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FOR MORE than 20 years now the Reds have been waiting for the next Mario Soto. Not since the hard-throwing righthander anchored the rotation in the early- to mid-1980s has the pitching-bereft franchise produced a homegrown ace. Early one morning in spring training, however, as he watched a pair of Reds-bred prospects, Homer Bailey and Johnny Cueto, hum fastballs from adjacent mounds, Soto himself sounded convinced that the wait was over. "They are future aces, two guys you build a team around," said Soto, at 51, a Reds pitching instructor, "but we're not talking about them making an impact two, three years from now. We're talking about now."
Since relocating to Great American Ball Park in 2003, the club has lived by the long ball (Cincinnati and the Yankees are the only teams to hit 200 home runs each of the last three seasons) and whiffed on free-agent pitchers, such as $25 million bust Eric Milton. But Cincinnati's nucleus of young major-league-ready starters—Bailey, 21; Cueto, 22; and righthander Edinson Volquez, 24, (acquired from Texas for outfielder Josh Hamilton)—is the reason the Reds could make the big jump that the Rockies took last year.
Cueto was the biggest revelation in camp. As part of a renewed commitment to international scouting, which was virtually nonexistent for a decade, Cincinnati signed the 5'10" righthander as a free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2004. After blowing through three minor league levels last season, his third as a pro, Cueto quickly became the subject of infomercial-like testimonials in his first big league camp. "The way he throws changeups, with the same arm speed as his 98-mph fastball, it's like Pedro Martinez out there," says catcher Javier Valentin.
Offered Phillies outfielder Geoff Jenkins, after facing Cueto in an exhibition game, "Great poise too. We're going to be hearing from him a lot."
Similar enthusiasm was heaped upon Bailey last year, but after dominating at Triple A Louisville early on, Bailey stumbled through a rocky four months in the majors. He had only one quality start in nine appearances; suffered a pulled hamstring that took 5 to 7 mph off his fastball; and earned a reputation for being aloof in the clubhouse. This year is different, though, say teammates. "Last year he was scared to throw all his pitches," says Valentin. "But the difference is his changeup—he'll throw it anytime now."
How new manager Dusty Baker handles his young hurlers will be closely scrutinized. Criticized as skipper of the Cubs for his overuse of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, Baker also has a reputation for favoring experience over youth; he appears to be committed to Cueto and Volquez—a righty with a mid-90s fastball—in a rotation anchored by veterans Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo. Meanwhile, Bailey could start the season in Louisville, but he'll be in the bigs by the summer.
The bullpen has a new closer, Francisco Cordero, 32, a free agent whom the Reds overpaid in giving him a four-year, $46 million contract in the off-season. Still, he instantly improves a group that blew 28 saves last season.
With the inevitable arrival this summer of two top hitting prospects, rightfielder Jay Bruce and first baseman Joey Votto (box, below), the Reds should also see an improvement in run production. Last year Votto vowed not to watch any Reds games—or even highlights—until he made it to the Show because he wanted to see Great American Ball Park for the first time in person. He hit .294 with 22 home runs and 92 RBIs in 133 games in Louisville, then went 3 for 3 with a home run in his first start in Cincinnati on Sept. 4. "It was great to get my feet wet a bit," says Votto, who hit .321 and slugged .548 during his 24-game stint. "But I'm looking forward to making a regular impact on the team."
For Votto and the rest of the young Reds, that time has come.