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Reds' pitching now aces-high

The front office, the manager and a few of the players take the diplomatic approach.

"On paper, we should be highly competitive," said general manager Bob Quinn.

"We should be as competitive as anybody," said manager Lou Piniella.

"It's a solid staff," said catcher Joe Oliver.

Greg Swindell looks at the pitchers stacked up around the Cincinnati Reds clubhouse and grooves one down the middle.

"I look at it right now, without a pitch being thrown, as the best staff in baseball," Swindell said.

The Reds opened spring training Friday knee-deep in arms, intent on improving a staff that dragged the team to a fifth-place finish in 1991.

Swindell may get some arguments, especially from the Mets (Saberhagen, Cone, Gooden), Braves (Avery, Glavine, Smoltz) maybe the Dodgers (Martinez, Hershiser, Candiotti) and Blue Jays (Morris, Stieb, Guzman, Key).

But this much is red-letter clear: Quinn and Piniella have put together a rotation that is sure to turn the National League West into an explosive arms race.

Using returning established starters Tom Browning and Jose Rijo as a foundation, Quinn worked quickly in the off-season. In mid-November, he acquired Swindell from lowly Cleveland for spare parts Jack Armstrong, Scott Scudder and Joe Turek.

One certain Reds fan in northern Ohio was duly impressed.

"I was telling my friends and family then," Tim Belcher said, "hey, the Reds are going to be tough. You add a guy like that to Browning and Rijo and that bullpen, they helped themselves a lot.' "

Two weeks later, Quinn made Belcher a Red by trading star outfielder Eric Davis to Los Angeles as part of a four-player deal.

"If I can pat myself on the back," Belcher said, "I think they helped themselves when they got me too."

Combine this Fab Four with an overpowering bullpen led by Rob Dibble and Norm Charlton, and you see the reason for the optimism.

From bottom to top, everyone in the organization is confident this team should be more like 1990's champions than 1991's laggards.

Especially owner Marge Schott, who departed from her usual penurious image in allowing Quinn to acquire Belcher and Swindell, who each make more than $2-million a season. (Swindell on Friday lost in arbitration but will still earn $2.5-million this season).

"I think she expects to win this season," Quinn said. "I don't think she would ever pay these large sums of money without getting something tangible in return."

"I think she had a change of heart," Browning said. "Sometimes you've got to spend some money. There's a commitment to winning and that's a good sign for the players."

The commitment extends to Piniella, who kept his 22 pitchers and eight catchers on the field for more than three hours during Friday's initial workout. He said he anticipates intense competition.

Seven jobs appear set _ the four starters, the two closers and left-handed set-up man Scott Ruskin. That means the battle will be for the fifth starter spot (Chris Hammond, Mo Sanford, Gino Minutelli and Tim Pugh) and two other middle-to-long relievers.

The mix is an impressive one, and it all begins with the starters.

"They've got good stuff, they're experienced, they're winning-type pitchers and they'll give you innings," Piniella said. "They've got the whole gamut."

Here is a sample of what Reds opponents will face:

Rijo, a hard-throwing right-hander with a nasty slider. Browning, a crafty left-handed control expert who changes speeds at will. Belcher, a righty with a good arm who "knows how to pitch." Swindell, a hard-throwing left-hander with impressive strikeout numbers.

"They'll rock other teams back and forth. They're not going to see too much of the same thing," pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. "Each guy pitches differently."

Each guy also pitches well, which gives the Reds a staff with four potential stars. The pitchers say that abundance of talent won't be a problem, but a positive.

"I don't see how it could be a negative," Belcher said. "I don't think any of us would allow petty jealousies to get in the way of success."

"I think we'll feed off each other," Browning said. "The competition between us will make us a better staff. Each guy is trying to outduel the other."

"We're all here together," Swindell said. "There's four aces here."

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