Plugging a Leak(e): Rookie Pitcher Keeps the Reds’ Season Afloat.

Leake has seamlessly made the transition from college to the pros--and the Reds are benefiting in a big way.

Coming into Spring Training it was Aroldis Chapman, not Mike Leake, who was receiving all the attention in the Cincinnati Reds camp. The Cuban flamethrowers triple digit fastballs easily overshadowed the quiet consistency of the rookie out of Arizona State University. Yet, a quarter of the way through the season, Chapman is still toiling in Triple-A while Leake is doing is best to keep Jason Heyward from running away with the rookie of the year award—not to mention helping the Reds soar to first place in the NL Central.  

The 22-year-old right hander is among a small group of hurlers who went straight to the majors without ever having thrown a pitch in the minor leagues (including such household names as Darren Dreifort, Tim Conroy and David Clyde) and Leake is making it look easy. In eight starts on the year, Leake is 4-0 with a 2.70 ERA and 42 strikeouts against 22 walks, and has flashed more control with each passing start. Leake’s makeup on the mound and pitching repertoire reminds many of Greg Maddux and the Reds can only hope that their young star has the same kind of career as the “Mad Dog”. Leake also shares another similarity with Greg Maddux—he handles himself at the plate with aplomb (.353 in his first 23 at-bats).

Though most pitchers not named Tim Lincecum struggle initially in the major leagues, Leake has been able to thrive in spite of his size (5’10”) and less than stellar stuff (topping out in the low 90’s). Leake explains his quick success in the major leagues:  

“It’s tough for me to get intimidated. I’m more of a self-competitor rather than competing against people. For example, people worry about or ask questions about who you’re facing. Say it’s Pujols — I’m not really worried about facing him. I’m worried about hitting the glove.”

Cincinnati is 26-20 after a loss to Pittsburgh on Tuesday night but still sit atop their division despite a slow start and inconsistent pitching outside of Leake. The Reds have built a strong nucleus to contend with St. Louis and Chicago for the next half decade, but few expected Cincinnati to be in contention this soon.

Of course, few expected Leake to become the team’s de facto ace less than a year after graduating from college…but that’s exactly what happened.

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The Hunt for Reds in October: Is Cincinnati Ready to Join the Playoff Party?

Joey "the Canadian Crusher" Votto is the centerpiece of a talented Reds' lineup.

Despite having the endearingly clueless (unless of course you invested heavily in Mark Prior or Kerry Wood rookie cards) Dusty Baker at the helm, Cincinnati’s strong finish to last season convinced many that the Reds were ready to take a step forward and compete for the NL Central in 2010.  

The team went a combined 20-11 in September and October and enjoyed a strong season against their divisional rivals (46-34). Led by a stable of quality young arms and homegrown talent in the field, the Reds have been a chic pick by baseball pundits this Spring to sneak into the postseason. But, does the team have enough weapons to compete with St. Louis and Chicago and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2000? Let’s take a closer look at everyone’s favorite Cinderella for 2010, starting with their pitching:   

Although phenom Aroldis Chapman probably won’t see significant major league action in 2010, the Reds still boast a strong starting rotation of established arms and up and coming stars—the team finished 7th in the NL with a 4.18 cumulative ERA last season. Veterans Bronson Arroyo (15-13, 3.84 ERA) and Aaron Harang (6-14, 4.21 ERA) mentor a terrific triumvirate of young arms consisting of Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto and Edison Volquez. All three have shown the potential to be staff aces but have struggled with inconsistency and injuries; they’ll need to step up this season if the Reds want to match the duo of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright in St. Louis.  

Johnny Cueto has all the makings of an ace, and the Reds need him to perform at a high level in 2010.

Cincinnati’s bullpen is rock solid, with All-Star closer Francisco Cordero (39 saves, 2.16 ERA) and specialists like the ageless Arthur Rhodes (1-1, 2.53 ERA) and Nick Masset (5-1, 2.37 ERA) ready to put the game on ice. If their relief corps can continue to perform at a high level and Volquez, Bailey and Cueto live up to their potential, the Reds should have the pitching to compete with just about anybody. Can their offense keep up?  

Calling Cincinnati’s 2009 lineup pedestrian would be an insult to pedestrians. Their anemic offense finished 15th in average, 11th in runs, 15th in OBP, 13th in slugging and 13th in OPS out of 16 NL teams, and was a major reason why the Reds were outscored by 50 runs last year. Their lineup certainly isn’t devoid of talent, but Cincinnati will need more production from top-to-bottom this year in order to support the starting rotation.  

A full season of Joey Votto (.322-25 HR-84 RBI’s in 469 AB’s) should help the offense, as will steady vets Brandon Phillips (.276-20-98-25 SB) and Scott Rolen (.305-11-67), but young players like Jay Bruce (.223-23-58) and Drew Stubbs (.267-8-15-10 SB) need to stay healthy and live up to their potential if Cincinnati is going to take a step forward in the National League. Question marks also remain at shortstop (rookie Drew Sutton), catcher (an aging Ramon Hernandez) and leftfield (some combination of Wladimir Balentien and Jonny Gomes); those three positions will go along way in determining the Reds’ success or failure.  

There’s a lot to like about Cincinnati heading into 2010. They have a solid young nucleus of pitchers and bats and have done an amazing job of creating quality major league players through their farm system. The Reds have burgeoning flamethrowers in Homer Bailey and Edison Volquez and potential MVP candidates in Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, but they still need more time to develop and more firepower to compete with St. Louis and Chicago in the talented and balanced NL Central. Cincinnati has a chance to finish above the .500 mark for the first time in ten years, and should use the momentum heading into 2011, because it’s unlikely that the Reds will make the playoffs this season; not with the depth of their division.

Cinderella’s slipper doesn’t quite fit Cincinnati…at least not this year.