Handicapping the Opening Day starter race

"If they ask me, I won't turn it down. But if they said they were on the fence between me and someone else, I'd say, 'Do whatever you want.'" -- Bronson Arroyo, 2/16/11

Bronson Arroyo is a company man. Last year, he deferred to Aaron Harang. This year, he's taking it as it comes. Or maybe he actually just don't care. About anything. That's pretty cool, right? Given the early buzz around Arroyo, his historical #2 status to five-time Opening Day heavyweight champion Harang and Dusty's alleged preference for tenure in his Opening Day starters, Arroyo has to be the early favorite to take the mound on Cincinnati's sacred baseball holiday.

But maybe he won't. The Reds have had a tendency in the past to put a little too much weight on spring performance. So if another member of the rotation is throwing well, appears to be in a better "best shape of his life" and is well-rested going into March 31, the fella could pull off a March surprise.

Let's take a look at what  factors may influence the final decision. For my purposes, I'm only considering Arroyo, Cueto, Volquez and - with a very outside, dark horse chance - Travis Wood.

The Brewers' lineup

Prince Fielder is a lefty in the heart of the Milwaukee order. But Braun, Hart and Weeks are all righties. So handedness doesn't really narrow it down much, depending on whether you think Travis Wood is actually in the running. Dusty has been know to place importance on match-ups when filling out his lineup card, without necessarily worrying that a 4.000 SLG pct was the result of a single plate appearance or clerical error.

Bronson Arroyo faced the Brewers once last season, going 8 innings, with 5 Ks, giving up 1 BB, 3 hits and 3 ER. Arroyo has fared pretty well historically against current Brewers, though like nearly ever other Reds pitcher, has had difficulty with Prince Fielder, who's posted a 250/.341/.556 line in 44 PAs lifetime.

Johnny Cueto struggled mightily against the Brewers last season, starting 3 games and yielding a 6.28 ER, 1.74 WHIP and .905 OPS against. Historically, Fielder (.350/.425/.800, 2HR) and Hart (.286/.348/.714, 3 HR) both have his number. On a strictly match-up basis, Cueto should sit out this series entirely.

Edinson Volquez did reasonably well in two starts against the Brewers in 2010: 3.86 ERA, 1.46 WHIP and 9 K. Hart (.308/.333/.769) and Braun (.333/.444/.400) have both hit the Wagon well in the past, though the sample is smaller against Volquez than Arroyo or Cueto.

Travis Wood performed the best against last season's edition of the Brewers, starting twice and notching 12 Ks against 2 BB in 11.1 IP, good for a .195/.250/.317 line against.

Advantage: Travis Wood. He's the best performer against the current slate of Brewers' hitters. But this is only predictive to the extent that Dusty is going to weigh this in his decision. Given the smallness of sample size and the relative pointlessness of using match-ups for a competitive edge on one game in a regular season series, he'd be well-advised to largely ignore them, which brings us to:

Dusty's predilections

Apart from match-ups,  Dusty also has shown a preference for sticking to identifiable player roles. The role of Opening Day starter has gone to Aaron Harang in each of Baker's three years in Cincinati. Dusty's willingness to stick with Harang (one love), even in '09 and '10 when he was decidedly not the "best' pitcher in the rotation, points to an emphasis on veteran leadership and tradition. But an Arroyo pick is not strictly a function of veteran bias: Bronson was the team's best or second-best starter over a full season last year. His win totals also look good to a traditionalist. Arroyo has racked up 47 of them during Dusty's time in Cincinnati. It's  far from clear that wins are much of a factor though: Harang started OD after 6-17 and 6-14 seasons.

Advantage: Bronson Arroyo. He has the perfect admixture of status on the team and recent performance, both in counting and rate stats. Might win some points for being so submissive too.

Anointing a #1 starter

During the regular season, the push to identify an "ace" is somewhat arbitrary, considering that any attempt to consistently match up #1s with opposing teams is futile. Still, it's easy to do in the Opening Series and, as a symbolic move, signals that whoever takes the ball is the teams trusted stopper. If Zach Greinke is going to be the counterpart, better just go ahead and put the best talent on the hill.

Edinson Volquez was the ace in '08 - and Dusty's willingness to slot him first in the '10 Divisional series against the Phillies evinced faith in his ability to put out the lights. Johnny Cueto profiled as the team's ace for much of last year, with a Arroyo a close second, the latter contributing some critical performances to staunch losing streaks. Travis Wood was arguably the ace for the second half of 2010, complete with her near-perfect performance against the Phillies, though his name continues to crop up as a merely a contender for one of the final two spots in the rotation.

Advantage: Johnny Cueto. His extension suggests the organization believes in his ability to pitch at the top of the rotation. Given his statistical parity with Arroyo over least season, youth and peripherals break the tie. The importance of Arroyo's durability and Volquez's upside make this close to a toss-up. Travis Wood is certainly capable of pitching like an ace, but it's doubtful he'll take on the mantle yet - at least not for another half-season.

My odds for Opening Day starter selection:

These could change as the spring wears on. Dusty, of course, has an Alan Greenspan-like ability to influence this market. So, don't place your bets. It's probably illegal.

Bronson Arroyo: 2-1

Johnny Cueto: 4-1

Edinson Volquez: 6-1

Travis Wood: 12-1

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