Cincinnati & St. Louis Gear Up For Weekend Showdown

The Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals start a three-game series tonight on the banks of the Ohio River, and both teams are hot on the heels of the first-place Pittsburgh Pirates, with the Reds one game out and the Cardinals 2.5 off the pace. With the Reds-Cards set for national TV coverage this weekend on Saturday Fox and Sunday ESPN, TheSportsNotebook takes a closer look at both teams…

Cincinnati (47-38): It’s pitching that’s keeping the Reds in contention right now, as they ranked third in the National League in team ERA. But it’s not the starters that deserve the credit. Save Johnny Cueto, whose nip-and-tuck with New York’s R.A. Dickey for the Cy Young Award, the Cincy starters have had issues. Mat Latos has the record at 7-2, but a 4.13 ERA is too high. Mike Leake and Homer Bailey are both in the low 4s, and Bronson Arroyo is at 3.73. While Cincinnati is a very hitter-friendly park, facing National League Central competition is not exactly going through Murderer’s Row. Dusty Baker has a right to expect more from his 2 thru 5 starters and if each were to pitch like they’re capable, this could be a devastatingly good rotation.

But the bullpen has made up for what the starters have lacked. Aroldis Chapman may have finally given up some runs after an extended stretch at a 0.00 ERA, but he’s got 11 saves and a buck-83 ERA since being given the closer’s job. Sean Marshall, whose job Chapman took, is better suited for setup work and he has a 3.00 ERA. Jose Arrendondo and Alfredo Simon have been lights out, while Logan Ondrusek has joined Chapman as a solid lefthanded presence. Throw in some respectable work from Sam LeCure and you have a relief corps that has thrived in spite of losing last year’s closer, Francisco Cordero, to free agency and prime setup man Nick Massett to injury, though the latter may be back towards the end of this month.

Cincinnati is squarely in the middle of the league in scoring runs, at eighth and when you’re in this kind of hitters’ park that means the offense is subpar. This may come as a surprise to casual observers, since Joey Votto gets so much ink. With a .471/.617 stat line for on-base percentage/slugging percentage, Votto not only deserves all that ink, he in fact deserves more, because his supporting cast is not getting it done. Jay Bruce hits home runs—18 to be precise, but does not hit with consistency, either in terms of getting on base or hitting in the gaps. Rookie shortstop Zack Cozart has had his moments and he looks like a good, rising young player, but the body of work is at .298/.409 and that’s not going to cut it for the short-term. Scott Rolen has done nothing since returning from his latest battle against the aging shoulder and Daniel Stubbs is a serious offensive liability.

Where the Reds might hope for better is from second baseman Brandon Phillips, currently at .332/.428, but that’s not terrible and Phillips has the ability to pick it up a notch. Ryan Ludwick has popped 12 home runs in left field. Like Bruce, he needs a more well-rounded offensive game, but unlike Bruce, there weren’t a lot of expectations on Ludwick, so anything he gives is a bonus. Ultimately the decision Baker has is what to do with Todd Frazier. When subbing for the injured Rolen, Frazier not only hit a memorable home run that was done with barely the flick of a wrist, he posted an excellent .345/.556 line in 180 at-bats. I’d just find it hard to believe that in a win-now year in the Queen City, he wouldn’t get full-time at-bats. Frazier can play the outfield along with being a third baseman, so the manager has options for getting him in the lineup. But get him there he must.

St. Louis (46-40): Injuries defined a lot of St. Louis’ first half, with Lance Berkman, Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia and Jon Jay all logging extended time on the disabled list. Carpenter’s gone for the year, but Jay is back and Berkman and Garcia are both on the way. That’s mostly good news, but with the Cards needing more pitching help while still sporting the league’s best offense, it’s fair to say they’d have preferred to get Carpenter if they could choose whom to have back.

Adam Wainwright hasn’t been able to return to his status as a Cy Young-caliber pitcher after missing last season with elbow surgery. Wainwright’s ERA is at 4.56, way too high for a National League team, especially when you consider he never has to face the league’s best offense, given it’s his own. The positive is that Wainwright’s worst outings were in April, and it’s a reasonable hope that he might gradually gain steam down the stretch. Lance Lynn has won 11 games, logged over 100 innings and posted a 3.41 ERA, marking a successful conversion from the bullpen. Jake Westbrook has been steady, at 3.75 and 100-plus innings, though like Arroyo in Cincinnati, I’d like to see that ERA come down a little bit. Where rookie manager Mike Matheny has gotten a lot of help is from Kyle Lohse, whose won nine games with a 2.79 ERA and a workmanlike 116 innings. Lohse is not St. Louis’ most renowned pitcher, but he seems to be at his best at points in the season where he’s needed the most. Matheny’s also gotten some nice work out Joe Kelly, with a 2.70 ERA in his few appearances in Garcia’s stead. The latter struggled to a 4.48 ERA, although perhaps some of that was due to the shoulder injury that ultimately shelved him until the early part of next month.

Where St. Louis pales in comparison to Cincinnati—and Pittsburgh for that matter—is in the bullpen. Jason Motte has stayed in the closer’s role after taking the job down the stretch last season and has 20 saves, but with a 3.05 ERA he’s not exactly lights-out. Mitchell Boggs has been lights-out as a lefthanded setup man, but everyone else is shaky to say the least. I have to think another round of getting bullpen help is going to be on the St. Louis agenda for the trade deadline. But even though the moves worked last year, betting on setup relievers is unpredictable enough to make Roulette look like a percentage play. Threading the needle at the deadline two straight years is a tall order indeed.

I haven’t given a lot of ink to the offense, but I’ll just focus on the fact that second base is a weak point, and even though shortstop Rafael Furcal made the All-Star starting lineup, he’s average at best. Why focus on the negative? Because these two spots are the only areas that stand out. Everywhere else is loaded with All-Star caliber production and that’s before Berkman gets activated from the DL, probably within the week.

After this weekend, the next head-to-head meeting in the St. Louis-Cincy-Pittsburgh troika (and you can read about Pittsburgh’s pros and cons in Saturday’s NL report where they were the featured team) is August 3, when the Reds host the Pirates. Between now and then, Pittsburgh probably has the toughest schedule of the three. Granted, none of the teams have a brutal slate ahead, but the Pirates do open the second half on the road and then return home to play Miami, a potentially dangerous second-half team. For their part, Cincinnati hosts Arizona for four starting Monday, while St. Louis has a four-game home series with Los Angeles. But there’s no shortage of games with the Cubs or Astros for either team between now and August 3.

How will it all shake out? We have to reserve the right to a mind-change pending the July trading frenzy, but right now Las Vegas tells us the Reds are the favorite, at 6-5 to win the Central, with the Cards at 9-5. The Pirates are a 2-1 shot, showing that the smart money is still not sold on the division leader. I concur across the board and lean Cincy to win a close race right now, and I don’t believe a second playoff team comes out of this division.