Reds' fortune rides on bullpen concerns

Gammons: Reds' fortune rides on bullpen

Reds' fortune rides on bullpen concerns
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- It seemed like the right idea, to let Fransisco Cordero go before his impending 37th birthday and sign Ryan Madson to a one-year deal, then trade for and sign Sean Marshall as the compliment. Then Madson felt some elbow problems he thought were minimal, and told Walt Jocketty they were still minimal when the club ordered him to fly to Cincinnati to see Dr. Timothy Kremchek.

Tommy John Surgery. Return after the contract is done.

So, Jocketty admits, "I'm on the phone looking around for some bullpen help" as Dusty Baker tries to do his best mixing and matching (with Nick Masset also temporarily sidelined). "I'm not really sure how it's going to fit," says Baker. He can close with Marshall, and maybe Logan Odrusek or Bill Bray. Or he can even use Aroldis Chapman, whose role will be determined after Thursday's start.

Look, the Reds are hardly the only National League Central team scrambling to lay out a bullpen. Other than the Cards and their wealth of power arms, the other teams are looking around. The Cubs signed Shawn Camp, and are looking. The Brewers have a dominant closer in John Axford with Frankie Rodriguez in front of him, but they would take a left-hander, if available.

But what makes Cincinnati's pitching questions with a week to go in the exhibition season so trying is that the Reds are really good. "We have to get innings out of our starters to protect the bullpen as much as we can, especially with what should be our ability to score runs," Jocketty said, and he and Baker seem at least moderately concerned about the rotation.

They expect Johnny Cueto to pitch well past last season's 156 innings and be a frontpiece. They traded four good prospects to the Padres for Mat Latos and expect him to be a No. 2 starter. Still, there were concerns about Latos and his makeup in San Diego, and privately many around the Padres have expressed concern about how he will take going from Petco Park to the hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark. "He's been great this spring," says Jocketty.

They know who and what Bronson Arroyo represents. In a season in which he was sick and weak for several weeks, he still went out and threw 199 innings, through a 5.07 ERA and 45 gopher balls, without an excuse. But they don't really know how far Mike Leake can push past his 167 2/3 innings or exactly what they will get from Homer Bailey -- whose ERA the last three seasons has been 4.53, 4.46 and 4.43 yet always seems to be capable of much more. And they really don't know what to expect from Chapman, who has refined his delivery, sped up his deliberate pace and wants to start, without any idea how many innings he could endure.

What the Reds also know is that the Cardinals now don't know what they will get from Chris Carpenter, and whether new manager Mike Matheny and pitching coach Derek Lilliquist can force Carp to hold back the way Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan could have. They know the Brewers have to wait and see on Shawn Marcum.

There have been encouraging developments this spring. Scott Rolen, still a giant defensive presence, says his shoulder "feels really good, and I feel as if I have my power back." The Reds need both. Shortstop Zack Cozart, who had Tommy John Surgery last July on his left (non-throwing) elbow, has had a great spring. "He's our most ready player," says Baker, who believes Cozart's 17-homer, 30-steal numbers in Triple-A in 2010 represent what he can be. Rookie catcher Devin Meseroco has shown legitimate power.

That's all important because the core is not only very good, but are usually in the lineup. Brandon (Dat Dude) Phillips is a character; he's also averaged 153 games, 19 homers, 91 runs and 80 RBIs a year the last three seasons.

Trimmer and maturing, Bruce is a star in waiting. He's one of those rare hitters who can take the ball on the outside and drive it out to left and can take the pitch on the inner half and pull it out of the ballpark. The 158 strikeouts and fall to an .814 OPS are part of the growing process for someone who turns 25 on April 3. "He's as good a candidate for a breakout year as anyone in Arizona," says one baseball executive.

Bruce and Votto missed six games between them in 2011, and Votto is the metronome of the franchise. The last three seasons, one of which earned him the MVP, he's averaged 30 homers, 100 RBIs, a .318 average and a .983 OPS. He's had a .923 OPS against lefties and a 1.010 against right-handers. His OPS at home has been .927 and his OPS away from the friendly confines of the Ohio River has been 1.035.

There is a sense of great expectations with these Reds. "It can be good," says Baker. "But we have to pitch. It's that simple."

Peter Gammons is a columnist for and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.