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02/03/09 4:45 PM EST

Reds rotation could make difference

Front office places faith in front four, depth of organization

CINCINNATI -- The Reds have been trying to alter their identity from a power-hitting, homer-bashing team to a team that will go as far as pitching and defense will take it.

"Championship clubs are built around pitching and good defense," Reds general manager Walt Jocketty said.

While upgrades have been made to the defense and a modification was done in the bullpen, the area most vital to the pitching-and-defense motif -- the rotation -- was not touched at all.

Aaron Harang, Edinson Volquez, Bronson Arroyo and Johnny Cueto are already locked in. Micah Owings, Homer Bailey, Daryl Thompson, Ramon Ramirez and Matt Maloney are all fifth-starter possibilities. All were with the organization at last season's end.

"I like our pitching depth a lot," Jocketty said. "I like the status of our rotation from spots one through four. Then we have four or five candidates for the fifth spot. I know we'll have a quality guy there."

The Reds' rotation finished 2008 tied for 13th in the National League with a 4.97 ERA. Its 133 home runs allowed were second most in the league and the starting five worked just two complete games.

On the positive side, there is optimism that the two-time 16-game winning Harang will rebound following a 6-17 season. Arroyo is coming off a career-best 15-win season. And Volquez was a breakout sensation and All-Star who was 17-6 with a 3.12 ERA and 206 strikeouts over 196 innings.

The X-factor is youth, and the Reds are pinning much of their rotation's hopes on young pitching. Volquez is 25, Cueto will soon be 23 and the average age of the fifth-starter candidates is 24.

It remains to be seen if Volquez and Cueto can keep growing to another level like Johan Santana or Justin Verlander did earlier this decade or regress like Rich Hill or Jeremy Bonderman did after breakout seasons.

Of course, pitching and defense can be exposed when playing half the games at homer-happy Great American Ball Park. Reds starters have to really keep the ball inside the park at home and remember there are also 81 games on the road.

If sound starting pitching is a big key to the Reds' chances for success, how will it match up vs. the rest of the National League Central? Considering that Cincinnati will play within its division in 80 of the 162 games on the schedule, it will be one of the important factors in handicapping the race.

Reds vs. Cubs:

The Cubs, the defending NL Central champs, also had the league's lowest rotation ERA. Chicago has ace Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly, Rich Harden and a fifth-spot battle between Aaron Heilman, Sean Marshall, Chad Gaudin and Jeff Samardzija. The Cubs' top three starters are generally solid bets for 200 innings per season.

This likely fearsome five-some does have some chinks in the armor, however. Zambrano dealt with rotator cuff issues down the stretch and fell short of 200 innings for the first time since becoming a full-time starter in 2003. Dempster, a reliever turned starter that has an elbow injury history, threw over 3,400 pitches last season in his first full rotation year. It will be interesting to see if he can repeat his totals of 17 wins and 206 innings after signing a new four-year, $52 million contract. Harden hasn't come close to 200 innings since 2004 and has a bad shoulder. Injuries can't be assumed, however, and Lilly is about as dependable as they come. Add it up and this is a no-brainer: Advantage, Cubs.

Reds vs. Brewers

Milwaukee owned the NL's second-lowest rotation ERA but has likely lost its two-best starters to free agency in CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets. This year's starting five projects to be Yovani Gallardo, Dave Bush, Jeff Suppan, lone lefty Manny Parra and Seth McClung. Gallardo, the projected ace, missed most of last season with a torn ACL in his knee. The other four are middle-of-the-road starters, at best.

Depth is a big issue, and Brewers GM Doug Melvin recently admitted his club is "thin when it comes to starting pitching." New manager Ken Macha said the team would be counting on Gallardo, who soon turns 23, and Parra, 26, to step forward in their development. Advantage, Reds.

Reds vs. Cardinals

The Cardinals' medical staff will be under as much pressure as the starters will. Former ace Chris Carpenter missed most of 2007 and 2008 after having Tommy John ligament transplant surgery on his right elbow. Defacto ace Adam Wainwright missed 11 weeks last season with a finger injury. The other three starters are Kyle Lohse, Todd Wellemeyer and Joel Pineiro.

The key could be Lohse, who didn't sign with St. Louis last year until late in Spring Training but won 15 games and reached 200 innings for the first time since 2003. The Cardinals rewarded him with a four-year, $41 million deal and hope 2008 was a break from the lackluster track record he established with the Twins and Reds in prior years. Advantage, Reds

Reds vs. Astros

It's basically Roy Oswalt and the other four, but that's still a handful for a Cincinnati club that was 3-12 vs. Houston last year -- including 0-6 at home. Oswalt alone is 23-1 with a 2.47 ERA lifetime vs. the Reds.

Mike Hampton, Wandy Rodriguez, Brian Moehler and Brandon Backe will form the rest of the Houston rotation. The Astros benefit from having a largely veteran staff but have a real wild card in Hampton -- who has an injury log longer than the average line for the rest room. Rodriguez and Moehler have the ability to be dependable, but it's Oswalt alone who still makes this comparison. Advantage, Astros.

Reds vs. Pirates

The only starter with a spot fully assured is lefty Paul Maholm, who became the Pirates' breakout ace in 2008. Maholm was 9-9 with a 3.71 ERA and established career highs in innings pitched (206 1/3), strikeouts (139) and starts (31). Pittsburgh rewarded him with a new three-year, $14.5 million contract last week.

Zach Duke and Ian Snell have faded after high hopes a few years ago, but the Pirates are hoping to get a return from Jeff Karstens and Ross Ohlendorf -- two starters acquired from the Yankees in the Xavier Nady-Damaso Marte trade last July. Advantage, Reds.

Any Reds hopes of ending a streak of eight-straight losing seasons will be tied to how well they play and pitch against their division rivals. In 2008 vs. the NL Central, Cincinnati was just 31-47. For that record -- and the overall mark -- to improve, it will be up to the rotation to show that the front office was right by not making any serious offseason upgrades.

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