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.Â 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.Â Do the Reds have enough to win it?
The rotation has looked solid in the early going.Â 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.Â The question has been the fifth spot, currently handled by high-salaried veteran Eric Milton.Â Milton started the season on the DL, then was cuffed around a bit in his first start.Â His next start will be delayed, as he is being held out of the Cubs’s series this weekend.Â The word for public consumption is that the lefty Milton is being delayed to avoid the Cubs’ heavily right-handed lineup.Â Hiding a starting pitcher is not often done with a highly-paid free agent, but that seems to be what is happening here.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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.Â Adam Dunn has broken out of the gate quickly, and at age 27 could be ready for his career year.Â Ryan Freel is doing his sparkplug thing in the leadoff spot and playing center field.Â There are high hopes for the health of Ken Griffey Jr. in his less-demanding right field spot.Â And Edwin Encarnacion has the makings of an RBI guy.Â 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.Â Brandon Phillips has looked like the guy who was in a second-half slump rather than his impressive first half of last year.Â And SS Alex Gonzalez isn’t on the team for his hitting.Â 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.Â Hamilton didn’t get any starts last week due to the flu, but has produced two homers in two starts this week.Â Performance like that will bring more opportunity, so Hamilton will see more lineup time.Â 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.Â His position in the lineup will be the problem.Â If the Reds can get some hitting, other pieces are in place.
General Manager Wayne Krivsky has gone about remaking the Reds more into the image of the Twins organization he left to take the Cincinnati job: more pitching and defense. There have been two major moves in that direction, one very unpopular, one that left the fan base ambivalent.
The first move was the big trade of 2006, sending OF Austin Kearns and IF Felipe Lopez to Washington in return for relief pitchers Bill Bray and Gary Majewski. The trade was lightly praised by the traditional press, reviled by the team’s bloggers (including myself, although with reservations) and ineffective in its initial aims of bringing a playoff birth in 2006. It seems, however, to be only the start of a trend.
The second move was the offseason signing of shortstop Alex Gonzalez. Gonzalez is not adept at getting on base, but has some power, and a strong defensive rep that is supported by the numbers. It is Gonzalez that is really at the heart of the attempt to keep down the Reds’ Runs Allowed column, as few others moves of consequence were made during the offseason. The team that opens 2007 Spring Training in Sarasota, FL is mostly the same team that ended the season in Cincinnati.
The Reds posted an 80-82 record in 2006, not terribly impressive but the best the Queen City had seen in years. Hopes run high for a resurgence of the southwestern Ohio band. Many of those hopes are pinned on the best Reds pitching prospect since Mario Soto, or perhaps Don Gullett–maybe even Jim Maloney. Homer Bailey is on the horizon, and the hearts of Reds fans beat faster just to hear his name. The loose-limbed, lanky Bailey throws a high-velocity fastball and a sharp curve, and grown men salivate at the thought of him on a mound. Bailey is one of the truly elite pitching prospects in baseball. Many fans were beating at the gate last year, calling for Bailey to be promoted in an attempt to save the big team. Management resisted the temptation, in favor of more seasoning.
Bailey figures to open the season in Triple-A, and move up to the big club during the summer. He may be needed to bolster the team, which has a shaky staff. Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo emerged as top pitchers last year, but their ability to repeat is in doubt. Eric Milton and Kyle Lohse hold down the 3-4 spots, based mainly on memories of 14-win seasons some time past. Kirk Saarloos leads the list of candidates for the #5 rotation slot many would like to see handed to Bailey.
The offense has been sliced for 2007, although strikeout-prone slugger Adam Dunn returns. Dunn popped 40 HR but batted just .234 in 2006. He’ll have to step that up. A healthy season from Ken Griffey Jr. would be helpful as well. Youngsters Edwin Encarancion and Brandon Phillips emerged last year, and continued development is needed to form a contending team. So is a continuation of good performance from veteran Scott Hatteberg, plus speedster Ryan Freel.
Jeff Conine may get playing time, but at 40 that may not be a good idea. Chris Denorfia waits for a spot to open. Prodigal baseball player Josh Hamilton is in camp, hoping to impress and stay on the roster after being picked up in the Rule 5 draft.
Cincinnati Reds General Manager came out of the Minnesota Twins’ system, and has made noises about remaking the powerful, plodding Reds into the image of the pitching-and-defense oriented Twins. Trading Wily Mo Pena to get Bronson Arroyo was the opening salvo of that movement, and it was long overdue. The five-outfielders-for-four-spots event had become tiresome to everyone, and a starting pitcher was sorely needed.
The midseason deal of Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez to Washington for relievers Bill Bray and Gary Majewski (with a few other players included) was apparently another dip in the same pool. Concerns about Lopez’ defense at shortstop abounded, and were certainly not without merit. Lopez had shown limited range and below average hands in the infield. Yet, Kearns was the best outfielder the Reds possessed, so the trade overall was not a big boost for the defense, and with Majewski soon going down due to arm trouble, and veteran shortstop Royce Clayton predictably struggling, the critics had a field day at Krivsky’s expense. Then, the Reds’ offense tanked in September, scuttling a playoff run made possible by the Cardinals’ slump.
Cincinnati fans have waited to see what the ever-active Krivsky would do in the offseason, given his alacrity of movement during the 2006 championship battle. The man was never shy about making a move. The deal many fans feared, although others welcomed, was the envisioned trade of slugger Adam Dunn, which would presumably complete the remaking of the team in Krivsky’s image. Thus far Krivsky has only signed third-tier free agents, picking up shortstop Alex Gonzalez and re-signing reliever David Weathers. He shipped off out-of-favor catcher Jason LaRue, but then signed hitting noncombatant Chad Moeller, apparently to be the third catcher.
We will know more about the destiny of this team if Krivsky does trade Dunn over the offseason. That would signal a complete reworking of the franchise. In the absence of a big bat coming back in the deal, it would also signal an era of light-hitting defense-oriented play in the Queen City. Only time will tell.