Tulowitzki: Proving the Defensive Movement Wrong

When I looked at the current 2014 statistics today, it was easy to see that one player is standing out, dominating the league with an incredible .421 batting average and a 1.317 OPS through 32 games. After the last two seasons, you may have thought that those numbers belonged to Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera, maybe even Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout, but you’d be wrong. In a season where we bid farewell to one of the greatest players ever, the torch has been passed along to Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki to continue a tradition of slugging shortstops in an era where so many teams are focusing on strong defensive metrics up the middle.

Rockies’ SS Troy Tulowitzki

The thing is…Tulowitzki isn’t another Derek Jeter. Troy Tulowitzki, 29, has two Gold Gloves in his career, not that having Gold Gloves means anything when Jeter has five of them and has long been considered a defensive liability for the Yankees. The difference is that Tulowitzki is a very strong defender, posting a career range factor per nine of 5.01 (league average is 4.38) and a career fielding percentage of .986 (league average is .973), while he has a UZR of 38.7 over his career (3rd in MLB among shortstops since the start of the 2006 season). Tulo is an all-around star.

The biggest issue is his injury history. Tulowitzki has been on the disabled list five times in his career, missing a total of 267 team games since his arrival to the majors, nearly a season and a half of production, which is a big deal considering the investment that the Rockies made in their shortstop, 13-years and $167 million worth of extensions and commitments. Through the injuries, Tulowitzki continued to produce impressive overall numbers, as evidenced by his 162-game averages for his career:

162 Game Avg. 162 687 605 103 181 36 4 29 105 10 69 107 .299 .373 .518 .891 124 313
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/7/2014.

That’s very Alex Rodriguez at shortstop-esque, which, with continued production, could make Tulowitzki the best overall shortstop this side of Honus Wagner.

Braves' SS Andrelton Simmons
Braves’ SS Andrelton Simmons

Which begs the question, why are so many teams still settling for players who are one-trick ponies when there are still players capable of playing short and producing strong offensive numbers? It wasn’t long ago that Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Tejada, and other, non-steroid using shortstops, like Nomar Garciaparra and Jeter, were ruling the middle of the infield around the league. Now, teams seem confident running out players like Adeiny Hechavarria, Alcides Escobar, Brandon Crawford, Elvis Andrus, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Zack Cozart, who have a long history of not producing OPS numbers close to .750 while putting up solid numbers defensively; however, is an out saved defensively any more valuable than an unproductive at-bat? Those unproductive at-bats appear to be the norm over the last couple of seasons from the players thought to be defensive wizards by their clubs at one time or another (yes, Cabrera was supposed to be an upgrade defensively when he replaced Jhonny Peralta at short for Cleveland in 2009).

Consider the top five defensive shortstops in baseball currently: Erick Aybar, Cozart, Tulowitzki, Pedro Florimon, and Andrelton Simmons. Only Aybar and Simmons have an OPS over .700, along with Tulo, with Aybar checking in at .710 and Simmons checking in at .731 – which would rank them slightly better than the great Emilio Bonifacio, even with his strong start, in 2014.

So, why would a team settle for that type of production when there is enough talent out there to offset whatever defensive struggles a player has with a mighty stick at the plate?

Troy Tulowitzki is not a typical shortstop, and, as Jonah Keri wrote today, he could be heading towards one of the greatest seasons in baseball history. The impressive numbers should be a reminder that there is talent out there that will overcome  and live beyond the current movement of defensive shifts, defensive metrics, and over-the-top focus on glove over offensive production. For every Didi Gregorius for Shin-Soo Choo trade, there will be a Javier Baez, Addison Russell, and Francisco Lindor on the way who can produce solid offensive numbers while continuing to redefine a position.

Troy Tulowitzki is doing his part in keeping Ernie Banks, Barry Larkin, and Derek Jeter and their production respectable. While Omar Vizquel, Luis Aparicio, and Ozzie Smith get love for their gloves, they couldn’t carry the other’s all-around jockstraps. Give me Troy Tulowitzki and overall production and you can keep your defensive metrics.


How the Cincinnati Reds Ruined Their Window

Over the last nine games of the season, the Cincinnati Reds were 2-7, including their National League Wild Card loss in Pittsburgh, which would be their fifth loss against the Pirates in the nine game span. Needless to say, after a disappointing collapse in the 2012 National League Division Series against the San Francisco Giants, the collapse at the end of the 2013 season wasn’t pleasing to the fans, or the front office. Dusty Baker was canned shortly thereafter, replaced by pitching coach Bryan Price, who, in his first year as manager, has been dealt with the task of rebuilding a roster with a lot of question marks into a perennial power, all the while continuing to look up at the St. Louis Cardinals, who have built a system of winning from within.

Now, the Reds must replace their lead-off hitter, Shin-Soo Choo, who only managed a .423 on-base percentage and 107 runs scored while reaching base 305 times by hit, walk, or hit-by-pitch, after watching Choo run to the Texas Rangers in free agency for seven-years, $130 million.

BruceCertainly, it wasn’t within the budget to re-up with Choo at $18.7 million per year, not with Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, and Brandon Phillips combining to make $33 million in 2014, $38 million in 2015, and $45.5 million in 2016, that is, of course, if one of them isn’t traded. The Reds have long had a payroll between $80 and $100 million under current owner Bob Castellini, but is it time to start questioning what the long-term goal of the franchise is, after sputtering around the free agent market while trying to replace their best lead-off hitter since Joe Morgan and Pete Rose were flapping and flopping around Riverfront Stadium. Whether television contracts and Major League Baseball Advanced Media revenue will allow the “small-market” Reds to increase their payroll further is a valid question, but with Matt Latos, Johnny Cueto, and Mike Leake under team-control through 2015, and Homer Bailey headed towards free agency after the 2014 season, how else can the team remain contenders, especially with St. Louis constantly reloading and the Chicago Cubs reaching their contention window, just as the Reds is becoming questionable?

This offseason was difficult, clearly. The Reds couldn’t be in on Choo, Jacoby Ellsbury, or any other big-name free agent, but with very little money to spend, GM Walt Jocketty could have been more active in the trade market, or at least the minor league free agent route. Dick Williams, the VP of Baseball Operations, told me during the Reds’ caravan that the club lost out on Grady Sizemore due to his relationship with one of Boston’s trainers, who had been with Cleveland during his time there. While Sizemore wasn’t a lock to produce, or stay healthy, he fit the bill as a low-cost centerfield option. He wasn’t a leadoff hitter, though, at least he hadn’t shown those skills since his last somewhat healthy season, 2009. Which left the club with little choice but to give their in-house candidate, Billy Hamilton, the job.

The issue with Hamilton, though, is that, though he has otherworldly speed, is he capable of thriving long-term in center, a position that he has been playing since the start of the 2012 season. His experience in Triple-A left a lot to be desired, as he posted a .256/.308/.343 triple-slash, stealing 75 bases and scoring 75 runs in 123 games for Louisville. We all know about his brief September audition, when Dusty Baker allowed him to receive all of 22 plate appearances, while Baker pinch-ran him often to allow the speedy Mississippian to accumulate 13 stolen bases in 14 tries.

In addition to plugging Hamilton into center, here is the laundry list of exciting moves that the Reds have made this winter:

October: Signed LHP Trevor Reckling and RHP Timothy Adleman to minor league contracts; signed OF Jason Bourgeois to a minor league contract and invited him to Spring Training;

November: Signed LHP Manny Parra, 2B Skip Schumaker, and C Brayan Pena to major league contracts; Signed OF Mike Wilson, LHP Nick Schmidt, and RHP Ross Ismail to minor league contracts; Signed C Max Ramirez, LHP Lee Hyde, and 3B Rey Navarro to minor league contracts and invited them to Spring Training;

December: Signed 3B Ruben Gotay and RHP Trevor Bell to minor league contracts; Invited non-roster RHP Jose Diaz and 2B Kristopher Negron to Spring Training; Signed RHP Chien-Ming Wang, C Corky Miller, and SS Argenis Diaz to minor league contracts and invited them to Spring Training; Acquired LHP David Holmberg from Arizona for Ryan Hanigan;

January: Sign RHP Bob Keppel, RHP Sean Black, OF Thomas Neal, LHP Jeff Francis, 2B John Tolisano, and 2B Hernan Iribarren to minor league contracts and invited them to Spring Training;

So, the club lost Shin-Soo Choo, Xavier Paul, and Derrick Robinson from last season’s 90-72 squad, so why should fans feel like this offseason is a failure?

Well, Choo’s production won’t be replaced by Hamilton, speed or no speed. Even if Hamilton increases his on-base percentage to .340 over 600 plate appearances, he doesn’t have the patient approach that Choo had, and, while he can move himself from base to base with his wheels, he just won’t be on as often. If Choo’s production is a clear downgrade, where are they upgrading?

Mesoraco1Is Devin Mesoraco set for a breakout season, replacing the putrid production that Ryan Hanigan provided in 2013? Is Todd Frazier going to post an .829 OPS, as he did in 2012, or something similar to his .721 OPS from 2013? Is Zack Cozart even worth starting anymore, given his career .680 OPS over 1,256 plate appearances? Ryan Ludwick had a nice 2012 and his 2013 was ruined due to his Opening Day shoulder injury, but was he ever worth a two-year, $15 million extension, especially when you consider it was back-loaded with an option for 2015, making him guaranteed $13 million, including his 2015 buyout? Brandon Phillips, 103 RBI or not, saw his OPS fall to .705 in 2013. Joey Votto and Jay Bruce seem like locks for success, but Bruce continues to be one of the streakiest players in all of baseball, while Votto’s patience seems to have overtaken his ability to actually produce at his 2010 MVP level ever again.

As far as the rotation, it remains pretty deep, but once you get past the top five, there are question marks. While that wouldn’t be a huge deal for most clubs, you have to remember that Johnny Cueto only had one full season and he immediately got hurt in the first game of the 2012 playoffs. Bailey, Latos, and Leake are very good options, and Tony Cingrani was impressive, even with just one good pitch, but having Wang, Francis, and nothing else as fallback options is rough, which may lead to the club rushing top prospect Robert Stephenson if there was an injury in 2014, not to mention how the rotation is going to function if Bailey leaves via free agency or Cueto’s 2015 option isn’t picked up. Who will be starting games and why don’t the Reds have options waiting like the Cardinals?

The bullpen is still built to dominate, as Aroldis Chapman is as shutdown as it gets. A full season of Sean Marshall, Jonathan Broxton, a former closer in his own right, serving as a setup man, and J.J. Hoover, Sam LeCure, Manny Parra, and Alfredo Simon rounding out the group helps the Reds bullpen look tremendous for another season…but a bullpen doesn’t have a lot of value if they aren’t protecting more leads than deficits.

The Reds haven’t been active enough. The Reds haven’t drafted enough high-ceiling talent. The Reds haven’t had enough success on the international market.

Braun1The Reds are a lot like the Milwaukee Brewers, locking up talent for just a little while, and then watching that talent and the contention window fly way in the breeze. You see, the Brewers were a competitive team until Prince Fielder left. They traded a lot of good, young talent to acquire Zack Greinke and CC Sabathia to help them contend. They bought in to that window and went for it. It is hard for a small-market to commit a lot of money to talent like Greinke and Sabathia, only to watch them leave for big-markets once they hit free agency, but the revenue that comes with a playoff run or a World Series title would alleviate a lot of those dollars. The Brewers, then, went into quite a funk the last several seasons, and they have yet to recover, but the worst part is that their farm system is terrible. If Ryan Braun doesn’t rebound, the club still has Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura, but the rest of the organization is quite barren.

The Reds are a lot like the Brewers because they haven’t had many successful recent drafts. While a lot of the key names on the major league roster are homegrown, there isn’t a whole lot of depth currently in the minor league system. The Reds did trade a couple of solid young players (Yasmani Grandal, Yonder Alonso, and Brad Boxberger) to acquire Mat Latos and Choo (Didi Gregorius and Drew Stubbs), but outside of Stephenson and Hamilton, much of the high-level talent was in Low-A or the Rookie levels last season, specifically Phillip Ervin, Jesse Winker, and Nick Travieso.

So, what will happen when 2015 rolls around without an Oscar Taveras waiting to take over left field for Ludwick? Who fills the rotation without a Gerrit Cole or Jameson Taillon ready to step in for A.J. Burnett? Who will push Todd Frazier at third base without a Kris Bryant or Javier Baez?

While the Reds and Brewers have weaker farm systems and question marks at several spots, the Cubs, Cardinals, and Pirates have done it right. They have managed to stay active and have taken risks with draft picks to make sure that they are getting the talent necessary to maintain solid depth within their organization. Sure, the Pirates and Cubs have had higher picks due to their lack of success over the years, but the Cardinals have a lot of talent and they haven’t had a season below .500 since 2007, while making the playoffs in 11 of the last 18 seasons, including four World Series and two titles.

PujolsThe conservative nature of the current regime in Cincinnati may not look awful as the Reds compete in 2014, but when Chicago, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis have their high-level minor league talent stepping in within the next two to three seasons, Reds fans will forget about the nightmares that Albert Pujols used to bring, and will instead be kept awake by Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora, Gregory Polanco, Oscar Taveras, and others who will make their names in the depths of the thriving systems in the rest of the National League Central. Meanwhile, the Brewers and Reds will continue to cry small-market when they have, instead, chosen to be smarter at the right times.

There are still names on the free agent market that can help the Reds contend, but none of them will make them as good as they were last season, in 2012, or in 2010, when Cincinnati has reached the playoffs. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense at this point to scrap what has been built. Instead, run out there with what you have and hope for the best, which, apparently, was Walt Jocketty and Bob Castellini’s plan all offseason.

Why Ryan Ludwick’s Injury Is Devastating for Cincinnati


Courtesy: CBS Sports
Courtesy: CBS Sports

Ryan Ludwick was a one-time All-Star, in 2008 for St. Louis, before his career started a downward trend in 2009, where Ludwick hit just .251/.321/.409 over the 2009 to 2011 seasons while being shipped out of St. Louis and playing for the Padres and Pirates. His career looked nearly finished before the start of 2012, when Reds GM Walt Jocketty gave him a one-year, $2 million deal to play left for Cincinnati, a job he had to earn over Chris Heisey.

Ludwick proved his worth, hitting .275/.346/.531 with 26 home runs and 80 RBI in 2012 in just 125 games and 472 plate appearances. His offensive outburst started when Joey Votto went on the disabled list on July 16, as he helped the Reds go 29-15 while Votto was out, posting a .346/.412/.654 line with 11 doubles, 12 home runs, and 36 RBI over 153 at-bats. Overall, Ludwick’s second half was much more impressive than the first:

1st Half 62 53 228 205 21 49 13 0 12 34 0 20 52 .239 .311 .478 .789 98
2nd Half 63 56 244 217 32 67 15 1 14 46 0 22 45 .309 .379 .581 .959 126
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/3/2013.

Clearly, Ludwick wasn’t likely to maintain a .333 BABIP in the 2012 season, which he had in the second half of 2012, when you consider that his career BABIP is .304, but crazier things have happened…such as the rebound that he had in 2012 after a pretty miserable 2011 for Pittsburgh and San Diego (.237/.310/.363).

While losing a 34-year-old outfielder wouldn’t seem awful for most clubs in an era where players decline naturally without being able to used performance-enhancing drugs, Ludwick was a leader in 2012 and he brought stability to the middle of the order. His right-handed bat seems irreplaceable now, as he was the No.4 hitter between Joey Votto and Jay Bruce. His replacements just don’t measure up to his career track record, especially when compared to his recent success.

HeiseyChris Heisey seems like the most likely, full-time replacement  for Ludwick. He is a career .258/.314/.436 hitter in 913 career plate appearances. The issue with using Heisey full-time becomes the loss of his bat off of the bench. As a substitute or pinch-hitter in his career, Heisey has a .288/.344/.507 with eight home runs and 28 RBI in 164 plate appearances. Beyond his value off of the bench, Heisey’s inability to make consistent contact, a career 23.9 percent strikeout rate, is a concern, just like his reverse platoon statistics, as Heisey is much better as a right-handed hitter against right-handed pitching, than he is against left-handed pitching:

vs RHP as RHB 269 658 596 164 25 5 25 72 12 39 155 .275 .331 .460 .791 274
vs LHP as RHB 122 255 234 50 10 2 8 30 1 14 63 .214 .272 .376 .648 88
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/3/2013.

Heisey is likely to share some at-bats with Xavier Paul, a 28-year-old, left-handed hitting outfielder. Paul can play all three outfield positions fairly well, which seems like a useless fact when the Reds are playing one of the worst defensive outfielders in baseball in center field this season in Shin-Soo Choo. Paul was once an interesting prospect for the Los Angeles Dodgers, displaying solid gap power and speed, but he has managed just 508 plate appearances over parts of four seasons in the majors, posting a .258/.305/.363 line. Paul’s inconsistent at-bats and consistent job as a No.5 outfielder could play a role in his inability to post solid numbers at the major league level, but considering that Heisey is better against right-handed pitching and Paul holds a .140/.197/.158 line in just 61 plate appearances against left-handed pitching.Paul

Derrick Robinson replaced Ludwick on the Reds’ 40-man roster, as his contract was purchased when Ludwick was placed on the disabled list. Robinson has never appeared in the majors before, posting a career .255/.321/.324 hitter in seven minor league seasons. At 25, the switch-hitting outfielder, who was a minor league free agent signing after spending his whole career with the Kansas City Royals’ organization, doesn’t seem to offer the Reds much more than position flexibility, as he, too, can handle all three outfield positions.

Luckily, the Reds just have to replace Ludwick’s spot in left field and not as the cleanup hitter. Brandon Phillips can move from the No.2 spot to the No.4 spot as another solid, right-handed hitting option in the order. Dusty Baker will likely slide Zack Cozart up to the No.2 spot, breaking up Choo, the leadoff hitter, and Votto, as left-handed hitters at the top of the order. Phillips is likely to produce very good numbers in the middle of the order, but the bottom half of the Reds lineup is now very suspect, as Ryan Hanigan or Devin Mesoraco will likely bat behind whoever fills the left field void, followed by the starting pitcher in the No.9 spot.

While Ryan Ludwick’s injury may seem like an issue that could be overlooked, it really isn’t for the Cincinnati Reds. Certainly, with a power-packed lineup of Shin-Soo Choo, Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier, and Joey Votto, you’d think that they could overcome this injury pretty easily; however, Ludwick’s ability with the bat is not replaceable with the on-hand talent that the Reds have on the bench. Chris Heisey could do well in spurts, but the club has to find creative ways to keep the lineup strong from the top to bottom for the next several months, as Ludwick is out due to surgery on his labrum in his right shoulder.

2013 Cincinnati Reds

Looking ahead to next season, though the Reds are currently in first place in the NL Central, the Reds have some interesting roster issues to address. Not only do they have arbitration eligible players who can increase payroll significantly, but they’ll have key players with extensions kicking in. Take a look at guaranteed contracts for 2013:

Joey Votto: $17 M

Brandon Phillips: $10 M

Jay Bruce: $7.5 M

Johnny Cueto: $7.4 M

Aroldis Chapman: $2 M

Bronson Arroyo: $11.5 M

Sean Marshall: $4.5 M

Ryan Madson: $2.5 M buyout OR $11 M

Nick Masset: $3.1 M

Ryan Hanigan: $2.05 M

Ryan Ludwick: $500K buyout OR $5 M

Jose Arredondo: $1.2 M

If the Reds buyout Ludwick and Madson, they have $69.25 M locked into 12 players, with only 10 of them returning. If they take on the contracts of both Ludwick and Madson, it goes up to $82.25 M for 12 players. However, it doesn’t end there. The following players are eligible for arbitration after the 2012 season:

Pre-arbitration – players who can have their contracts renewed at the league minimum:

Logan Ondrusek

Sam LeCure

Devin Mesoraco

Zack Cozart

Jordan Smith

Todd Frazier

Arbitration-eligible – players who can be non-tendered or signed through arbitration and receive a raise, with 2012 salaries listed in parenthesis:

Homer Bailey ($2.4 M)

Mat Latos ($550K)

Bill Bray ($1.42 M)

Wilson Valdez ($930K)

Paul Janish ($850K)

Drew Stubbs ($527,500)

Mike Leake ($507,500)

Chris Heisey ($495K)

Alfredo Simon ($487K)

The Reds would be wise to let Homer Bailey walk by being non-tendered, as he shouldn’t be getting a raise considering the inconsistencies that he has shown. He would earn between $3.5-4 M in arbitration. Valdez and Janish are veteran utility players who can be replaced with others who can play defense and not hit…just like them! Stubbs, Leake, and Heisey should all still be affordable in their first year of arbitration, but Latos could be an issue. He will get expensive quickly due to his early success, though it wasn’t with the Reds.


Scott Rolen

Miguel Cairo

Willie Harris

So, buyout Ludwick and Madson and keep Heisey in left and Chapman at closer and go from there.

Catchers: Ryan Hanigan and Devin Mesoraco

1B: Joey Votto

2B: Brandon Phillips

3B: Todd Frazier

SS: Zack Cozart

LF: Chris Heisey

CF: Drew Stubbs

RF: Jay Bruce

Starting Rotation:

Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo, Mike Leake, and OPEN


Jose Arredondo, Bill Bray, Nick Masset, Sam LeCure, Alfredo Simon, Logan Ondrusek, Sean Marshall, and Aroldis Chapman



Clearly, the Reds would need to fill the bench with about three players: a utility infielder, a super-utility player (infield and outfield), and a good fourth outfielder. They will need to look to free agency to fill those roles. The following players will be free agents and would be worth a look for the Reds:

Jose Lopez – Lopez can play first and third comfortably and second if or when needed. He has done so for the Cleveland Indians in 2012. He is making $800K in 2012 and will be 29 in 2013

Scott Hairston – Hairston may end up on the expensive side of bench players, as his power and versatility will be very valuable on the open market. He currently has an .840 OPS with 10 HR and 31 RBI in just 157 at bats for the New York Mets. Hairston is making $1.1 M in 2012 and has played all three outfield spots this season and some second base in his career.

Grady Sizemore – Injuries MIGHT be gone when he hits free agency after the 2012 season. Sizemore hasn’t had a healthy season since 2008. He is making $5 M in 2012 but hasn’t played in a single game. An incentive-laden contract is a necessity for Sizemore to prove his worth and as a former gold glove caliber center fielder, he can handle all three outfield positions…if healthy.

Ryan Theriot – Theriot is making $1.25 M for the San Francisco Giants while playing primarily shortstop. He played left field late in a game and has played second, short, third, and outfield in recent years.

The open rotation spot should be left to Tony Cingrani, the young left-hander out of Rice, who has dominated the minors this season to the tune of a 7-2 record, 1.47 ERA, 86 IP, 109:21 K:BB, .196 BAA, 0.95 WHIP, including a 15 strikeout, eight shutout inning outing on Wednesday night. It’s worth seeing what you have there. Alfredo Simon or Sam LeCure could fill the number five spot if the Reds don’t sign another veteran arm like: Aaron Cook, Kevin Correia, Jeremy Guthrie, Jason Marquis, Joel Piniero, or Chris Young, who could all be cheap options.

It’s never too early to wonder what your team will look like in the future. Maybe Billy Hamilton moves to center and Drew Stubbs or Chris Heisey becomes the team’s fourth outfielder? As the season goes on, trades could be made involving Cingrani or Hamilton to upgrade for 2012, as well. Regardless, the Reds look like an excellent team for this season and could get better by cutting some of the dead weight, namely their entire bench and Scott Rolen.


Are the Reds the Best Team in MLB?

Joey Votto has been one of the top players in MLB in 2012, posting an absurd .362/.485/.657 slash with 27 doubles, 12 home runs, 44 RBI, and a 49:52 K:BB in 213 at bats. Brandon Phillips is finally hitting, posting a .441/.472/.735 over his last eight games, with one double, three home runs, and nine RBI.  In doing so, Phillips has increased his triple-slash from .259/.314/.392 on May 24 to its current .292/.338/.454 level. With Votto still mashing and getting on base and Phillips finally hitting, are the Reds capable of being the best team in baseball over the rest of the season?

Some will argue that the Detroit Tigers have the lineup to beat due to Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.  Others say that the Yankees lineup with Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixiera, Robinson Cano, and Alex Rodriguez is the greatest of them all.  Others will argue that it is Ike Davis and Jason Bay, and we will mock them ferociously; however, the Reds seem to have what it takes to win.  The rotation can be thin at times with the inconsistencies at the back-end, but look at the front-end of that group…

Johnny Cueto has established himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball, compiling a 16-8 record, a 2.36 ERA, and a 1.12 WHIP over his last 37 starts.  Mat Latos may not have great stats in 2012 (5-2, 4.64 ERA, 1.37 WHIP), but the Reds are 8-2 in his last ten starts. Latos is also in the middle of the season, especially from May to July, where he is now 21-6 with a 2.90 ERA over his career during the early summer months.

What does all of this mean?  The Reds were as many as five games back and they were up as many as 3.5 games.  Now, they are three games up on both the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals.  The Reds have gone 25-16 since April 15.  It’s too bad they aren’t the Chicago Cubs because they are 17-8 in day games after Thursday’s  12-5 stomping of the Cleveland Indians.

The Reds have a solid rotation and enough offense to matter.  The American League is filled with punishing offenses, but the National League has…good pitching?  With the dramatic decline of the Philadelphia Phillies lineup, the Cincinnati Reds are in an elite class in the National League.

The Washington Nationals, Los Angeles Dodgers, and San Francisco Giants are the only other teams in the National League with the rotation and lineups that can match the Reds.  Bryce Harper is the real deal and the Nats will, at least, ride Strasburg to the limits of his innings, not his talent.  The Dodgers have had issues with injuries in the rotation and to Matt Kemp, but they’ve managed to hold on thanks to Andre Ethier’s redemption season and Chris Capuano’s best Clayton Kershaw impersonation.  The Giants have had some success from their rotation and offense, definitely not from Tim Lincecum, though, and with the return of Pablo Sandoval from injury, they will be that much better.

However, if Votto and Phillips are clicking like they are right now and the Reds have the 1-2 punch of Cueto and Latos going, then they can sit back and hope that the likes of Zack Cozart, Devin Mesoraco, Todd Frazier, Homer Bailey, and Mike Leake take the steps necessary to keep the team in contention while infusing youth in the every day lineup.  With smart baseball, like Mesoraco plowing into Lou Marson for defensive interference and a free run (see here), and mediocre production from the spare parts, the Reds are a team to be reckoned with.

Reds Seem Comfortable in the Two Hole

Jeff Kent made a living hitting in front of Barry Bonds, averaging a .297/.368/.535, 29 HR, and 114 RBI line over six seasons.  Joey Votto is having the same effect this season for Cincinnati, as the player hitting directly in front of him have gone .356/.406/.576 line, as teams continue to pitch around Votto, who is tied for the Major League lead in walks with 13.

Zack Cozart is now leading off for the Reds after raking .350/.409/.575 in 40 at bats in front of Votto.  He isn’t doing well at leadoff yet, walking once but going hitless in his first 8 at bats.  Drew Stubbs moved up in the order to 2nd when Dusty Baker moved Cozart to leadoff.  He is only hitting .538/.571/.846, going 7 for his first 13 there.

Take a look at production by batting order for the Red thus far:

Batting #1 14 62 5 8 1 0 0 0 3 14 .129 .169 .145
Batting #2 14 59 10 21 3 2 2 7 3 12 .356 .406 .576
Batting #3 14 49 7 14 3 0 1 8 13 14 .286 .429 .408
Batting #4 14 57 6 9 2 0 1 3 4 9 .158 .226 .246
Batting #5 14 55 7 12 3 0 3 6 4 16 .218 .262 .436
Batting #6 14 56 3 13 4 0 2 13 3 10 .232 .283 .411
Batting #7 14 52 5 13 3 2 0 4 3 9 .250 .291 .385
Batting #8 14 49 4 13 1 0 0 2 6 6 .265 .345 .286
Batting #9 14 46 1 7 1 0 0 4 1 17 .152 .167 .174

Obviously, having performed well since the recent moves, the lineup may stick for a while.  If Brandon Phillips is hitting 4th between Votto and Jay Bruce, this lineup would remain one that fans can’t complain much about.  However, if Baker continues putting Ryan Ludwick or Scott Rolen in the 4-spot, when they’ve gone a combined 4 for 42 with 1 RBI (.095), this doesn’t make sense.  The Reds need Phillips healthy and he has been hampered by a hamstring injury most of the season.  He has a .333/.333/.667 line in just 9 at bats at #4.

If Phillips isn’t playing and the Reds want production, they need to bat Votto in front of Jay Bruce at 3 and 4.  Bruce has struggled to a .229/.250/.458 line in the 5-spot without protection behind him, striking out 13 times in 48 at bats.  Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were both left handed hitters and seemed to hit well batting back to back in the Yankees order in the late 1920’s.  I wonder if Miller Huggins and his three championships and six pennants had a book on how to put lineups together like managers today?

Not Red Hot

The Cincinnati Reds have made big news for the last few months between their big trade for Mat Latos and the huge contracts to both Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips.  One thing they are not in the news for, to this point, is their incredible hitting.  The Reds are currently 28th in the Majors in hitting, with a team average of .191 through 9 games.  Take a look at their hit totals for the year:

10, 6, 8, 3, 4, 14, 5, 5, 2.

Keep in mind that the 14 hits they had against the Cardinals on Wednesday, they left 13 on base, and the 10 hits from Opening Day had 9 left on base.  The Reds just aren’t scoring enough runs because they can’t get any hits.  They haven’t had the easiest schedule in the world with the new-look Miami Marlins, the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals, and the improving Washington Nationals, but a 3-6 record wasn’t what fans and ownership was looking for as the team heads into win now mode.

You can’t blame Zack Cozart (.313), Joey Votto (.290), or Brandon Phillips (just 16 at bats due to injury to hamstring, .250), but just about everyone else could be labeled an issue.  Jay Bruce has 3 HR and 6 RBI with an .802 OPS, but he has 8 K’s in 34 at bats and a .235 average.  Drew Stubbs is at .147 with 12 K’s in 34 at bats, certainly not improving on his atrocious contact rate that worried the club last year.  Ryan Ludwick (.150), Ryan Hanigan (.118), and Scott Rolen (.111) round out the apparent regulars, while Devin Mesoraco (.167 in 12 at bats) and Chris Heisey (.188 in 16 at bats) continue to be youngsters losing out to the veteran loving, toothpick toting Dusty Baker.

Regardless of who is playing, it doesn’t seem to be working.  As the Reds looked to capitalize on the departure of NL Central foes Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, the long-term commitments and trades developed expectations that, to this point, they have fallen well short of.  With such dynamic talent in Votto, Phillips, and Bruce, the lineup is capable of more.  The issue could be Phillips’ absence, the fact that Dusty HAS TO split up Votto and Bruce (and has done so with Scott Rolen and Ryan Ludwick in the clean-up spot), or it could be a challenging schedule.  Expectations are high and if they keep flopping like they are, fans aren’t going to show up in Cincinnati, and if fans don’t show up, they already need to start wondering about how they are going to be paying Phillips and Votto in the coming seasons.