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Cincy’s Back-of-the-Rotation Smack Down

The first three slots in the Cincinnati Reds’ rotation are set — Johnny Cueto‘s locked up long-term, Bronson Arroyo will keep on strumming Fenders and tossing benders after getting his own contract extension, and Edinson Volquez looks to polish his post-Tommy John stuff in front of paying crowds once his visa situation allows him to do so. But who will fill the fourth and fifth spots for the defending NL Central champs? Here’s a quick rundown of the candidates (listed in alphabetical order), along with their 2011 projections from Oliver, PECOTA and ZiPS.

Homer Bailey

Oliver: 7.2 K/9, 3.6 BB/9, 1 HR/9, 4.61 ERA
PECOTA: 7.2 K/9, 3.8 BB/9, 1.1 HR/9, 4.54 ERA
ZiPS: 7.2 K/9, 3.7 BB/9, 1 HR/9, 4.47 ERA

Bailey, a former top 10 prospect who took some beatings as a 21 and 22 year-old breaking into the majors, made considerable progress on the mound last season. The difference between his 2009 and 2010 ERAs was minuscule — 4.53 in ’09, and 4.46 in ’10 — but his xFIP, based on whiffs, walks and a normalized home run per fly ball rate, improved from 4.58 to 3.91. Bailey upped his K rate from 6.83 per nine to 8.26, and he pared his free passes from 4.13 per nine to 3.3.

That whiff rate may come down some this year — his swinging strike rate last season was just average (8.4 percent), and his contact rate (81.8%) was actually a percentage point above the big league norm. Plus, Bailey does come with durability concerns. He missed nearly three months last season with shoulder inflammation, from late May to mid-August. Out of minor league options, Bailey looks to be the favorite for the fourth rotation spot. Maybe he’ll never be a phenom, but he’s capable of posting an ERA better than the league average if he can avoid further injury woes.

Aroldis Chapman

Oliver (as RP): 9.3 K/9, 5.4 BB/9, 1.1 HR/9, 4.91 ERA
PECOTA: 10.8 K/9, 4.4 BB/9, 0.8 HR/9, 3.36 ERA
ZiPS (split role): 10.6 K/9, 5.8 BB/9, 1 HR/9, 4.00 ERA

By all accounts, Chapman is headed to the bullpen to start the season. As the above projections suggest, the Cuban’s triple-digit heat will elicit lots of late swings; hitters might just want to plaster their bats on their shoulders and hope for ball four. Chapman made 13 starts and 25 relief appearances at AAA Louisville last year, punching out 11.6 per nine while walking nearly five, and then averaged nearly 100 MPH with his fastball out of the Reds pen while throwing the fastest recorded pitch in MLB history.

The 23-year-old lefty won’t figure into the back-of-the-rotation conversation without a change of heart by management, but he’s plenty capable of pushing incumbent closer Francisco Cordero aside. Cordero’s K rate has fallen four years running, a period during which his xFIP has climbed from 2.82 to 4.53.

Mike Leake

Oliver: 6.1 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, 0.9 HR/9, 4.08 ERA
PECOTA: 5.9 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 1.2 HR/9, 4.81 ERA
ZiPS: 5.8 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 1.1 HR/9, 4.34 ERA

The eighth overall pick in the ’09 draft out of Arizona state, Leaked leaped right to the majors and proved to be a quality, if not terribly exciting, starting option. Throwing everything but a Ephus — two-seamers, sliders, curves, cutters, changeups — Leake had 5.92 K/9, 3.19 BB/9, a 50.2% ground ball rate and a 4.31 xFIP. His rookie season did end on a dour note, as he was placed on the DL in late August with shoulder fatigue. Leake didn’t throw another pitch after that, as Cincinnati played it safe and shut him down for the rest of the year.

Leake currently appears to be the sixth man for the Reds, behind Bailey and Wood, and GM Walt Jocketty said in February that Leake could end up in the bullpen rather than going to the minors to keep stretched out if he loses out on a rotation spot. Of course, no team’s one-through-five ends up staying perfectly healthy and productive — Leake is one sore elbow or shoulder away from regular rotation turns. He’s not going to miss many bats, but Leake’s ground ball tendencies aid him in a park where warning track flys often turn into round-trippers.

Sam LeCure

Oliver: 6.6 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 1.3 HR/9, 5.12 ERA
PECOTA: 6.7 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 1.3 HR/9, 4.86 ERA
ZiPS: 6.6 K/9, 3.7 BB/9, 1.3 HR/9, 5.00 ERA

LeCure, a 26-year-old with a four-pitch mix (high-80s fastball, upper-70s slider, low-70s curve, and a low-80s change), faces the longest odds of any pitcher listed here. In 48 MLB innings pitched last year, divided between starting and relief, LeCure had 6.94 K/9, 4.69 BB/9 and a 4.86 xFIP. The former Longhorn has sharper control of his limited stuff than that sample suggests, but his career minor league walk rate of three per nine is more decent than Maddux-esque.

LeCure did generate more grounders last season (54% at AAA, 45.6% with the Reds). Considering that Great American Ballpark increases home run production by 20 percent for left-handed hitters and 33 percent for righties, he’ll need to retain those gains to be much more than replacement-level flotsam.

Matt Maloney

Oliver: 6.4 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, 1.2 HR/9, 4.43 ERA
PECOTA: 6.8 K/9, 2.7 BB/9, 1.2 HR/9, 4.26 ERA
ZiPS: 6.5 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 1.2 HR/9, 4.47 ERA

As a lefty who relies on pinpoint control to compensate for a fastball that needs a strong backwind to reach the upper-80s on the gun, Maloney’s game is the antithesis of Chapman’s pure power. That said, the former Phillies prospect has 7.9 K/9, 2 BB/9, and 0.7 HR/9 in well over 400 innings at the Triple-A level. Maloney has performed adequately in 61.1 MLB innings divided between starting and relief over the past two years, with about six whiffs per nine innings, 1.9 BB/9 and a 4.70 xFIP. On a lot of teams, he’d have a good shot at pulling down a rotation spot. In Cincy, however, he’s a long shot looking to secure a bullpen spot for Opening Day.

All three projection systems have Maloney coughing up ample home runs, and dingers may well be a problem for the fly ball-centric 27-year-old. According to First Inning, Maloney’s ground ball rates have ranged from 40 to 45% at AAA, and he has induced grounders about 35% of the time in the big leagues. Maloney needs his exquisite control to limit multi-run long-ball damage.

Travis Wood

Oliver: 6.9 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, 0.9 HR/9, 3.87 ERA
PECOTA: 6.9 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 1 HR/9, 4.06 ERA
ZiPS: 7.4 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 0.9 HR/9, 3.64 ERA

A lithe left-hander who originally got scouts all hot under the polo shirt collar as high schooler throwing 95 MPH, Wood no longer touches that velocity but nonetheless looks like a good fantasy option poised to win the fifth starter’s gig. After posting rates of 8.9 K/9, 2.2 BB/9 and a 3.23 FIP in an even 100 AAA frames, Wood got the major league call in July. While he averaged about 90 MPH with his gas, Wood’s cutter, change and curve enticed batters to expand their zones — his 32.8 outside swing percentage was well above the 29.3% MLB average. In 102.2 innings with the Reds, Wood struck out 7.54 hitters per nine innings and walked just 2.28 per nine on his way to a 3.51 ERA.

I said that Wood is a good fantasy option, but whether he’s a good value is another question. Wood’s an extreme fly ball pitcher (30.5 GB% in the majors), and his home run per fly ball rate (6.3%) figures to rise. So will his BABIP (.259 last year), though perhaps less than most given those aforementioned flyballing ways (fly balls have a lower BABIP than grounders). If you draft Wood expecting an ERA somewhere in the neighborhood of four, you won’t be disappointed. Get caught up in his near no-no and mid-threes ERA, and you might end up pulling the trigger while better options are still on the board.