COMMENTARY | Dominant starting pitching is the most valuable asset a team can have. For those teams whose market restricts them from buying it for top dollar on the open market on a regular basis, the most viable option for them is to acquire dominant young starting pitching and develop it.
For this reason, the Cincinnati Reds should have only one untouchable player heading into the heat of the hot stove season, and that is power pitching prospect Robert Stephenson, who has been anointed the No. 1 prospect in the Reds' organization by Baseball America, besting even speedster Billy Hamilton.
Starting Pitching Is Job One
The importance of starting pitching makes all of the current starters with more than one year left under Reds control virtually untouchable because -- without capable starters -- the landscape of Reds Country will look more like it did pre-2010 than it does now.
The Reds will be relying on Stephenson in the future beginning in 2015 when he will be expected to join a last-chance rotation that features pitchers in their final year under Reds control: Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos and Mike Leake. The Reds will also have Tony Cingrani for that rotation, which may very well be the Reds' best shot for a World Series bid for some years afterward until the rotation can be rebuilt to that level.
Having Cingrani and Stephenson will provide the nucleus for that rotation of the future, provided, of course, that Stephenson continues to develop and eventually pan out.
Minor League Dominance
After dominating both low- and high-A ball in 2013, Stephenson faltered somewhat in four starts at Double-A, mainly because of command (13 walks in less than 17 innings). Stephenson should start the season at Double-A before joining Triple-A Louisville by midseason.
If Stephenson can resume his track of dominance and sustain that beyond the 114 innings he pitched in 2013, then the upcoming 21-year-old may see the kind of cup of coffee that extends to a postseason roster spot. If not, Stephenson will have to be ready to crack the big team's rotation in 2015.
Either way, Stephenson should be the only untouchable player currently in the team's minor league system.
Last year, there was another starting pitcher who was deemed nearly untouchable: Daniel Corcino. Unfortunatelym for the Reds and Corcino (as described in the article linked in the opening paragraph), the wheels absolutely fell off for Corcino in 2013.
Once heralded as the second-coming of Johnny Cueto, Corcino now doesn't even look like he's a better big league starting pitching prospect than Carols Contreras. Corcino posted a 3.01 ERA in 26 Double-A starts in 2012 then got whacked to the tune of a 5.86 ERA in 129 innings for Triple-A Louisville.
Only 23 years old, Corcino still may have a big league future, but it's clearly looking green around the gills right now.
The Reds have a bumper crop of outfielders who would all be near untouchable in their own right if not for the surplus. Billy Hamilton tops that list and stands to be the Reds' center fielder for the future starting in 2014. He's untouchable if the Reds do not add an experienced center fielder who can hit leadoff with a high on-base percentage.
The Reds also have four other outfielders who could comprise a big part of their future, but who also will be prospects in demand for other teams. Among these, left fielder Donald Lutz is the readiest to play in the majors despite never playing at the Triple-A level (Lutz did have 59 plate appearances in 2013 for the Reds).
The other three could very well be the Reds' starting outfield in 2017: Phillip Ervin, Yorman Rodriguez and Jesse Winker, all of who have tremendous upside and trade value.
The Reds will likely also retain the remainder of their core young players through the 2017 season: Zack Cozart, Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco, which gives the Reds a bright future -- as long as the starting pitching is in place, which is all the more reason why Stephenson is the most untouchable player in the Reds' organization until he proves otherwise.
Robb Hoff has worked as a freelance researcher for ESPN's production and news departments for the past five years. You can read his articles about the Reds here.
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