That sound you're hearing may be the Reds organization holding its collective breath every time a pitching prospect takes the mound.
The Reds have made a concerted effort to bring more pitching into a system that hasn't produced much in the way of big league talent on the mound lately. Cincy's big-league pitching staff finished third-to-last in ERA in 2005 with a 5.15 mark, just a shade better than the 5.19 it managed in 2004.
While the effort hasn't been aided much from the Minors, it hasn't been from a lack of trying. The 2003 draft looked like it would supply at least three promising arms. But reliever Ryan Wagner has kind of stalled, while Thomas Pauly and Richie Gardner were both left off the 40-man roster after going under the knife with shoulder problems.
Cincinnati backed that draft up by taking 16 amateur arms in 2004, led by soon-to-be elite prospect Homer Bailey. Five of the Reds' first six picks last year do their work on the mound and all appear to have promising futures. But forgive those watching the organization if they temper expectations based on what's happened in the past.
Five prospects whose names you should know:
Homer Bailey, RHP
Miguel Perez, C
Chris Denorfia, OF
Votto's goal was to reach Double-A in 2005 and he was personally disappointed that his season went the way it did, causing him to spend the year in Sarasota. He struggled at the plate by guessing too much and not having a sound approach at the plate. In his breakout season of 2004, Votto drew 90 walks; last year, he received just 52 bases on balls. He needs to shorten his stroke and rely on his ability to stay back and read pitches. He's the kind of hard worker who could take last year's adversity and use it positively this year, and the Reds hope he does so as he makes the climb to Double-A to start the year. This season will go a long way in determining what kind of prospect Votto truly is.
William Bergolla, SS/2B
Others to watch: Travis Chick, RHP; Phil Dumatrait, LHP; Rafael Gonzalez, RHP; Paul Janish, SS; Tyler Pelland, LHP; B.J. Szymanski, OF
Jesse Gutierrez, 1B
He began the 2005 season with the Lookouts again and was off to a tremendous start (.310 AVG wtih a .530 SLG) when a knee injury ended his season after just 100 at-bats. The 27-year-old headed to winter ball in Mexico to make up for the lost time and finished fourth in the league with 15 homers, driving in 40 runs in 49 games with a .293 average and .576 SLG. A non-roster invitee to big-league camp this spring, Gutierrez will move up to Triple-A, where he'll put himself in line to be a callup during the year if he continues to amass similar numbers.
Primed for breakout
Sam Lecure, RHP: The Longhorns' would-be ace who was academically ineligible in 2005, Lecure shook off the rust in his pro debut with Billings after going in the fourth round. A real competitor with good stuff and polish, he'll jump a level up to Sarasota and could move quickly through the system.
Tyler Pelland, LHP: Still very young, Pelland has Major League stuff and just needs to command it to excel. He'll pitch at age 22 with a year of Class A Advanced ball under his belt. Once he starts harnessing what he's already got, look out.
Chris Dickerson, OF: Dickerson is a five-tool athlete who reached double digits in homers and steals with Sarasota last year. He also slumped badly at the end of the year. A complete season from the center fielder could result in some impressive numbers with Chattanooga.
2005 draft recap
1. Jay Bruce, OF
The No. 12 overall pick impressed the organization with his makeup and mature approach for a high schooler in his debut last summer. Eventually he'll likely be a corner outfielder, but he's shown the ability to play center and the Reds will keep him there for now. He takes good routes and angles to run down balls in the outfield and his arm grades out a tick above average. Bruce can hit with power to all fields. All he needs is experience to learn the nuances of the game and he'll start getting that in Dayton.
2. Travis Wood, LHP
Wood already has one of the, if not the best, changeup in the system. Combine that with a fastball that he can throw to both sides of the plate and run into right-handed hitters and it's no wonder he dominated the Gulf Coast League and Pioneer League in his debut. He does need to work on his breaking ball as well as refining the command of his fastball. His changeup alone would make him able to jump a level, but he'll head to Dayton so he can work on getting his lesser pitches up to snuff.
3. Zach Ward, RHP
After a heavy college workload with Gardner-Webb, Ward didn't pitch last summer. The Reds got a look at him in instructs and he threw well. A power arm in the past, Ward throws a fastball that has reached the mid-90s and a hard slider to complement it. After an offseason, the Reds are eager to see what a refreshed Ward looks like. He'll probably head to Dayton to kick off his pro career.
4. Sam LeCure, RHP
Pitchers who can advance speedily through a system are those who don't create a disadvantage for themselves by falling behind in the count. LeCure is nothing if not a strike-thrower. He uses a fastball, a hard breaking ball and a changeup to get ahead of hitters and keep them off balance. He could move up to Sarasota and if he keeps throwing strikes, he'll stay on the fast track.
5. James Avery, RHP
A polished pitcher out of Niagara, Avery handled himself well when jumped up to Dayton at the end of last year. He's a student of the game and has a good feel for all of his offerings: fastball, changeup and curve. With an offseason of rest, he should have a full tank to start the 2006 season. If he shows enough this spring, he could break with Sarasota.
Best of the rest: RHP Jeff Stevens (6th round) had a 2.98 ERA and struck out 58 in 54 1/3 IP for Billings. ... OF Brandon Roberts (7) was named a Pioneer League All-Star after hitting .318 and stealing 32 bases in 68 games for Billings. ... RHP Bo Lanier (10) had a 3.22 ERA and .213 batting average against across three levels, ending in the FSL. ... SS Adam Rosales (12) hit .325 with 14 HRs and 46 RBIs for Billings and Dayton. ... RHP Abe Woody (31) finished second in the Pioneer League with 14 saves while posting a 2.03 ERA and striking out 38 (walking just five) in 26 2/3 IP for Billings.
Organizational MVP: Injuries have greatly hampered B.J. Szymanski's ability to learn and to advance through the system. But there's no questioning his five-tool potential. In 2006, the Princeton product will avoid the injury bug and provide the Reds organization with a 20-20 player.
Cy on the farm: There's little doubt that Bailey will take off in 2006 and could end up as the top pitching prospect when all is said and done. But just to be different, it says here that Phil Dumatrait, another year removed from Tommy John surgery, will find command and dominate the International League, leading to a callup to Cincy at some point this season.
Team to watch: Sarasota should be buzzing. An offense led by Szymanski, shortstop Adam Rosales and first baseman Tonys Gutierrez should provide enough runs for a stellar pitching staff that could include top prospect Bailey, 2005 draftees LeCure and Avery as well as an intriguing arm in Rafael Gonzalez.
K corner: Unusual pitcher of the year pick aside, the wraps will come off of Bailey in 2006, enabling him to lead the Minor Leagues in strikeouts.
Tim Naehring, Director of Player Development
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.