They’re in the hunt. What will it take for the Reds to join the championship chase?
If the Reds have hopes of chasing 1990 and reviving the ghosts of championships past, this season can’t rest solely on the shoulders of Joey Votto. That’s the beauty of baseball; you can’t do this thing alone. To be left standing in the chills of late October, an entire team has to rise. Everything has to click. Unlikely heroes must emerge. And even then, all but one must fall painfully short.
The dream of playing once more in the Fall Classic is alive again in Cincinnati. 85 games down, 77 to go, they sit a game behind the Pirates for the NL Central crown, and in the driver’s seat for the first wild-card spot. As of today, this moment, this hour, they are playing playoff baseball.
But it’s going to take a little more to make this interesting. It’s going to require a little something extra for the Reds to join the championship chase and shock the world. It won’t be easy. But that’s the beauty of baseball; it never is.
The second half of the season begins today. This mission starts now. Here are three key elements that could play a part in the difference between Cincinnati staying on the cusp, and Cincinnati taking that final step to greatness:
The Consistency of Jay Bruce
For the past few seasons, Joey Votto has been a model of consistency. His pure hitting and constant professionalism has made his name household, and synonymous with chants of “MVP!” Whether they love Cincinnati, or are facing off against the Reds, people know what they get with Joey Votto every time he steps to the plate: a force to be reckoned with.
His fellow All-Star and rising talent in Cincinnati provides no such guarantees. Jay Bruce spends some months wearing a groove between the dugout and the batter’s box, and rarely getting beyond it. He spends other months putting up power numbers that rival anyone in the sport. It’s feast or famine. There are two things you can always count on being consistent with Jay Bruce: He will play a solid right field…and at the plate, he will consistently be woefully inconsistent.
As you can see, the trend hasn’t stopped this season:
Jay Bruce’s hitting has been erratic, to say the least. At any given moment of the season, he could be amidst a crippling slump or hitting like he’s playing a video game set on “easy”. Rarely does Bruce find himself somewhere in between.
If the Reds want to reach the highest levels of baseball, they have to have another consistent force and threat in the lineup not named Joey Votto. Even if Bruce doesn’t hit directly behind Votto (instead, a spot removed), consistency at the plate would make pitchers think twice about intentionally walking the superstar and putting people on base for the rising star. Votto and Phillips, who hit ahead of Bruce, have the highest on-base percentage on the team. Bruce needs to take advantage of that more often. If he does, this lineup suddenly transforms. It goes from being one of the most anemic in the league to one of the most threatening.
It’s the difference between the middle of this lineup being a one-man show, and being unstoppable. All Bruce needs to do is find his swing, and subsequently, refuse to lose it this time.
Finding the Missing Piece
Fans, and rightfully so, get attached to the players that watch day in and day out in this struggle through spring, summer, and fall to reach the World Series. Fans make connections. That’s why it’s the front office’s job to make moves. Because sometimes, warm feelings aside, that’s simply the difference between winning and watching the World Series from home.
This team is close, but there’s no denying that there are missing pieces. In forming the complex puzzle that is creating a championship-contending team, one can never be satisfied until the picture is no longer fuzzy –until all gaps are filled in.
One of the most glaring gaps in Cincinnati is the void at the lead-off position in the roster. While an MVP-caliber player waits in the hole, Reds’ lead-off batters simply aren’t getting on base. More often than not, Joey Votto faces several empty bases. That’s no formula for success. Of the names that Baker most often pencils into the one-slot, none of them are getting on base impressively and they all strike out at least three times more often than they walk. Take a look for yourself:
Drew Stubbs: .286 OBP/77 strikeouts/24 walks
Zack Cozart: .298 OBP/69 strikeouts/20 walks
Chris Heisey: .310 OBP/47 strikeouts/10 walks
These are all players of promise. They all would have a key role to play in a championship run. But they aren’t leadoff hitters –at least, not if you want to score.
Other gaps that the Reds need to fill include better production from the outfield positions (namely left/center field) and another left-handed bat. Votto and Bruce are currently the only regular left-handers in the roster –a roster that is worst in the National League against right-handed pitching. These are all legitimate concerns for a roster that wants to make a run at the rings.
So what if I told you there may be a couple pieces that fill all of these gaps? What if I told you those pieces might be readily available? Your response would likely be similar to mine: What are the Reds waiting for?
Minnesota Twin Denard Span and Philadelphia Philly Juan Pierre should be on the Reds’ radar. They both bat left-handed. They could both play left or centerfield. And they would both be huge improvements at the leadoff spot in the lineup. Just look at their stats in 2012, especially in comparison to those above:
Denard Span: .334 OBP/41 strikeouts/31 walks
Juan Pierre: .344 OBP/13 strikeouts/12 walks
One is a young stud (Span), the other a proven commodity and quick fix (Pierre). But both could make this race much more interesting. With either of these players at leadoff, and perhaps a Stubbs/Heisey platoon at the other outfield position, the Reds lineup would seemingly have to improve in run production and potency. Span won’t come cheap, but may be a mainstay for years to come. Pierre is an answer for the here and the now. I think the Reds would be smart to go in either direction.
These names won’t raise the types of eyebrows that Mat Latos did in the offseason, but their impact could be just as integral. Sometimes, it isn’t about the big names. It’s about finding what fits. Either with these outfielders or other pieces, the difference between the Reds playing in late October or wishing they were will likely rest in their willingness to make a move that matters. They have until July 31st. Your move, Walt Jocketty.
The Upward Climb to Expectation
Potential is the scariest words in sports. It’s a word attached to human beings that simultaneously gives fans hope and eats them alive. It projects an end before the start. And often, it’s too much for the biggest talents to handle.
In their own ways, Homer Bailey and Mat Latos know all about the relentless weight of potential and expectation. Homer Bailey was the prospect expected to rise through the farm system and light up the majors. Mat Latos was the trade commodity expected to be worth a heavy price and deliver Cincinnati a second ace beside Johnny Cueto.
And initially, both were disappointments.
It’s a struggle for Bailey that has lasted for years, finally revising and softening those expectations that for so long have labeled him a Cincinnati bust. For Latos, the struggle is less than a season old, but perhaps equal in its scrutiny. People expect great things from these two.
While Cueto is pitching like a stud, the Reds will need strong performances from their second and thirds in command in order to make this a chase to remember. They’ll need Latos and Bailey to shrug off the dreaded words of potential and expectation, and simply succeed. Simple in theory; but it’s not so simple in practice. But the Reds should find hope in the fact that it looks like Latos and Bailey are both trending upward. Latos is showing signs of the ace Cincinnati had hoped they acquired, and while Bailey is far from that, he is showing that he may, after all, be a key piece to this puzzle.
Here’s a look at the progression we’ve already seen in this semi-season:
|Mat Latos||ERA||Average IP/start||Line-Drive Rate||Opponent Batting Avg.|
|1st six starts:||4.93||5.7||20% of balls hit||.274|
|Next six starts:||4.76||5.7||19% of balls hit||.260|
|Last five starts:||2.75||7.2||15% of balls hit||.189|
|1st six starts:||4.93||5.7||27% of balls hit||.286|
|Next six starts:||3.82||6.2||18% of balls hit||.245|
|Last five starts:||3.66||6.4||14% of balls hit||.264|
The signs are promising. Latos, as the first half concluded, was showing signs of the Padres’ ace that the Reds had hoped to acquire this past offseason. Finally finding his stride, he went deeper into the games, gave up fewer hard-hit balls, and held the opposition to a very low rate of success. Bailey’s ascension is less dramatic, but just as important. He, too, struggled to find himself at season’s offset after an offseason of adjustments and soul-searching. Slowly, he’s becoming a reliable third-starter. He’s giving up less hard hits, his ERA is drifting toward respectable, and he’s eating more innings for his team. If both of these pitchers can keep trending upwards rather than relapsing into their old struggles, what has been a pedestrian starting staff will become formidable in the second-half of the season.
It’s been a while, Cincinnati. The memories behind the image above are slowly fading from the conscience, resembling less and less a recent past, and more and more a distant history. The fans are starving for a chance to be excited again.
Those days may be nigh. This team is close, mostly thanks to young talent that has risen through the system after years of bad trades, poorly handled business, and acceptance of mediocrity. Those days are over. But if the days of joining the championship chase are to begin, the work isn’t done. The young faces that have become symbols of hope for the Cincinnati fan base must continue to rise to the occasion. And the faces that sit behind the dark panes of glass and make decisions must find the final pieces to the puzzle.
If that happens, the once heinous notion of chasing 1990 and a World Series title for Cincinnati may no longer be a nostalgia for the past. It may become a present reality.
Your move, Cincinnati.