Cueto making case for rotation spot

Cueto making case for rotation spot

SARASOTA, Fla. -- As the puzzle that is the Reds' rotation comes together, it's become clear that prospect Johnny Cueto is a better fit than veteran Jeremy Affeldt.

Another solid outing in the Reds' 5-3 win over the Tigers Monday put Cueto another step closer to going north with the team when camp breaks. The 21-year-old right-hander didn't have it so easy vs. Detroit, but proved another important point: he can handle adversity.

Cueto gave up two earned runs and two hits with three walks and four strikeouts in four innings. In the first inning, Detroit and its nearly regular lineup started off with back-to-back blooped singles. With one out, Cueto walked consecutive batters, including Miguel Cabrera with the bases loaded. Another run crossed on Jacque Jones' groundout, but Cueto had limited the damage.

"It's not like he's pitching against some slouches over there," manager Dusty Baker said. "That's a heck of a lineup over there. Today was going to be a big test for him, and he's passed this test today like he's passed all the others."

Although Cueto went into a full count against pitcher Kenny Rogers, he retired eight in a row and 11 of his last 12 batters. He threw 74 pitches overall, 44 for strikes.

"I felt good," Cueto said through interpreting teammate Javier Valentin. "I went to the next inning trying to be more aggressive and tried to challenge some hitters."

At times, especially early, Cueto seemed to pace about the mound more often than in his previous outings where he seemed to pump strike after strike in rapid procession.

"Once he got settled in, he started making pitches like he's capable of," catcher Paul Bako said. "He made it a lot easier on himself. You could see him kind of doing some mannerism stuff. He was kind of out of whack with his mechanics. Once he figured that out, he was fine."

"He seemed unfazed," Baker said. "You know he was bothered by it. He handled it like a veteran. He demonstrated damage control after they blooped a couple of balls in there. We were hoping he'd go deeper in the game. When you don't have your real good stuff, you keep your team in the game until we can score some runs."

Through four games, including two starts, Cueto has a 2.08 ERA over 13 innings. He's walked four and struck out 12, and has had scouts and opponents buzzing around the Grapefruit League.

"That's one of the best-looking young pitchers I've seen all spring," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "That's some of the best crude stuff I've seen all spring. I don't know anything about him, but he's got talent. He's good. He's very impressive."

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Leyland and Baker spoke before the game and Baker got some insight to how his counterpart handled bringing along young pitchers. Last season, Cueto started at high Class A but got a taste of Triple-A with four starts before finishing at Double-A.

"I was talking to [Leyland] before the game about what happened with him and [Joel] Zumaya and [Justin] Verlander," Baker said. "These guys came out of A ball. Sometimes you go with your talent, especially if you haven't been winning with the same stuff you've been using."

Baker has all but said that Cueto will begin the season in his rotation, but hasn't made it official.

"I don't want to squelch other guys and I don't want him to think he's got it made yet," Baker said. "I don't think he's that kind of young man, but I want to keep pushing him and keep him rolling."

Just before Monday's game, Baker told Affeldt he was out of contention for the starting five. The left-hander will work out of the bullpen this season.

Affeldt was 0-2 with an 11.57 ERA in four starts, totaling 11 2/3 innings. Over his last two starts, he gave up 13 earned runs on 15 hits.

The Reds signed Affeldt as a free agent to a one-year, $3 million contract with the promise he'd get a shot at the rotation. The former Rockies reliever was 4-3 with a 3.51 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 75 games last season.

"He wishes he had a little longer time [to compete] but he knows what to do in the 'pen and he's been successful in the 'pen," Baker said. "Time is running out as far as us getting him deep into the ballgame. Two or three times around we've seen he's had difficulty with it."

If Cueto makes the team, that leaves four pitchers fighting for the two remaining rotation spots -- Josh Fogg, Matt Belisle, Homer Bailey and Edinson Volquez. Fogg is starting on Tuesday vs. the Pirates in place of Affeldt, who was originally scheduled. It will obviously be a pivotal start for Fogg.

Belisle nor Bailey have distinguished themselves this spring. Volquez, who has a 3.46 ERA, with 19 strikeouts to three walks in his four games, seems to have the inside track for one of the spots.

"Cueto and Volquez haven't earned a spot yet," Baker asserted. "I think they've painted a pretty good picture. We'll let you know when it happens."

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