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July 20, 2011

On the Beat

Red Hot or Dead Red?

by John Perrotto

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The Reds aren't frustrated about having a losing record as they approach the 100-game mark in the season following their first division title in 15 years. Baffled is a better way to describe how the defending National League Central champions feel.

The Reds are 47-50 but still in the thick of a scrambled NL Central race despite being in fourth place. They trail the first-place Pirates—no, that's not a typographical error—by five games.

Yet the Reds believe their record should be much better, and their run differential of +0.28 a game suggests they have a reason for keeping the faith. The Reds lead the NL and are fourth in the major leagues with an average of 4.66 runs scored per game, while their 4.38 runs allowed per game average ranks ninth in the NL and 17th in the majors.

"Everything has got to be running on all cylinders for a team to win, and that really hasn't happened for us with any consistency all season," said first baseman Joey Votto, the reigning NL Most Valuable Player. "When you're pitching well, you need to be hitting well and vice versa. I feel we do a lot of the fundamental parts of the game very well. I think we're a good defensive team. I think we're a good baserunning team. We've got a good group of guys who like each other and pull for each other. Yet it seems like one day we'll get a great outing from our starter and lose 2-1, then the next day we'll put up a lot of runs and lose 8-7. At some point, things have to start balancing out."

Reds manager Dusty Baker doesn't mention the Pythagorean Over/Under to explain why he, like Votto, believes everything will even out in the end. He looks at his lineup card for his answer.

"We just haven't been able to get that big knockout punch that will get you over the hump," Baker said. "With the players we've got, I know we've got a lot of those knockout punches coming. We're confident. We're poised about the situation."

Despite leading the NL in scoring, getting two-out hits has been a problem for the Reds. Their 625 OPS with two outs and runners in scoring position is 25th among the 30 major-league clubs and well below the NL average of 684.

"Runners in scoring position is killing us," second baseman Brandon Phillips said. "We're getting runners on base and we're not coming through and driving them in. It's absolutely killing us."

Votto is being counted on to provide a lot of those KOs, and he is having another fine season with a .332 True Average, a .324/.435/.504 slash line, and 3.9 WARP. He is being ably supported in the lineup by catcher Ramon Hernandez (.304), left fielder Chris Heisey (.297), and right fielder Jay Bruce (.290). While Drew Stubbs' TAv is just .268 and he has struck out a whopping 125 times in 416 plate appearances, the center fielder has also contributed 11 home runs and 23 stolen bases and is second to Votto on the team with 2.4 WARP. Phillips was on the NL All-Star team but has a disappointing .263 TAv.

"Scoring runs haven't been a problem, but I think there's the potential to do more," Votto said. "I don't think you've necessarily seen the best out of us."

The Reds will need more from their pitching staff if they are going to repeat as division champions. Two relievers, lefty specialist Bill Bray (3.01) and long man Sam LeCure (3.90), are the only two pitchers with Fair Run Averages under 4.00. Johnny Cueto's lackluster 4.74 mark leads a rotation than includes Mike Leake (4.86), Homer Bailey (5.28), and Bronson Arroyo (6.04).

"We've got to pitch better down the stretch, no ifs, ands, or buts about that," Arroyo said. "I need to step up, for sure, and the whole staff does. We can't expect the hitters to carry us all year. At some point, we've got to start doing our part, too."

One thing the Reds have in their favor is confidence after winning the division last season, a first-time experience for the team's young core group of players. Votto said the Reds have been able to draw on that during their up-and-down season.

"We learned two things from last year," Votto said. "One is that we can do it, that we're good enough to win the division. We also learned that we can overcome adversity. If we get swept in a four-game series by the Phillies right before the All-Star break or get swept in a three-game series by St. Louis in September, we know we can still win. The experience of failing and coming back in the same season was a very good lesson."

The Reds' record says they have failed more than they have succeeded in 2011. They also have three teams to climb over in the NL Central standings, as the Pirates hold a 1/2-game lead over the Brewers and a 1 1/2-game lead over the Cardinals. It was a two-team race last season, with the Reds finishing five games ahead of the Cardinals.

"It's different this year with all the teams bunched up, and it's going to keep pressure on whoever the leaders are," Baker said. "We can't set a rotation to face certain teams. You can't rest guys at certain times. It's good for baseball, though, and it's good for intensity on a daily basis."

The Reds insist the intensity is there. Because of that, they feel the wins are eventually going to come.

"You go through rough stretches during the season, and we've had them," Votto said. "We haven't won as much as most people expected. At some point, we're going to put our string together. We're going to win five in a row, 10 in a row, maybe more. It's going to happen. There is just too much talent on this team for us not to break out at some point, whether it's now or the middle of August or the beginning of September. It doesn't matter when, just as long as it happens."

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Rumors and rumblings:

The Rays have quietly let it be known that right-hander James Shields is available for the right price. He certainly should generate plenty of interest, as he is more attractive than some of the other starting pitchers on the market, such as the Braves' Derek Lowe and the Orioles' Jeremy GuthrieMark Buehrle could be another surprise trade candidate, as the White Sox already have six starters and it appears that they won't be able to afford to bring the veteran left-hander back as a free agent next season… Dodgers right-hander Hiroki Kuroda has been linked to such teams as the Tigers but has a full no-trade clause, and the Japanese native wants to stay on the West Coast… Speaking of staying put, friends of Aramis Ramirez say they would be very surprised if the Cubs third baseman would waive the no-trade clause in his contract this year… The Padres could be the most active team at the deadline, as they are willing to trade closer Heath Bell, set-up man Mike Adams, and left fielder Ryan Ludwick, a trio that should net a good haul of prospects. The Cardinals have stepped up their pursuit of Bell, while the Phillies would like to deal for both Adams and Ludwick, who has also piqued the interest of the Red Sox and Indians.

The Twins, hoping to stay in the American League Central race, are looking for a frontline starting pitcher and are eyeing left-hander Wandy Rodriguez, though there is some question about whether the Astros would trade him… The Pirates have been linked to such outfielders as the Mets' Carlos Beltran, the Braves' Melky Cabrera, and the Athletics' Josh Willingham, but their primary focus is on finding a quality eighth-inning reliever to set up closer Joel Hanrahan, with the Orioles' Koji Uehara and the Athletics' Grant Balfour two of their targets… The Nationals are getting plenty of interest in closer Drew Storen and set-up man Tyler Clippard but would prefer to trade veteran starters like lefty Tom Gorzelanny and righties Livan Hernandez and Jason Marquis… The Diamondbacks are giving strong consideration to calling up first baseman Paul Goldschmidt from Double-A to bolster their offense.

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Scouts' views:

Mariners second baseman Dustin Ackley: "I like what I've seen of him so far. He doesn't look overmatched at all against major-league pitching, and he looks comfortable at second base, too. He has a real presence about him that makes you think he has a chance to be a star."

Nationals first baseman Mike Morse: "He's been one of the biggest surprises in the big leagues this year. Adam LaRoche is okay, but the Nationals caught a break when he got hurt and they had to go with Morse. He's developed some big-time power as he's gotten older. His home runs aren't fence scrapers."

Blue Jays left-handed reliever Marc Rzepczynski: "He's really found his niche in the bullpen. He is a lot more aggressive pitching in relief and ties left-handed hitters up in knots with his slider. The only thing I don't like about him is that it's impossible to spell his name on my reports."

Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips: "His bat is starting to slow down just a little, and he can be beaten with good fastballs now. Yet he still gives you a good at-bat and he hits the ball hard. The Reds hold a pretty big option ($12 million) on him for next year, and it'll be interesting to see what they do."

White Sox third baseman Brent Morel: "He isn't turning out to be the player the White Sox thought. He swings at everything, and he has no pop. Big-league pitchers are basically just overpowering him. He's a good defender, but he has to hit some if he's going to be a big-league starter."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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