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Pitch efficiency, control vital for young starters

Prospects Stephenson, Reed among several candidates to fill three rotation spots
MLB.com @m_sheldon

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- When the Reds traded veteran starters Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake last summer, following the previous winter's dealing of Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon, it signaled the rotation's full immersion in the youth movement.

A large handful of young pitchers are contending for three spots behind second-year right-handers Anthony DeSclafani and Raisel Iglesias. Most of them have little to no big league experience. As the competition wages throughout camp, what are the Reds' decision-makers like manager Bryan Price looking for in terms of pitcher type or profile?

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- When the Reds traded veteran starters Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake last summer, following the previous winter's dealing of Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon, it signaled the rotation's full immersion in the youth movement.

A large handful of young pitchers are contending for three spots behind second-year right-handers Anthony DeSclafani and Raisel Iglesias. Most of them have little to no big league experience. As the competition wages throughout camp, what are the Reds' decision-makers like manager Bryan Price looking for in terms of pitcher type or profile?

Reds' Spring Training info

"Under general rules, they're typically guys that have three pitches they can throw over the plate," Price said Monday. "It gives them an opportunity to be strong against left-handed and right-handed hitting. You know if they're deficient against one or the other, the opponent is going to load up against your starters."

Having an overpowering fastball certainly doesn't hurt, nor does a changeup that adds to the deception. But how a young pitcher navigates his way through a game could be very critical.

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"I think what Bryan wants and what we want are guys who are pitch efficient," Reds general manager Dick Williams said. "Guys who work on the plate, keep the pace of the game moving and make the hitters beat our defense. The winners of the Spring Training battle will be guys efficient with their pitches and exhibit good control. That will win out over arm strength every time for us."

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Following Leake's trade, the Reds turned the final 64 starts of 2015 to rookie pitchers. It was often a struggle that went beyond the team's 20-44 record and rotation's National League-high 5.46 ERA in that stretch of games.

From July 29 to the end of the season, Reds starters ranked 13th in the NL in innings but tied for sixth in pitches thrown, eighth in walks and fourth in hits allowed. Before rosters expanded in September, Price often carried an eight-man bullpen to protect his relievers from overuse and did not rule out doing likewise to open the season.

There are no pitchers like Cueto or Bronson Arroyo, with a long track record of durability and deep outings. The Reds can ill-afford a streak of shorter starts that would put the bullpen in dire straits.

"We really struggled with the consistency that we'd grown accustomed to over the previous four or five seasons, as far as the reliability of the starting pitchers eating the innings there, especially in the second half of the season," Price said. "We need those guys that are strike throwers that compete in the zone, that have a pitcher mix that will allow them to manage a lineup and turn it over three times to get us in a situation where we can do some matchups late in the game. If you're behind early and often, beating up your bullpen, that's just not going to work."

Veteran Homer Bailey isn't expected back from Tommy John surgery rehab until May. Younger lefty John Lamb is behind schedule after offseason back surgery and not due to be ready until mid-April. The three open spots will be decided among Michael Lorenzen, Jon Moscot, Brandon Finnegan, Cody Reed, Robert Stephenson, Jonathan Sanchez and Tim Melville.

Video: Top Prospects: Cody Reed, LHP, Reds

Of that group, the right-handed Stephenson and the left-handed Reed were ranked as Top 100 Prospects by MLBPipeline last month. Neither has pitched in the Majors, with Reed also lacking any time in Triple-A, but both will get good looks by the rebuilding Reds in their bids to make the team out of camp.

"Once Spring Training starts, nobody on this field knows what your prospect ranking is," Williams said. "We don't internally think about it that way. The question about young guys is: We like to let the play on the field tell us what we need to know. We saw it with Leake [in 2010]. At the beginning of spring, would you have said this guy is ready for the big leagues? There are guys who defy convention. Hopefully we will be blessed with a bunch of them."

Both Stephenson and Reed have power arms and are strikeout pitchers. Stephenson led the organization with 140 strikeouts last season. Reed, acquired in the Cueto deal with the Royals, racked up 144 strikeouts combined in Class A and Double-A. They also placed a premium on trying to be more pitch efficient last year.

"You don't want to throw five pitches to every hitter," Reed said. "You want to maintain your pitch count but the strikeouts just came. The quick at-bats help. I threw my pitches for strikes, got ahead in the count a lot and just was able to make pitches to get swings and misses."

"I had coaches tell me over and over that I didn't have to give full effort on every single pitch or to strike everybody out," Stephenson said. "When I had two strikes, I always wanted to put somebody away. It's more important to me now to go deeper in the game and help my team win a game. You hear it once, you hear it twice, then, and finally you say 'OK, maybe I should try to listen to this.'"

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Mark My Word, follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon and Facebook and listen to his podcast.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Cincinnati Reds, Homer Bailey, Anthony DeSclafani, Brandon Finnegan, Raisel Iglesias, John Lamb, Michael Lorenzen, Tim Melville, Jon Moscot, Cody Reed, Robert Stephenson