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Cueto intending to step up on field, in the clubhouse

Reds looking for right-hander to regain status as rotation ace

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- It's not enough that starting pitcher Johnny Cueto wants this season to be different than last year. Both Cueto and the Reds need it to be.

The 2013 season was an injury-filled mess for Cueto, who was limited to 11 starts and 60 2/3 innings. A strained right lat muscle caused him to exit two starts prematurely and required three separate stints to the disabled list, including one for more than two months.

Cueto, 28, believes the work he put into his offseason at the Reds' academy near his home in the Dominican Republic has put the issue behind him -- hopefully for good.

"I did a lot of training. Now I can come back ready," said Cueto said, who was 5-2 with a 2.82 ERA last season in those 11 starts.

Two seasons ago, Cueto went 19-9 with a 2.78 ERA in a career-high 33 starts and 217 innings. It was the lone 200-plus-inning season in the big leagues. That's what Cueto would like to achieve again in 2014.

"I know I can do it, but I don't know what's going to happen," Cueto said. "I've worked out hard and ... it's crazy."

The ascension of rookie Tony Cingrani last season helped pick up some of the slack from Cueto's injury.

Heading into this season, Cueto delivering a healthy season is even more essential because the healthy 30-start, 200-inning constant of the rotation the past eight seasons -- Bronson Arroyo -- is no longer with the club. Arroyo departed as a free agent and signed with the D-backs last week. Mat Latos, who also stepped up as an ace in Cueto's absence, has started camp with a torn meniscus in his left knee that required surgery and has put behind. Even without those issues, Cueto knows what he has to do.

"I need to have 30 starts, for sure," Cueto said.

Cueto has another incentive for a strong and healthy season. He is entering the final guaranteed season of a four-year, $27 million contract. There is a $10 million club option for 2015 that has an $800,000 buyout.

Before the start of camp, manager Bryan Price, who was Cueto's pitching coach the past four seasons, instructed Cueto to modify his delivery. Price wants Cueto to shorten the extreme twisting motion which turned his back to hitters.

The request wasn't entirely about keeping Cueto healthy, but played a part in the thinking.

"When this over-rotation started back in 2011, it was kind of Luis Tiant, very compact turn and tuck and then come out," Price said. "There are times when he can get away from that. … There are times when he can get so dramatic in the turn, that it creates a more difficult time to repeat the mechanics. He's coming off a lat strain and a history of some shoulder fatigue and things of that nature. We're trying to make it easier for him to repeat the delivery."

Cueto had no problem with making the adjustment.

"Bryan told me to shorten it for my body. I can do it," he said.

There are also adjustments happening off of the field that weren't required, but came of Cueto's own volition.

Since his big league debut in 2008, the Spanish-speaking Cueto has spoken to reporters almost entirely with the aid of a translator -- whether it was a teammate or assistant trainer Tomas Vera. This year, at least with the writers, Cueto wanted to do interviews in English.

"I'm trying to speak English by myself. It's better," Cueto said. "I'm trying to understand."

During a follow-up interview, Cueto did not understand a couple of questions in English and instead of not answering, asked for Vera's assistance.

As the oldest and one of the most tenured members of the rotation, Cueto does not feel a burden to fill Arroyo's leadership shoes.

"That's a normal thing. Everybody is a man here," Cueto said via Vera's translation. "We know what type of job has to be done. I don't feel like I have to step into somebody else's job and tell them what to do. It would be hard for me to do that, just for doing it."

Perhaps, but Price believed just taking the step of trying to communicate in English showed signs of leadership.

"These guys are getting here and they're developing not just as pitchers, but developing as people," Price said. "When these guys are so talented at such a young age, you'll form an opinion of a young person who is a young person. Sometimes, we unfortunately extract that dynamic out of the equation when we're evaluating. That's not fair. In Johnny's case, I think he is absolutely latching on to that role of being in a place of more leadership and just trying to be a bigger part of what's going on here.

"You're exposing yourself when you do something you're not comfortable doing. A willingness to offer up and say, 'I want to do this,' and him to be proactive in that way speaks a lot about that maturity and the type of role he wants to fill for our club, especially now that Bronson is gone."

While Cueto was on the DL last season, Latos stepped up and filled the top-of-the-rotation role. Homer Bailey had another strong season and earned a six-year, $105 million contract that was signed on Wednesday. Mike Leake is coming off of the best season of his career, while Cingrani is now a full-time member of the rotation.

Heading into 2014, Cueto still feels like he is the ace of the staff.

"It's a normal thing for me. I always feel like I am," Cueto said through Vera. "But I have to keep working. If I don't continue working, I won't get to do what I want to do."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for Read his blog, Mark My Word, and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon.
Read More: Cincinnati Reds, Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Homer Bailey, Mat Latos, Tony Cingrani