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Cueto rising through Reds' ranks

Cueto rising through Reds' ranks

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Until this spring, few Reds fans had seen Johnny Cueto pitch in person, and even fewer Reds scribes.

Yet over his past couple of seasons in the Minors, rumblings of Cueto's impressive stuff had spread like snarky gossip on TMZ.com. His name had almost taken on mythical proportions last season, even as Homer Bailey overshadowed most others in the organization.

With Cueto in his first big league camp as a non-roster invitee, the buzz has only increased. Now that his ability has been witnessed in person, it's backed up the talk.

"Sometimes people live up to the hype," manager Dusty Baker said Friday morning. "Most of the time, they don't. But he's kind of exceeded the hype so far."

Cueto made his first spring start in Friday afternoon's 13-8 loss to the Pirates, and succeeded at adding to the hype. The 22-year-old smoothly worked three scoreless innings and allowed one hit with no walks and four strikeouts -- including three in a row.

Just as important, Cueto used all of his pitches and felt very comfortable facing big league hitters. One scout's radar gun had Cueto's fastball mostly at 95 mph, topping out at 97.

"I trust my stuff," the Dominican native Cueto said through catcher and interpreter Javier Valentin. "I do nothing specific to prove something to anybody. I just throw the ball the way I'm used to throwing."

Of Cueto's 35 pitches, 25 were strikes. It was such short work that he threw an additional 15 pitches in the bullpen after his outing.

The tone for Cueto's start was set from the first batter. Pittsburgh leadoff man Nate McLouth was frozen on a changeup called for strike three.

"If he has that kind of changeup, welcome to the big leagues," Valentin said. "He's the next Pedro Martinez."

Valentin wasn't behind the plate when Cueto pitched, but has caught him in batting practice. Valentin, however, has seen what the changeup does to Reds hitters on the practice fields. Cueto's fastball is considered his best pitch. He also throws a slider and two-seam fastball.

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"I'm impressed with his stuff," said Paul Bako, who caught Cueto on Friday and the right-hander's previous relief outing on Sunday. "I'm also impressed with his command and how effortless his delivery seems and how consistent it is. It appears he's never really out of control out there, which is pretty rare for a guy his age with as good of stuff as he has."

Combined at Class A Sarasota, Double-A Chattanooga and Triple-A Louisville in 2007, Cueto was 12-9 with a 3.07 ERA. In 161 1/3 innings, he struck out 170 batters compared to 34 walks.

The Reds have several pitchers competing to fill the back three spots in the rotation this spring. Because he had logged just four Triple-A starts, indications before camp were that Cueto had an outside chance against the likes of Bailey, Matt Belisle, Jeremy Affeldt and Edinson Volquez. The odds appeared even longer once Josh Fogg signed as a free agent late last month.

Not too long, perhaps.

"I've seen a number of pitchers come through Double-A and spend very little time at Triple-A," Baker said. "Talking to a lot of scouts, they said Double-A might be a better competitive league than Triple-A. And he throws strikes. If you throw strikes with good stuff and if you can get your off-speed stuff over, you have a chance to win. Every time he gets hit a little bit, he's got another gear."

Baker's first impression of Cueto in game action came against the Blue Jays on Sunday. The pitcher was hampered by the flu, but worked two perfect innings seemingly effortlessly.

"He could have been skipped and didn't want to skip," Baker said. "I like that. He comes to play. It also means he wants to try and make this team. You can't make it on the bench or training room. I like the young man. He's quiet. He goes about his business. You can tell he's in real good company here. He's already around [closer Francisco] Cordero and Mario Soto."

Generously listed at 5-foot-10 and 183 pounds, Cueto walks taller with confidence. He knows he'll be in the big leagues -- sooner than later. He firmly believes he has a good chance to go north with the Reds when camp breaks at the end of the month.

"That's why we're here," Cueto said.

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

{"content":["spring_training" ] }
{"content":["spring_training" ] }