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Rookie Tony Cingrani Forcing Cincinnati Reds to Reevaluate Starting Rotaton

Ace Johnny Cueto Should Be Activated from the Disabled List Soon; Who Loses Spot in Rotation?

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COMMENTARY | The Cincinnati Reds have been plagued by injuries thus far in the 2013 Major League Baseball season.

They lost Ryan Ludwick (their opening-day cleanup hitter) almost immediately and then watched staff ace Johnny Cueto go down a few games later. They've also suffered injuries to opening-day starting catcher Ryan Hanigan and to Ludwick's backup, Chris Heisey. Finally, although he didn't go on the disabled list, starting shortstop Zack Cozart also suffered an injury a few days ago while trying to bunt.

Remarkably, the Reds haven't skipped much of a beat. Even better, the Reds are about to get their first player back from injury, opening-day starting pitcher Cueto. However, with Cueto's return the Reds will have a major decision to make with their pitching staff.

In Cueto's absence, the Reds' pitching staff has been quite good. In fact, it's been better than good if you go by the "quality starts" metric in which the Reds rank first in all of baseball. While the Reds probably expected Mat Latos to pitch like an ace this year (especially after giving up all the young stars they traded away to the San Diego Padres in exchange for Latos), the Reds undoubtedly did not expect to see the level of big-league hitter mastery that rookie Tony Cingrani has showed through his three major-league starts.

Cingrani has made it almost impossible for the Reds to send him back to the minor leagues. Through his first three starts, he's amassed 28 strikeouts and a 2.25 ERA (along with a miniscule 0.89 WHIP). Even more impressive, he's seemingly getting better as he makes more starts (the latest being against the Washington Nationals when he struck out 11 in a 5-2 Reds win).

With Cingrani's torrid start, he seems virtually impossible to send down to the minor leagues -- which means that one of Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo, or Mike Leake must be moved out of the rotation to make room for Johnny Cueto. Obviously, Latos is safe as he's been pitching like an ace (including a current 17-inning scoreless streak). That leaves either Bronson Arroyo or Mike Leake as the odd man out.

Going into Tuesday's game, Arroyo has 2-2 record with a 4.24 ERA. It's not remarkable, but then neither is Arroyo. Bronson is consistent, however, and Reds manager Dusty Baker has been known to favor consistent veterans over younger players. Thus, all signs point to Mike Leake being the odd man out of the rotation.

Unfortunately, for Leake, he's pitched almost as well as Arroyo this year. Leake has a 4.34 ERA, but he's been much more inconsistent than Arroyo. In his last start against the Washington Nationals, Leake lasted only three innings. His previous two starts prior to that one? Leake threw a total of 14 innings and gave up only two runs. In the end, it's the inconsistency that will probably doom Leake to a demotion.

If Cingrani has, in fact, earned the right to stay in the Reds' rotation, conventional wisdom says Mike Leake will be the casualty of Cingrani's dominance. However, if the Reds are willing to think about the future, they may end up sliding Arroyo to a long relief role and allow Leake the opportunity to continue to hone his craft in the rotation. After all, Leake is only 25 years old and should be a part of the Reds' pitching staff for much longer than Arroyo, who turned 36 in February.

In the end, the Reds have a difficult decision to make, but having six guys who are capable big-league starters is a problem that most teams would love to deal with. Even better, given the rash of injuries that the Reds have suffered thus far in the season, it's entirely conceivable that both Leake and Arroyo will find themselves in the Reds' rotation at some point in the season (no matter which one loses his spot in the near future).

Chris Reed lives in Pennsylvania but has been a Reds follower for about thirty years. He has written extensively about the club for over a decade on various blogs and websites. He founded Nachos Grande, a blog that combines his love of the Reds and that of baseball cards.

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