Sports Outside the Beltway

Reds In First

The Cincinnati Reds have reached their April 12 off day with a 5-4 record, which is good enough for a tie with the St. Louis Cardinals for first place in the NL Central.  In the early going, it looks like parity will again rule the roost for the Central, which means the race is wide open yet again.  Do the Reds have enough to win it?

The rotation has looked solid in the early going.  Returning aces Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo have again delivered solid performances, and mid-rotation guys Kyle Lohse and Matt Belisle have delivered like mid-rotation guys.  The question has been the fifth spot, currently handled by high-salaried veteran Eric Milton.  Milton started the season on the DL, then was cuffed around a bit in his first start.  His next start will be delayed, as he is being held out of the Cubs’s series this weekend.  The word for public consumption is that the lefty Milton is being delayed to avoid the Cubs’ heavily right-handed lineup.  Hiding a starting pitcher is not often done with a highly-paid free agent, but that seems to be what is happening here.  The over-under on when Milton is displaced for highly-touted youngster Homer Bailey is the All-Star Break.

The bullpen has done well so far, although there is little public commitment to a closer.  In practice, David Weathers has taken over the 9th-inning duties, although the lack of a public naming of Weathers as closer probably relates to a fear that Weathers will slip into one of his annual slumps somewhere in mid-season.  Eddie Guardado’s comeback is on a fluid timetable, but the Reds also have veteran lefty Mike Stanton and youngster Todd Coffey available to close games, and Victor Santos has had a lot of success so far as the go-to guy for the middle of innings with runners on base.  Weathers will get the saves for now, but things could change rapidly, especially if Weathers blows a few and someone else is going well.

The offense is a cause for concern.  Adam Dunn has broken out of the gate quickly, and at age 27 could be ready for his career year.  Ryan Freel is doing his sparkplug thing in the leadoff spot and playing center field.  There are high hopes for the health of Ken Griffey Jr. in his less-demanding right field spot.  And Edwin Encarnacion has the makings of an RBI guy.  However, Dave Ross has started the season in a slump, and may struggle to reach last year’s 25 homers even in more playing time.  Brandon Phillips has looked like the guy who was in a second-half slump rather than his impressive first half of last year.  And SS Alex Gonzalez isn’t on the team for his hitting.  Jeff Conine is doing well in his reserve role, but Scott Hatteberg has shown little power.

The wild card here is Josh Hamilton, the former #1 overall draft pick and recovering drug addict.  Hamilton didn’t get any starts last week due to the flu, but has produced two homers in two starts this week.  Performance like that will bring more opportunity, so Hamilton will see more lineup time.  So far he has spelled Freel and Griffey once each, and replacing each once a week could be good, but if the kid is really going to break out he will need more time than that. How that will be handled remains to be seen.

Hamilton is especially important, because for the Reds to grab the division will require more offense, and Hamilton is a potential source for that offense.  His position in the lineup will be the problem.  If the Reds can get some hitting, other pieces are in place.

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