The benefits of pitching depth

When a baseball player struggles in spring training, 99-44/100ths of them say, “I’ll be ready when the bell rings.”

Major league dugouts used to actually have bells that rang when it was time for the home team to sprint onto the field to start a game. So a player still says, “I’ll be ready when the first bell rings.”

Unfortunately for the Cincinnati Reds, they’ve already had their bell rung about a week before the season began.

Things were progressing swimmingly for the defending National League Central champions this spring for the first 4-1/2 weeks of camp. Then it began deteriorating — and the deterioration was happening where a baseball team least wants it to happen, the starting pitching.

First, it was Johnny Cueto. Scheduled to be the No. 3 starter, Cueto left two starts earlier than expected. The diagnosis was shoulder inflammation. He’ll start the season on the disabled list and remain in Arizona on a rehabilitation program.

Then it was Bronson Arroyo, a guy who has not only has never been on the DL but has never missed a start. Fortunately for him, missed starts in spring training don’t count. He missed a couple of those because of lingering flu-like symptoms. It was later diagnosed as mononucleosis, known in high school as the kissing disease.

Arroyo was scheduled to pitch the second game of the year. He probably won’t make that start, but he says he’ll be ready to pitch when called upon during the first week of the season, so it won’t count as a missed start, just a delayed one.

Anybody who has had mononucleosis knows how debilitating it can be, how it makes you feel like a slug with no ambition.

Then it was Homer Bailey’s turn. He felt a tweak in his shoulder, an impingement, they called it. They said he could pitch but didn’t want to take any foolish chances. He, too, will start the season on the disabled list.

Suddenly, the once-deep pitching staff has the depth of kiddie swimming pool.

Manager Dusty Baker, always a man who wears the theater mask with the smiley face, nodded his head and said: “I’ve talked all along about our pitching depth, and now it is coming into play. I just hoped it wouldn’t come into play this soon.”

When Cueto abdicated, it was no big problem. Because of the team’s depth, Mike Leake was going to start the season in the bullpen. No problem. The Reds adjusted and plugged him into the rotation in Cueto’s spot.

Then came the Bailey dilemma. Sam LeCure was battling six guys for the final spot in the bullpen. Suddenly, he is thrust into the rotation.

That isn’t a bad option. LeCure is a career starting pitcher and wasn’t a dead fish when the Reds needed him last year in the rotation. His numbers weren’t that good, but it seemed he either ran into the other team’s ace for nearly every start or he turned a lead over to the bullpen and the lead evaporated like spilled Coke Zero on an Arizona patio in mid-August.

Because of the depth, the Reds are not in as precarious a position as the St. Louis Cardinals (who lost Adam Wainwright) or the Milwaukee Brewers (who will begin without Zack Greinke).

But it isn’t pleasant, either, when two guys from your rotation are unable to answer that proverbial bell and have to be replaced by guys who didn’t make the rotation, no matter how good they might be.

Leake started his major league career last spring right off the campus of Arizona State University without spending a day in the minors, and he won his first five decisions.

But the rigors of a long major league season wore him down and the Reds shut him down in August. For most of this spring, Leake was unable to get too many people out on a consistent plane.

LeCure was one of the better pitchers early in camp until he snagged his cleats in one start against the Chicago Cubs in Mesa.

The Cubs lit him up like a cheap pack of firecrackers. At least he kept his sense of humor. When writers saw him after the game, he asked, “Is my butt still out there on the mound?” — meaning the Cubs knocked his butt off.

So now the Reds’ pitching depth gets a quick quiz. And when that mythical bell rings this week, fans will quickly see for whom the bell really tolls.