It was just a week ago that it seemed safe for our MLB coverage to rule the Cincinnati Reds out of the three-team dogfight in the NL Central. The Reds might have been in great position to make the wild-card game, but they were drifting off the radarfor the division title. No more. Cincinnati has had a hot run, while Pittsburghhas struggled and St. Louis not really asserted themselves. Consequently, the Reds enter Friday’s games just 2 ½ behind first-place Pittsburgh, and only a half-game back of St. Louis.
Some of this most current surge has to do with catching the right spot in the schedule. Cincinnati has been able to play San Diego, the Chicago Cubs and last night started a four-game series with Milwaukee, a game I was in attendance at. But the Reds also swept a two-game interleague set from the Oakland A’s, and they hung a three-game sweep on the Cubs.
Pitching is the key to all of this, specifically the work of Mat Latos and Tony Cingrani. If we use the period after the All-Star break as our measuring stick, the two starters have been dominant. Latos has a 1.32 ERA in five starts, while Cingrani has a 1.80 ERA in his five trips to the post. The rest of this very steady rotation—Homer Bailey, Bronson Arroyo and Mike Leake—have maintained a solid consistency.
One area that’s been a concern for the Reds is bullpen depth. The ninth inning is secure, in the hands of Aroldis Chapman, but that bridge between him and the rotation was a little shaky. It can’t be a coincidence that this team’s push at the top of the division has coincided with some setup pitchers coming through.
J.J. Hoover has thrown 12.1 scoreless innings since the break, and Manny Parra has tossed 8.1 and allowed only two runs. Jonathan Broxton has gotten healthy and been effective in the short time he’s been off the disabled list.
Perhaps the most frightening thing about the Cincinnati staff is that they’re doing this in one of the toughest parks in baseball to pitch in, and doing without their ace. Johnny Cueto’s health has been a problem all year and his third stint on the disabled list isn’t going away quietly. The ace will be given a strength test to determine if he’s ready to begin a throwing program, with the hope of getting him back in September.
Cincinnati’s rotation is deep enough to get them in the playoffs without Cueto, as they hold a six-game lead on the Arizona Diamondbacks for the last wild-card spot. What’s questionable is whether they can win the division without their best pitcher. And if the Reds do come up a little bit short in the division race, you’d certainly like to give Cueto the ball for a one-game wild-card shot and have him back in rhythm.
For now, the arms on hand are sufficing quite nicely for Dusty Baker. The Reds have a weekend ahead in Milwaukee, and then have a big home series with Arizona, where they could quash any hopes the D-Backs have of knocking the Reds out of the playoffs entirely. With that accomplished, they could devote September to focusing on winning their third NL Central title in four years.
Today seems like the ideal day to focus our MLB coverage on the Cincinnati Reds. They just had a no-hitter thrown by Homer Bailey on Monday night, the second straight year Bailey has tossed a no-no. The Reds are fighting to keep pace with the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central. And ultimately, it’s the Fourth of July—no game is more uniquely American than baseball, and no teams says baseball like it’s original franchise from the banks of the Ohio River.
I’ve been getting down on the Reds’ chances, thanks to the perpetual injury problems of rotation ace Johnny Cueto. He’s doing his third stint on the disabled list, and has been shut down for at least two weeks to deal with a lat injury. It doesn’t look long-term, but Cueto seems to be having one of those years where he just can’t stay healthy.
But in getting down on the Reds, I forgot my cardinal rule about post-injury team evaluations—don’t think about the quality of players lost, think about the quality of the ones who are there. And who the Reds have—especially when it comes to starting pitching, is still awfully good.
Cincinnati is third in the National League in starters’ ERA, even with Cueto’s on-again/off-again season. They’ve done it with rotation balance. Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo and Bailey all have ERAs in the 3s. Arroyo offers steady consistency. Latos has the stuff to be a true #1—and with a 3.03 ERA in a hitter-friendly park, he’s pitching like it. And Bailey, as he showed again on Monday against San Francisco, has electric stuff that makes him dominant on any given night.
Furthermore, Mike Leake has stepped up with a big year—in fact, the best of them all, with a 2.52 ERA in 16 starts. When Cueto went down, the Reds then simply called up Rice product Tony Cingrani, and he’s delivered an ERA of 3.40 in eight starts.
Thus we have a rotation of Latos, Arroyo, Bailey, Leake and Cingrani that most contenders would gladly take. We have statistical years that are very good on the surface, and that’s before you start cutting them even more slack for the way the ball jumps out of their home park.
AN IMPROVING OFFENSE
Just as Great American Ballpark has masked how good this starting pitching has been in recent seasons, it’s masked real mediocrity on the offensive side. But the Reds are getting better here—they’re up to third in the National League in on-base percentage. That’s the effect that centerfielder Shin-Soo Choo has brought to this team, as he joins first baseman Joey Votto in giving Cincinnati two starters with OBPs over .400, and who also hit for power.
The problem of offensive balance still remains. Jay Bruce can drive the ball out of the yard, with 18 home runs to date, but his OBPs remain low. Todd Frazier is tolerable, with a .338 OBP, but he’s capable of doing more, especially in this park. I’d like to see Zack Cozart start to hit a little bit at shortstop and round out his already solid defensive game. Cincy really needs to add a left fielder, as the comb of Chris Heisey, Xavier Paul and Derrick Robinson isn’t getting it done.
It’s Brandon Phillips who can provide the biggest lift for this offense. The one downside to the ESPN broadcast of Bailey’s no-hitter was hearing the announcing crew—Dave O’Brien, Aaron Boone & Rick Sutcliffe—lend credence to the notion that Phillips might be the best second baseman to wear a Reds uniform, including Joe Morgan. The broadcast team didn’t actually agree with the notion, which is apparently floating around (who actually floats this inane ideas I don’t know). But the mere fact it was legitimized as a subject worthy of discussion speaks volumes to how easily people forget.
Brandon Phillips is a nice complementary piece in a lineup. Joe Morgan was one of the greatest second baseman who ever played in any uniform, much less just Cincinnati. Morgan won back-to-back MVP awards in 1975-76, set the table for the Big Red Machine, one of the great offenses of the modern age. There is no second baseman playing today who is anywhere near Morgan’s class, and only Robinson Cano even has the skill set to get there.
But I digress—let’s return to Phillips. The fact he’s no Morgan doesn’t mean he’s not a pretty good player, and that means his .324 on-base percentage and .427 slugging percentage has to be seen as a disappointment. The power can stay where it’s at, but if Phillips could lift that OBP by twenty points, it would help a lot. For the record, Morgan’s career OBP was .392. Sorry, I’m back off topic.
The biggest long-term problem though, is the condition of the bullpen. The ninth inning is in good hands with Aroldis Chapman, who’s closed 20/23 save chances with a 2.57 ERA But everywhere else is up for grabs. Sam LeCure and Alfredo Simon are the only other arms who’ve given manager Dusty Baker anything in this first half of the season, and I don’t know how comfortable they can really make Reds’ fans if they’re the setup team down the stretch.
Cincinnati needs to get Jonathan Broxton healthy. Or, for that matter, get Cueto healthy and move Cingrani to the bullpen. Or make a trade, though dealing for relief help at the deadline is one of the more notoriously high-risk things an organization can do.
The payoff makes it tempting, but relievers are a fickle lot, and even if someone comes through, it’s not always worth the price. Ask the Texas Rangers, who gave up Chris Davis to the Baltimore Orioles in exchange for Koji Uehara back in 2011, and now the Rangers are searching for offense. It makes for tough balancing act for a general manager and those are the decisions Cincinnati has ahead of them this month.
CAN CINCY KEEP PACE?
If the Reds were in the National League West, they’d be in first place and be the odds-on favorite to pull away. If they were in the National League East, they’d be right on Atlanta’s heels and be in good shape to challenge the Braves and perhaps hold off the Washington Nationals. But the NL Central has become the unforgiving division, and Cincy’s 49-36 record has them four games back of Pittsburgh for first place, and two back of St. Louis. It puts them on the road for the wild-card game.
I don’t believe Cincinnati can win this division unless the bullpen is significantly strengthened. You have to think at least 95-97 wins to take the NL Central this year, and you can’t give up games late at this point. Even allowing the quality of the rotation without Cueto, it’s also tough to do with your ace out.
But the Reds still look the part of a solid wild-card team that wins 92-93 games and would be good enough to take at least one of the other National League divisions, and perhaps both. If they get Cueto back, they have the ace who can win you a wild-card game, and the rotation depth that ensures they can still win the ensuing series when the ace can’t go until at least Game 3. In the tough world that is this year’s NL Central, that’s no reason to be down on the Reds as we hit the Fourth of July.
AROUND THE NL CENTRAL
Pittsburgh (52-31): The Pirates werefeatured this past Sunday, and they’re close to getting better, as A.J. Burnett threw a simulated game on Tuesday.
St. Louis (50-33): How does a wild-card game of Adam Wainwright vs. Johnny Cueto sound, with two teams that hate each other going head-to-head? Yeah, I think it sounds pretty good too.
ChiCubs (36-46): Theo Epstein pulled the first deal in the July trade sweepstakes, peddling Scott Feldman to the Baltimore Orioles this week. I’m sure Theo wanted to get Feldman off the market early, lest he be seen as a good consolation prize and reduce the asking price for Matt Garza.
Milwaukee (34-49): Ryan Braun is starting to take some cuts and is due back from his thumb injury after the All-Star break.
The St. Louis Cardinals might be riding high with the best record in the National League, but there’s three worthy contenders right on their heels in the Central Division. Today, TheSportsNotebook will take a snapshot look at Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Milwaukee, assess how each has looked through the first 5 ½ weeks of the season and what might lie ahead. Today’s MLB coverage will lay out each team’s pros and cons and then move into an extended discussion of each.
PITTSBURGH (18-14, 2 games behind St. Louis) PROS: Bullpen great, power on offense, reasonably productive CONS: Problems with starting pitching and getting runners on base
The Pirates’ ‘pen was supposed to be a weak point after they traded closer Joel Hanrahan to the Boston Red Sox. But instead, the revamped bullpen is the biggest reason Pittsburgh is in second place coming into Wednesday’s games. The relievers’ ERA is fifth in the National League and more importantly, they’re closing out their save chances. Pittsburgh has nailed 14 of 17 save chances, well above the league average, which is two-thirds success.
Jason Grilli has been unhittable in the closer’s role, with Justin Wilson and Mark Melancon being the same in setup. Meanwhile, Hanrahan is struggling, and the Red Sox’ early success has come in spite of the former Pirate closer, rather than because of him.
The offense needed someone besides Andrew McCutchen to hit and 24-year-old Starling Marte has stepped up. With a .393/.524 stat line for on-base percentage and slugging percentage, Marte is outperforming McCutchen in the early going. This is what Pittsburgh needs—while McCutchen is hardly performing badly (.331/.457), he’s not MVP-level. Last year the Pirates relied on McCutchen to be at MVP pace every month and when that predictably didn’t work out, he began to press and the offense completely tanked. This year’s team is also getting help from veteran catcher Russell Martin, over from the Yankees, and putting up a .362/.543 stat line in the early going.
What the offense does not do, however, is get runners on base consistently. While the team slugging percentage is a solid 6th in the National League, the on-base percentage is only 11th. It’s the latter that keeps you going during the inevitable stretches during the summer when power slumps. Pedro Alvarez has been a disaster at third, and even when he’s not, his value is hitting for power. Garrett Jones is the same at first base, and second baseman Neil Walker is hurt. Furthermore, even Marte’s high numbers are driven by his batting average of .325, rather than walks. That’s fine, but again, you need players who can draw walks to keep an offense up in down times.
And if the starting pitching does not improve, the offense will need to be kept up. While A.J. Burnett and the surprising Jeff Locke have been solid, James McDonald has been a disaster is now being sent to the disabled list. The big question mark right now is how effective will Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton and Jeff Karstens be when they come off the DL over the next few weeks. Your answer to that probably determines your outlook on the 2013 Pirates. I’m pessimistic—this team has possibilities, but after last September I’ve really got them on the “prove it to me first before I believe” list.
CINCINNATI (19-15, 2 games back of St. Louis) Pros: Great pitching from start to finish, consistent runners on base and MVP candidates in the lineup. Cons: Lack of depth to the offense, very poor power early on.
The Reds are fourth in the National League in ERA, with the starters being even higher at second. This is in spite of Cy Young candidate Johnny Cueto being on the disabled list. Cincy already had a deep rotation, with Mat Latos stepping up to be great (2.23 ERA), Bronson Arroyo and Homer Bailey solid and Mike Leake serviceable. What they also got was a call-up in Tony Cingrani, who’s posted a 2.63 ERA in four starts.
Had Cincinnati kept to its original plan of moving Aroldis Chapman to the rotation, they would likely have never called up Cingrani, the pen would lack a closer—Chapman’s 7-for-7 on save chances—and it’s at least possible Chapman’s career would be negatively altered (see Daniel Bard, Joba Chamberlain, Neftali Feliz). Give the Reds credit for at least recognizing their own stupidity and changing course.
Joey Votto is having a vintage year, with a .463/500 stat line—not to beat a dead horse here, but Votto draws walks. It’s why, even his power is a little down, with only four home runs, he remains a supremely productive offensive player. And I think it safe to say the home runs are going to come. Shin-Soo Choo has embraced his new team and new position in centerfield with a monster start, at .465/.587. Choo was a very underrated rightfielder across the state in Cleveland until injuries slowed him the last couple years. It’s easy to envision a dark-horse MVP run in hitter-friendly Cincy.
The problem the Reds have to deal with is an offense that’s only 10th in the National League in slugging percentage. When you consider how easily the ball flies out of Great American Ballpark, it makes you wonder just how bad the power showing would be if this team played in San Diego. Jay Bruce is the big culprit, with only one home run. Bruce is a streaky hitter and will likely get on a tear that will lift his numbers, and the team’s overall. But even during last year’s run to the NL Central title, the Reds’ slugging numbers were low for the park they’re in.
If you have to pick a weakness though, that’s the one to pick. It’s better to have great starting pitching, solid relief and a lineup that consistently puts runners on base, with a couple MVP-caliber players mixed in, and live with some low power totals across the board. It’s why, of the three teams under review today, Cincinnati is clearly the one with the brightest future over the next twenty weeks of the regular season.
MILWAUKEE (15-16, 4.5 games back of St. Louis)
Pros: Great offense in all phases, with young players performing and good veterans on the way back. Plus a late-inning combo in the bullpen. Cons: The pitching staff is a disaster for the first seven innings of a game.
Remember Jean Segura? He’s the minor league shortstop that was the focal point of the deal that shipped Zack Greinke to the Angels last year. Segura’s putting up huge numbers, at .384/.530, while Greinke is no longer with the Angels and on the disabled list. Someone in Anaheim needs to get fired and Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin deserves a big thumbs-up. Even allowing for the inevitable cool-down, Segura is a good defensive shortstop and has quickly established he can contribute with the bat.
Carlos Gomez is also tearing it up, at .412, and an otherworldly .636 slugging percentage. Ryan Braun continues to be steady, with a .410/.571 stat line that has him well on pace to be in the MVP conversation if voters overlook his latest controversy regarding PEDs (unlikely) and his team turns it around (up in the air). The Brewers rank in the National League’s top four in both OBP and slugging. Even if you allow some slumps from the players currently hitting, you can factor in better months ahead for Rickie Weeks and Jonathan Lucroy, each of whom are slow out of the gate.
When the offense can slug the team to a lead, the Brewers can turn to Tom Gorzelanny and new closer Jim Henderson to close the game out. But anything prior to these two is a complete crap-shoot. Actually that might be kind, because a crapshoot implies you don’t know what will happen, whereas the Brewer pitching staff has been predictably bad.
The team-wide number of worst ERA in the National League speaks for itself. We can add to this that John Axford has definitely proven that his masterful 2010 season as the closer was a fluke. He was awful last year and quickly lost his job to the flame-throwing Henderson this season. The rotation is 14th in the NL in starters’ ERA, with only Kyle Lohse pitching effectively. Yovani Gallardo has been mediocre, with only a DUI arrest being noteworthy in his early campaign.
Where the Brewers did get some help, was three nice starts by 25-year-old Hiram Burgos. Now the team is in the midst of a schedule stretch where they can get by on four starters due to off days, so manager Ron Roenicke has decided to skip Burgos. Let’s see if I’m following this—your rotation is a train wreck, you get a kid who comes up and starts pitching well, and the first chance you get, you bury him in the bullpen. Brilliant.
It’s the latest reason why I don’t see the Milwaukee pitching staff making this a playoff team. The offense will keep hitting and if Gallardo joins Lohse in making an effective 1-2, the Brewers can have a winning season, which probably keeps them on the fringes of the wild-card discussion throughout the summer. But I wouldn’t expect September baseball in my home area to have anything to dent the fanaticism for the Green Bay Packers when the time comes.
AROUND THE NATIONAL LEAGUE
NL EAST: Roy Halladay going to the disabled list is the big news here, but I wouldn’t write the Phillies off too quickly. They’re off to a slow start at 16-18, but still lurking behind Washington and Atlanta and any staff with Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee can keep a team in the wild-card conversation. Especially with Kyle Kendrick pitching well.
NL WEST: If you were in Las Vegas at the start of the season, I wonder what the odds were on the Colorado Rockies being in first place, and the Los Angeles Dodgers in last. Or the odds if you parlayed the two. After an offseason of trying to rival the Yankees in spending, the Dodgers are now trying to rival the Pinstripes in the length of the injury list.
The Cincinnati Reds and the Pittsburgh Pirates, natural geographic rivals and playoff sparring partners in the 1970s, were each in last year’s NL Central race into August. They went in opposite directions, as the Reds blew away the division and the Pirates collapsed and remained in search of their first winning season since 1992. Today we’ll take a look at both teams, and continue the pattern of TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage and assess each team’s chances against their Over/Under win projection posted in Las Vegas.
Cincinnati is coming off a playoff disappointment. They lost three straight games at home to San Francisco, any one of which would have put them in the National League Championship Series. But there was no small amount of bad luck involved—ace pitcher Johnny Cueto was injured very early in Game 1 and unable to pitch in the series.
Cueto should have won the Cy Young Award last season and he anchors a good pitching staff that includes a solid #2 in Mat Latos, steady innings-eating veteran Bronson Arroyo, and up-and-comer Homer Bailey. This staff looks respectable enough on the surface, and when you consider they pitch in one of the most hitter-friendly parks in baseball, they look even better.
Manager Dusty Baker made a wise decision to keep closer Aroldis Chapman in the bullpen, rather than convert him to a starter—a path that has been nothing but disaster for pitchers like Joba Chamberlain, Daniel Bard and Neftali Feliz, and I frankly don’t even know why the Reds even toyed with the idea this spring, but at least they came to their senses. The pen in front of Chapman is led by Jonathan Broxton, who can also close, and a collection of respectable middle relievers like Sean Marshall and Jose Arredondo.
Joey Votto leads the lineup and the first baseman is reliable for an on-base percentage over .400, a slugging percentage in the high .500s (and perhaps over .600) and to be in the MVP conversation, so long as he’s healthy. He missed a couple months last year and it speaks well to the Reds’ depth that they pulled away in the NL Central race with Votto sidelined. The outfield has quality hitters at each spot in Ryan Ludwick, Shin-Soo Choo and Jay Bruce. Todd Frazier will have the third base job to himself with the departure of Scott Rolen, and has a proven ability to hit for power.
I’m not all that sold on the capabilities of second baseman Brandon Phillips. He had a career year back in 2011, but otherwise is mostly mediocre. Shortstop Zack Cozart broke into the majors last year, and needs to hit more consistently this season.
Cincinnati’s biggest weakness is a lack of players who get on base consistently, and I’m concerned about the possibility of long summer droughts offensively. I think this will be a good team and in contention throughout the year—starting pitching, a top closer and power will do that for you. But their win total is 91 and that’s a hefty number to take for a team I think will be up and down offensively. That’s why I go Under.
THE PROBLEMS IN PITTSBURGH
The collapse of the Pirates in September was a big free-fall and I’m not sure that the Buccos can get back up. I like their addition of Francisco Liriano to the starting rotation—he’s still only 29 and has time to save his career, but this is also a classic small-market move, of having to bet on a reclamation project. A.J. Burnett pitched well last season, but both he and Wandy Rodriguez are getting older. James McDonald is the pitcher I want to see really step up. He’s had a couple years in the low 4s with his ERA and he has the talent to make the next step and be a true horse.
But even if the pitching can keep the team in games through six innings, they’re still going to have to score and they’re still going to have finish games. I don’t see much reason for optimism on either count. Joel Hanrahan was dealt to Boston and the closer’s job is now Jason Grilli’s, who’s done nothing to suggest he can handle the role. And if he does, the depth in the pen took a hit with Grilli’s promotion.
Andrew McCutchen remains as good a player as there is in baseball, excelling in all phases, including defense out in centerfield. But he wore down last year because of a lack of help. Where’s the help coming from this year? Russell Martin can provide leadership behind the plate, but he didn’t hit in the Yankee lineup and he’s not about to start here. Garrett Jones and Pedro Alvarez give you home runs at the corner infield spots, but don’t get on base. Travis Snider was a nice pickup to play right field and at age 25, has an upside, and any hope for real offensive support has to start here.
I like this team, and after nine years living in Pittsburgh, I’d love to see PNC Park rocking in early October on a crisp fall night on the Allegheny River. But I don’t see it happening. Even with the win total a modest 77.5, I’m still taking the Under.