Can a team 11 games over .500 in arguably Major League Baseball’s best division be underachieving?
At first glance, the Cincinnati Reds (53-42) appear to be ahead of their pre-All-Star Break pace from a year ago. However, though the 2012 version of baseball’s oldest franchise was nine games over .500, they had played 10 fewer games (47-38).
The first-half Reds have been sans their everyday left fielder and clean-up hitter since Opening Day (Ryan Ludwick) and without their highly-paid righty-lefty setup duo for most of the first half (Jonathan Broxton, Sean Marshall).
So is the sky falling? Not quite.
Dusty Baker’s crew is secure in the National League’s second Wild Card spot, five games ahead of Washington (48-47).
And while it’s unlikely St. Louis (57-36) and their run differential of +147 and team batting average of .337 with runners in scoring position will slow down anytime soon, it’s fair to expect regression out of Pittsburgh (56-37), whose overworked bullpen is bound to blow a handful of games in the coming dog days of August.
It’s likely the Reds and Pirates will go down to the wire fighting for home-field advantage in the Wild Card play-in game. And wouldn’t you know it, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh face off six times in their final nine games of the season.
With that, let’s hand out first-half awards for the Reds and dole out a few second-half predictions…
Most Valuable Pitcher: Mike Leake
Bronson Arroyo and Mat Latos have as many wins (eight). Tony Cingrani has six more strikeouts (77-71) despite pitching in 53 less innings. Aroldis Chapman was the staff’s lone All-Star. Homer Bailey threw a no-hitter.
Yet, no Reds hurler has been as consistently successful over the season’s first half as the 25-year-old Leake, a shocking development considering that Leake seemed destined for bullpen duty in 2013 until late March. It was then that the organization decided to ditch plans to convert Chapman into a starter and keep him entrenched as the team’s closer.
Leake has done his part to back up that move. His ERA+ (a refined measurement of earned run average that factors in ballparks) of 148 is 25 points better than the next best Cincinnati starter. His standard ERA of 2.69 is seventh-best in the National League.
After a rough first month (1-1, 4.34 ERA in April), Leake was masterful over May (3-1, 1.87) and June (3-1, 1.76).
Something to keep an eye on, Part I: Opponents are hitting .266 on balls put in play off the 5-10 righty — considerably lower than Leake’s career mark of .293. Time will tell if Leake’s stuff improved this season — per Fangraphs.com, he’s throwing his fastball, slider, cutter, curveball and changeup at similar rates and velocities as he has in his three previous seasons — or he’s benefitting rom sheer luck.
Something to keep an eye on, Part II: Unless the Reds decide to ink Leake to an extension, he will be arbitration-eligible for the 2014 season. So far, the front office has indicated it values possible deals for Bailey (arbitration-eligible in 2014) and Latos (signed through 2014, arbitration-eligible in 2015) ahead of a new contract for its 2009 first round pick.
Most Valuable Position Player: Joey Votto
The heavy temptation is to go with Brandon Phillips, who drove in 24 runs in 27 April games after the Reds lost Ludwick to a shoulder injury.
The other temptation is to select Jay Bruce, a notoriously inconsistent batter.
Bruce Adjustment No. 1: The 26-year-old left-handed hitter’s career batting average splits for March/April (.260), May (.280), June (.249), July (.229), August (.268) and September/October (.265) epitomize the term ‘streak hitter.’ But, 2013 Bruce has managed to level out his quirky monthly splits: .252 in April; .290 in May; .294 in June; .271 in July.
Bruce Adjustment No. 2: A career .238 hitter vs. left-handed pitching, Bruce is hitting .283 against southpaws in 2013, well above the Major League average of .235.
But, the success of Cincinnati’s offense begins and ends — fairly or unfairly — with the club’s $251 million first baseman.
Votto leads the team in three statistically-sound measures of value and production: Wins Above Replacement (better known as WAR, it’s an indication of how much better a player is than a replacement-level player), on-base percentage plus (on-base percentage plus the ballpark factor) and runs created (another way of measuring run production).
So, despite what you may have read elsewhere regarding Votto’s lack of traditional power numbers (15 home runs, 42 RBIs), the 29-year-old former MVP is doing his job, which is to be the day-in and day-out engine of the Reds offense.
Most Thrilling Win(s): May 7 (5-4 over Braves) and June 19 (2-1 in 13 innings over Pirates)
It’s too difficult to select between the Reds’ pair of comebacks against two of the National League’s four best teams — whom also featured a pair of All-Star closers.
On a Tuesday night in May, Cincinnati trailed 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth. Atlanta closer Craig Kimbrel, he of the high-90s heat, recorded the first two outs. Up stepped pinch-hitter Devin Mesoraco, who worked Kimbrel to a full count.
Then, the improbable happened.
Mesoraco extended his arms on a 96 mph fastball low in the strike zone and sent the ball a row deep into the stands just beyond the right-center field wall at Great American Ballpark, leveling the game at four. Kimbrel had given up his first round-tripper of 2013 just a week earlier to the Mets’ David Wright.
A batter later, Shin-Soo Choo capped the unthinkable rally by crushing a 2-1 fastball from Kimbrel into the rear of the Cincinnati bullpen in left-center, sending GABP into a fit of mid-week madness.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Mesoraco and Choo became the second pair of teammates in the past 30 years to hit two-out, back-to-back game-tying and walk-off home runs.
The second game was a similar situation. Bruce stepped to the plate with his squad down 1-0 in the ninth and faced Pirates closer Jason Grilli, who had converted 25 straight save opportunities to begin 2013 — one shy of the Pittsburgh record.
Bruce — who robbed Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen of a potential home run with a leaping catch in right field in the seventh — clubbed the first pitch he saw from Grilli halfway up the GABP moon deck in right field, tying the game.
Phillips’ bases-loaded chopper up the middle in the bottom of the 13th secured Cincinnati’s 2-1 win.
Most Painful Loss: July 8, 4-3 to Brewers
Jumping the Pirates for a 4-0 lead on June 2 in Pittsburgh only to be shutout over the next 10 innings and lose 5-4 in 11 must’ve been tough for Baker’s bunch, but the club was coming off a 19-8 record in May, so the dark clouds that resulted in a 12-15 June had not quite settled.
No, Cincinnati’s recent loss at Milwaukee was excruciating if only for the superhuman way it ended.
Fast forward to the ninth when the Brewers had the Reds down to their final strike.
Votto turned on Francisco Rodriguez’s 90 mph fastball and sent it skying to center, looking like a certain game-tying home run. But, All-Star center fielder Carlos Gomez leapt and caught the potential dinger.
Rodriguez held his hands over the back of his head in shock. Votto went mad, demanding that Gomez show proof of his high-wire robbery. Gomez obliged, and the Reds were sent to their hotel rooms stunned, the first of four defeats on a six-game road trip heading into the All-Star break.
Best Offseason Move: Acquiring Shin-Soo Choo
Reds leadoff hitters in 2012: .208 average, .254 on-base percentage, .581 on-base plus slugging percentage. Over half of the team’s plate appearances in the leadoff spot came from shortstop Zack Cozart (.223 average, .262 on-base percentage).
Reds leadoff hitters in 2013: .295 average, .440 on-base percentage, .933 on-base plus slugging percentage. Choo, acquired from Cleveland as part of a three-team trade in December, is responsible for 89 percent of the club’s plate appearances in the No. 1 spot.
Choo entered 2013 with just 10 pro starts in center field. And while advanced defensive metrics are no fan of him in center, Choo’s plus bat and strong throwing arm make up for any defensive deficiencies.
And considering the Indians are paying $3.5 of Choo’s $7.375 million 2013 salary, team general manager Walt Jocketty gets an A-plus grade here, even though Choo — a free agent-to-be — is very much unlikely to return in 2014.
Worst Offseason Move: Re-signing Jonathan Broxton
Cincinnati re-signed Broxton to a three-year, $21 million deal in late November with the idea that he would be closing games in place of Chapman, who was slated to join the rotation.
That plan backfired when Chapman was re-installed as closer.
Now, the right-handed Broxton has spent much of the past month on the disabled list. Even when healthy, Broxton hasn’t been good, sporting an ERA of 4.33 in 29 games.
Combine that with the fact that Marshall, the team’s presumed lefty specialist, has thrown seven measly innings this season due to arm trouble, and the Reds are getting nothing out of their supposed late-inning workhorses. Club owner Bob Castellini is paying $36.5 million to Broxton and Marshall through the 2015 season.
Second half predictions
>> A Chapman-Stanton swap won’t happen
The Cincinnati Enquirer recently floated the idea of the Reds acquiring Miami outfielder Giancarlo Stanton for Chapman — presumably in a straight-up deal; the author did not specify.
The roadblocks to this deal as prescribed are immense. Even the lowly Marlins wouldn’t trade one of the game’s best power prospects — Stanton is 23 and has 103 career home runs — for a closer. Throw in the fact that Stanton is under club control through 2016, and unless Chapman put in writing that he would start for Miami (even though he’s never started an ML game), the proposition of a one-for-one deal is preposterous.
However, a few things are working in favor of a Chapman-to-Marlins deal this winter:
* Chapman, a native Cuban, makes his offseason home in Miami, where there is a substantial Cuban populace.
* Cincinnati would have to package Tony Cingrani, Daniel Corcino, Billy Hamilton or Robert Stephenson with Chapman in such a deal. Of those three, the Reds could probably be talked into dealing Corcino, a 22-year-old right-handed pitcher. Corcino has struggled at AAA this season, but has been compared to Reds' ace Johnny Cueto.
* Per MLB.com, the Marlins top two prospects — Christian Yelich and Jake Marisnick — are outfielders expected to arrive in the majors next season. That, along with the emergence of 23-year-old outfielder Marcell Ozuna (.273 average, 32 RBI in 66 MLB games) would soften the blow of Stanton’s potential exit.
* Chapman is under club control through 2016. That’s very important to an excessively frugal organization such as Miami.
* The Reds would never say it publicly, but they have no intention of handing Chapman a new contract so long as he is closing games and not starting them. (At least one would think so, considering the Broxton contract and the fact that ownership paid former closer Francisco Cordero $45 million from 2007-11).
* Cincinnati badly needs a right-handed power bat in its lineup, and sticking Stanton in the clean-up spot sandwiched between Votto and Bruce is enough to cause Reds’ diehards to salivate like Pavlov’s dog.
* Hamilton isn’t ready to play every day in the majors. The 22-year-old owner of the minor leagues’ single-season stolen base record is struggling at AAA, posting a .243 average with a .300 on-base percentage in 2013. Presuming Ludwick returns fully healthy in 2014, the Reds could shift Bruce to center and swallow the defensive downgrades in exchange for the offensive potential. Then, with Ludwick out of the picture in 2015 and Hamilton boasting two years of center field experience in AAA — he was primarily a shortstop before this season — the Reds would have their outfield set in stone for the next half decade.
Having said all that, I don’t think a deal gets done. The quality of the Reds prospects in the high minors is weak and Chapman has shown no indication he wants to start.
>> The pitching staff improves and presents Baker with tough decisions
At some point over the next two months, the Reds will get Broxton and Marshall back. I think they’ll come back and pitch well, especially Marshall, whom the Reds have been borderline coddling in his recovery. If those two come back sharp, Marshall will get his late-inning lefty position back, no question.
The same can’t be said for Broxton.
Sam LeCure, Logan Ondrusek and Alfredo Simon have combined to let just four of 29 inherited runners to score this season. LeCure has been especially clutch, tallying an ERA of 2.23 despite entering 17 games considered to be ‘high leverage’ situations by BaseballReference.com, the second-highest total on the team next to Chapman.
There’s also the case of Cueto, limited to nine starts this season after winning 19 games in 2012. Cueto is currently on the disabled for the third time this year, and no timetable is set for his return.
Tony Cingrani (3.02 ERA, .200 opponents batting average) has filled in well in 10 starts. But if Cueto proves to be healthy late in the season, Cingrani will be moved back into the bullpen.
>> The Reds will finish atop the Wild Card standings
I’ve already touched on the team’s pitching situations: Cincinnati has reinforcements coming in its bullpen. Pittsburgh’s bullpen leads the NL in innings pitched. The Reds are awaiting the return of Cueto. The Pirates need big things out of Gerrit Cole and Jeff Locke, two young starters who have never pitched in a pennant race and likely will be asked to throw considerably more innings than they’ve ever thrown as pros.
Though they have been inconsistent offensively, Cincinnati still ranks fourth in the NL in runs and is second in on-base plus slugging percentage. Pittsburgh is tied for 13th and tied for 10th in the same categories.
The Reds are a top-to-bottom a better team right now, and time will show that.
>> So, who makes the playoffs?
In the National League, I’ll take Atlanta in the East, St. Louis in the Central and Los Angeles in the West, with Cincinnati and Pittsburgh as the top two Wild Card teams.
As for the American League, give me Tampa Bay in the East, Detroit in the Central and Oakland in the West, with Boston and Baltimore going one-two in the Wild Card.
Who’s going to win it all? Check back in October.
Grant Freking is a sportswriter for the Daily Reporter. Contact him at (317) 477-3230 or at email@example.com.