Have you ever looked at a magnificent statue and wondered, “How could someone look at an unassuming chunk of rock and imagine creating that?”

If so, I’d like to introduce you to the end goal of the Cincinnati Reds’ current regime.

The Reds’ current and previous rosters for the past four seasons have shared many similarities with large, unassuming chunks of rock. For one, because it is an inanimate object, a large chunk of rock would probably not be very good at the sport of baseball. Coincidentally, the Cincinnati Reds have not been very good at the sport of baseball either.

On a more metaphorical level, though, similar to a sculptor meticulously whittling and carving away at a masterpiece, the Reds have spent the past four seasons attempting to find the pieces of a legitimate and contending baseball team.

For all intents and purposes, last season was another disappointing year for the Reds on a rebuilding timeline that has progressed at a seemingly glacial pace. There were, however, notable silver linings and bright spots along the way. The most obvious include Scooter Gennett’s four-home run game, Votto’s second-place finish in National League MVP voting and Tucker Barnhart earning his first Gold Glove Award.

Additionally, the more optimistic fans can point to Raisel Iglesias’ emergence as an elite closer, Luis Castillo’s impressive debut in the starting rotation and Eugenio Suarez’s solid all-around season as signs that better days are yet to come.

That being said, the direction of the Reds’ 2018 season is still very much up in the air. Most likely, it will be determined by the same problem that has been a thorn in their side for years – pitching. Last season, Reds pitchers combined to post the lowest collective WAR (wins above replacement) in Major League Baseball and posted an astronomical 5.17 earned run average. This poor performance came fresh off a 2016 campaign when the Reds’ pitchers allowed the most home runs in the history of Major League Baseball.

For 2018 to be labelled a step in the right direction, the Reds need to find out if they have at least two-to-four quality starting pitchers on their staff. While a couple of pitchers made an impact last year, the spots on the rotation still appear to be wide open. Here are a few guys looking to stick in the rotation for years to come:

For starters, Luis Castillo emerged as a potential name to solidify the front of the Reds’ rotation. Castillo had the fastest average fastball velocity for all starting pitchers in 2017 and posted a stellar 3.12 earned run average (ERA). The peripherals on Castillo’s statistics impressed as well, as he struck out more than a batter per inning and posted a fielding-independent ERA (FIP) of 3.71. Because of his success last season, Castillo has thrust his name into the conversation with Joey Votto and Nick Senzel as one of the most important pieces in the Reds’ current rebuild.

The next name to keep an eye on is starter Tyler Mahle. Mahle had a phenomenal season in the minor leagues in 2017 and even threw a perfect game in Double-A Pensacola. Unlike Castillo, Mahle does not have an electric fastball or a sweeping slider, but rather boasts Greg Maddux-like control over the location of his pitches. While I am by no means comparing Mahle to an all-time great pitcher like Greg Maddux, I believe that Mahle’s path to success is in the mold of pitchers like Maddux, Don Sutton or the Chicago Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks who are masters of controlling the plate and varying speeds.

After Castillo and Mahle, we reach the wildcards of the rotation. Amir Garrett had a promising start to last season, but his season derailed so drastically that it would make some of history’s most horrific train accidents blush.

Robert Stephenson has been a “promising arm” in the Reds’ Minor League system since the first year of Barack Obama’s second term in office, but he finally appeared to live up to his potential in the second half of 2017. Nonetheless, Bob Steve will begin another season of Major League Baseball in the minor leagues.

Sal Romano will enter this season as No. 3 in the Reds’ rotation and is another pitcher who experienced a sustained run of success at the end of 2017. Romano, who has a frame similar to former Reds’ hurler Mat Latos, has decent velocity on his fastball and could potentially be a No. 3-5 starter in the Reds’ rotation in the future.

Homer Bailey and Anthony DeSclafani are two pitchers who have unfortunately been associated with one another due to their injury history. Bailey, a former top-of-the-line starter, pitched in his first Opening Day for the Reds this season and appears to be fully healthy for the first time in years.

DeSclafani, on the other hand, appears to be tied to his annual tradition of beginning the season on the Disabled List and hopes to join the Reds in a couple months after recovering from an oblique injury. DeSclafani, or “Disco” as he was nicknamed long ago before his injuries, is still relatively young at 27 years old and showed promise in 2015 and 2016. If he can remain healthy for an extended period of time, Disco would be a great addition to the Reds’ rotation.

While there are certainly other names to keep an eye in the organization – including a revamped bullpen that might be the best the Reds have had in the last four years – I believe these seven pitchers have the greatest chance of impacting the Reds’ season this year. Although, for those inclined to look toward the future, Hunter Greene may be a name to keep on your radar.

If the Reds want to contend in 2018, their pitching will need to be somewhere near the league average. The Reds actually boasted the ninth-best combined offensive and fielding WAR in the league last season. If they are able to assemble something resembling a major league rotation, there is a chance the Reds could playing meaningful baseball well into July, August and perhaps even September.

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