's top pick in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft and the 12th player taken overall that year, combined to hit .319 with 26 homers and 89 RBIs at three levels in '07, finishing the summer hitting .305 at Triple-A Louisville.

It appeared as if the 20-year-old from Texas would get a non-roster invite to Spring Training in Sarasota, Fla., impress the brass and then head back to start the season at Louisville for at least a little while.

That may still be the case, if the Reds decide to give him a little more time to season. However the unexpected January deal of incumbent center fielder Josh Hamilton to Texas for pitchers Edinson Volquez and Danny Ray Herrera suddenly catapulted Bruce very much into the Opening Day picture in Cincinnati.

Technically he comes to camp competing with veteran Ryan Freel, who also saw significant time in center last year, and Norris Hopper, one of the feel-good surprise stories of '07, when he hit .329 for the Reds in 121 games as a 28-year-old rookie.

If Bruce can continue to rake at every level as he's done since 2005, the job is probably his to lose, and he becomes an early-odds favorite for NL Rookie of the Year.

Also looking to make his mark in the lineup in 2008 is Canadian-born first baseman Joey Votto, No. 34 on our list, who comes to camp looking to unseat veteran Scott Hatteberg. Votto, a second-round pick out of high school in Toronto in 2002, followed up a 2006 campaign where he earned Southern League MVP honors by winning International League Rookie of the Year laurels in '07, hitting .294 with 22 homers, 92 RBIs and 17 steals. He then batted .321 with four homers and 17 RBIs in his Major League debut in September. At 24, he's the oldest member of the quartet.

The organization's top two pitching prospects, right-handers Homer Bailey and Johnny Cueto, also both factor prominently in the team's 2008 plans, with Bailey a tick ahead of Cueto.

Bailey, the Reds' No. 1 Draft pick in 2004 out of high school in Texas, landed at No. 9 on MiLB.com's Top 50 overall and No. 4 among pitchers. Boasting the best fastball and best curveball in the organization, he barely retains his rookie status for 2008 after going 4-2 with a 5.76 ERA in nine big league starts last year.

Though he struggled in his early debut, the 21-year-old returned to the mound following a groin strain in September and posted a 3.71 ERA in his last three starts, pretty much earning himself a solid spot in the rotation to open '08.

Cueto has drawn comparisons to a young Pedro Martinez for both his stature (5-foot-10, 190 pounds) and his stuff. He's managed to float somewhere under the radar with all the talk about Bailey, but his No. 47 spot on our Top 50 makes that status a thing of the past. While he will probably start the year at Louisville, most expect him to be in the bigs before long.

The Reds' first signee to their Dominican Academy in 2004, the 21-year-old Cueto posted a 3.33 ERA at advanced Class A Sarasota this past season, then made the jump to Louisville, where he walked two batters in 22 innings while posting a 2.05 ERA in four starts. He throws a low-mid 90s fastball, a changeup and the best slider in the organization, and has great makeup.

The only other organization with more top prospects in our Top 50 was the Tampa Bay Rays with five: third baseman Evan Longoria (2), left-hander David Price (11), right-hander Wade Davis (12), left-hander Jacob McGee (20) and shortstop Reid Brignac (32). And like Cincinnati, all five are right on the cusp of the big leagues, and it would not be a stretch to say that all five could be in Tampa Bay by the end of '08.

So why did we go with Cincinnati over Tampa Bay? Because with all due respect to the Cubs and Brewers, the roadblock in front of the Reds is still less daunting than the teams that the Rays would have to hurdle to make it to the top of the AL East.

Lisa Winston 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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