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 were featured 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.