As the Cincinnati Reds barrel towards their March 31 Opening Day clash with the St. Louis Cardinals at Great American Ball Park, there are very few clouds of uncertainty hovering over their heads (only menacing ice storm clouds). There is no discussion of moving Aroldis Chapman to the starting rotation, there's no 3B battle between an aging Scott Rolen and an emerging Todd Frazier, and with every ounce of ink in Cincinnati having written in Billy Hamilton as the team's CF, there's not really a single position on the field that heads to Goodyear, AZ with a battle set to be waged.
Except one. Someone has to throw the first pitch of the season, and as of now, there's no clear indication as to whom that role will be given.
In many respects, it's an argument akin to the one the Reds faced in the run up to the one game playoff disaster against the Pittsburgh Pirates last year. Having multiple top-flight starters is a good thing, a problem that two decades (or more) of Reds teams would've loved to have faced, but it also presents certain strategic challenges that beget overthinking. In September of 2013, the Reds had to make a conscious decision to start someone who could get them a win without depleting their assets to the point of punting away the National League Division Series (should they have made it); in March/April of 2014, they'll have to decide which pitcher they want under the media microscope as their "#1" while also having the opportunity to use the multiple early off-days as a way to pace the innings-load on some of their prized arms.
Realistically, there are three candidates the Reds will be considering for Opening Day 2014: Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, and Homer Bailey, and from a basic "are they good enough to be considered a #1 pitcher" analysis, the franchise cannot really be wrong by choosing any of the three. Each has proven his mettle over multiple seasons within the organization, and a rudimentary poll of Reds fans would probably find a pretty even split as to whom they believe is the best starting pitcher the franchise can currently boast. (See test run below.)
There are a few issues, though, and that's what makes this choice more than just drawing a name out of a hat. Cueto, who has started each of the last two Opening Day games for the Reds to much success (14 IP, 1 ER, 13 K, 4 BB, 6 H), is coming off an injury-riddled year that saw him fail to make more than three scheduled starts in a row at any point during the season; while he was the choice for the one-game playoff, he clearly wasn't himself, and it's entirely likely that Walt Jocketty & Co. will want to be cautious with Cueto and limit his early season wear and tear. Latos, who paced Reds pitchers in bWAR, fWAR, IP, and ERA+ (among qualified starters) last season, had offseason surgery to remove a bone chip from his pitching elbow, one that caused him pain down the stretch to the point where he was unavailable to pitch in the one-game playoff in Pittsburgh; while there's no indication that Latos has had any complications from his surgery, the rehab time may have thrown off his offseason workout just enough that - coupled with his penchant for slow Aprils - the Reds may want to be patient with his start to the season, too.
To me, that leaves Homer Bailey in the driver's seat to start for the Reds against the Filthy Cards on March 31st. The Reds and Bailey's representatives have been trying to hammer out a long-term extension for their former 1st round pick before he is eligible for free agency after this season, and it's obvious that they want him to be a part of the franchise for years to come. Bailey has improved each of the last two seasons, has a pair of no-hitters under his belt, and is primed for a season where the skills that made him the number one overall pitching prospect in the minors lay waste to the National League the way the Seahawks did to the Broncos. And, of course, he's healthy, which plays into this every bit as much as Bailey's ability to be given the honor. Picking him to start the season not only seems prudent, it also seems like a vote of confidence in him by franchise brass, which never hurts when discussing multi-million dollar contract extensions.
Ultimately, it's one game, and there's little real difference after the season takes shape. There is no prize for starting the first game of the season, and there's no punishment for not being anointed for the part. There's nothing, really, that Mike Leake or Tony Cingrani have done to say they shouldn't be given an equal audition for the part (aside from their respective IP totals, which may encourage Walt to hold them back a bit). In fact, the only real qualification needed to pitch on Opening Day in excess of the simple title of "Major League Baseball Starting Pitcher" is the ability to field hundreds of questions from media members who think it's an ostrich-sized feather in a cap. If Bailey really wants to test free agency for the chance at a big contract from a big market club, being the focus of that spotlight is a pretty solid way to prepare him.
If we're lucky, he may even drop another F-bomb for posterity's sake.