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Tim Belcher, Dave Burba, and the Reds rotation ructus that almost was

It’s Saturday...I think.

Dave Burba

The story of elite starting pitching throughout the great history of the Cincinnati Reds is, surprisingly, a quite short one. Despite the city having hosted professional baseball longer than any other on the planet, the Reds themselves still boast nary a single Cy Young Award winner, and have only had a handful of near misses.

Some of that, of course, is due to the CYA not being around until 1956, which means the brilliant exploits of Bucky Walters often get brushed under the rug. Still, the greatest teams the franchise has put together during the modern era of baseball have been bat-first, bat-second, defense-third, and starting pitching-fourth in many instances, with the 1990 Nasty Boys even injecting the importance of a dominant bullpen higher up the order.

Current Reds aside, the quest back to the top since that 1990 club has been felled largely due to an inability to cobble together enough arms to back an otherwise wealth of position-player talent. Pretty much whenever they lucked into some short-spurt brilliance from any of their pitchers, the wins went up on the ledger in a hurry, but those were unfortunately few and far between. Jose Rio, Tom Browning, and the Nasties made it work in ‘90, John Smiley and Pete Schourek had runs in the mid ‘90s, and the early teens showed us what winning could look like thanks to the brilliance of Johhny Cueto backed by Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey, and Mike Leake.

The 2020 season, it appears, is going to far from a run of mill affair. The global coronavirus pandemic has made sure of that, and the question of if we get a season is just as relevant as when at this point. It’s an extremely impactful global crisis, one that is going to cause serious pain and strife across every country on the planet, it would appear. Selfishly, and on an extremely smaller scale of importance in the grand scheme, it seems the 2020 Cincinnati Reds are going to draw a short-straw, too, as they are still fresh off one of the most burgeoning offseasons in team history, one that saw floods of money invested to help back what appears to be, on paper, one of the best starting rotations the club has ever cobbled together.

Reds fans in particular are antsy about an altered season largely due to the events surrounding the last MLB strike, one that canned the 1994 season whilst in-progress and lopped off a handful of games of the 1995 campaign, too. Those two seasons stood at the heart of one of the last great runs this franchise has seen, as the 1994 club sat 66-48 under new manager Davey Johnson at the time of the cessation of play, firmly in 1st place in the infant NL Central and - despite the current cries of Montreal fans worldwide - were hell-bent on repping the senior circuit in the World Series that fall. 1995 saw them pick up where they left off in many ways, as they scooted to an NL Central crown and swept the vile Dodgers in the NLDS, only to run into the single best Atlanta club of their epic decades-long run in the NLCS and fall short of a second World Series in five years.

Feeling robbed of what could’ve been the tail-end of a BRM-esque 90s run of championships is something most Reds fans of a particular age have worn as a shoulder-chip for years. For me, though, it’s a close second to a parallel would-be that has haunted me since my baseball-card collecting youth.

Tim Belcher, by all accounts, had a wonderful major league baseball career. He earned damned near $27 million at a time when the stock market was a fraction of where it is even in today’s mini-crisis, won a World Series with Los Angeles, and his 4.16 ERA and 26.0 bWAR across 14 years as a big leaguer show he was perpetually a rosy option on the mound. FanGraphs, in particular, was quite fond of his work as a member of the Reds, rating the 364.2 IP he fired in a season and a half in Cincinnati as worth a solid 5.4 fWAR, the kind of every-fifth-day dependability that echoes why Belcher was once the #1 overall pick in both the 1983 and 1984 MLB Drafts, respectively.

Belcher, a native of Mount Gilead, OH, never got to experience those 1994-1995 highs, however, as he was traded to the Chicago White Sox at the deadline during a disappointing 1993 season. And in a bad twist of fate after a disappointing 1994 season in Detroit, he was again signed the Reds prior to the 1995 season, only this time on a minor league deal after his 1994 struggles. He toiled for 10 IP with AAA Indianapolis before being shipped off to Seattle.

Speaking of Seattle, that’s precisely where Dave Burba cut his teeth. The Dayton native and Springfield, OH product was plucked in the 2nd round by the Mariners out of The Ohio State University in 1987, and by mid 1990 was sharing a dugout with Ken Griffeys Senior and Junior in the old Kingdome. The next year saw him swapped for former MVP and future teammate Kevin Mitchell in a deal that landed him in San Francisco, and he eventually joined the Reds as a deadline edition in 1995 - some two months after Belcher had been dealt. With the Giants, he had pitched exclusively from the bullpen in 37 games, but the Reds rolled him into the rotation down the stretch, eventually doling out 9 starts to Burba that were welcomed with an overall 3.27 ERA and 126 ERA+. Burba went on to fire 4.2 scoreless innings in the ‘95 playoffs.

Burba stuck around Cincinnati for another pair of seasons to slightly less aplomb, but will forever be remembered as a part of how the 1995 Reds accomplished what they did.

For me, though - idiot me, I should add - I still rue the missed opportunity for a Belcher/Burba Burba/Belcher 1-2 combo. A 3-4 combo, really, as they would have hiccupped their way to the middle of rotations featuring Smiley, Schourek, Rijo, Mark Portugal, and David Wells, at times. Two strapping Ohio righties, 6’3” and 6’4” respectively, chewing cud and spitting gas at opponents for 380 innings a year. Just furping hitters at every chance, with only the occasional burf being upchucked into the seats for an opposing dinger.

The marketing potential alone is enough to make nostalgic, really.

Nothing makes you dream of Burbas and Belchers like a Frisch’s Big Boy and a patty melt!

Dream of a Belcher Burba with a trio of Skyline cheese coneys & a three-way!

We were robbed of the guttural glory that would’ve been the heart of the 1994-1995 Reds rotation, but their near overlap is enough to forever prompt the question of what if. Tim Belcher and Dave Burba will always go down as two of my favorite Reds pitchers, in part due to how they’re so inexorably interspurped.