The Reds were a trendy to pick to be the surprise team of the National League when the season began. Instead, the biggest surprise about the Reds through the first three weeks of the season is that they have played so poorly. The Reds are just 8-11 and not looking like potential contenders, even though they are just 3 ½ games out of first place in what has been a weak NL Central to this point.

“I really believe we have the talent to be in the race this year,” says right fielder Jay Bruce. “The biggest thing with our team is that we don’t have a lot of guys who have won before. The few veteran guys who have won are doing their best to teach us, but it’s hard to know how to win until you’ve done it. That’s what we’re struggling with right now. We’re trying to figure it out.”

It has been a decade since the Reds have even had a winning record, last topping .500 in 2000, and they have not been to the postseason since 1995. That was when such current keys as Bruce, first baseman Joey Votto, center fielder Drew Stubbs, and right-handers Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, and Mike Leake could only dream of playing in the major leagues.

The Reds’ problem throughout the millennium has usually been a lack of pitching. That figured to be their strength this season, though, even with right-hander Edinson Volquez, a 2008 All-Star, recovering from Tommy John surgery and sitting out a 50-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball’s drug policy.

However, the Reds rank 15th in the 16-team NL in runs allowed with an average of 6.3 a game. Leake (0.4) and Cueto (0.1) are the only starters to have positive SNLVAR. Veteran anchors Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang have been particularly disappointing, as they have combined for a 7.86 ERA after the first four turns through the rotation.

“We haven’t, as a whole, gotten off to a good start,” Arroyo said. “We’ve only had two or three really good outings. Even when we’ve started off well, we’ve only made it through six innings and given up four runs. We’re not making quality starts. That shouldn’t happen, especially this early in the season. You usually feel like the pitchers have the edge at this time of year. We’ve got to turn the corner somehow, some way. There is no doubt that we’re not pitching nearly as well as we should be.”

Reds manager Dusty Baker has also been left scratching his head. He has met with the rotation as a group and as individuals, yet it continues to struggle.
“It all starts with the starting pitching, it always does,” Baker said. “We’ve got to find a way to get those guys going. I don’t know what it’s going to take, but we’re not getting the type of starting pitching I expected.”

Though Harang made his fifth consecutive Opening Day start for the Reds, he has pitched anything like an ace, as he has an 8.31 ERA. That continues his woes from the end of last season, as he is 1-13 with a 5.42 ERA in his last 20 starts dating to last season. Harang will stay in the rotation for now, but Baker admits he is losing patience.

“This guy is getting paid handsomely to be a starter,” Baker said. “At this point, who do we have to take his place? And we need him to win. We need him.”

Actually, the Reds have two top pitching prospects at Triple-A Louisville that they could call on in left-handers Aroldis Chapman and Travis Wood. Both competed with Leake for the fifth starter’s job in spring training. The Reds decided to bring Leake straight to the major leagues after he was their first-round draft pick last year from Arizona State, and it has worked out well, as he has 0.4 SNLVAR and a 3.92 ERA through three starts.

“The rotation would be pretty much a total disaster without him,” Arroyo said of Leake. “I didn’t know who the guy was the first couple of days of spring training except he looked like this 12-year-old kid with a goatee. I watched him throw and I was impressed. I told Dusty that he reminded me of myself. He won’t overpower anyone, but he moves the ball around and finds ways to get people out. When you see guys like Leake and Chapman and Wood, you’ve got to like the future here.”

The Reds, though, have been waiting for a decade for the future to get here. They are getting antsy for results.

“Just because we have young guys in key positions doesn’t mean we can’t win,” Bruce said. “People can say we’re a sleeper or a darkhorse or whatever they want, but I really believe we have the talent to win now.”

For the all hype and publicity his hiring generated in the offseason, Mark McGwire‘s impact as the Cardinals‘ hitting coach has been negligible so far. The Cardinals are in the middle of the pack in the NL in runs scored, ranking eighth with a 4.8 average.

The Cardinals were held to just three runs by the Giants while losing two games in a three-game series at San Francisco over the weekend. The lack of offense was partially due to the Giants’ starting threesome of Tim Lincecum, Barry Zito, and Matt Cain, but it also pointed out how the Cardinals’ offense has been feast or famine in the early stages of McGwire’s tenure.

The Cardinals have scored 47 of their 77 runs on homers-61 percent. They are also averaging 8.1 strikeouts a game, which is fifth in the league. McGwire, though, is not worried about his team being too Three True Outcome-orientated.

“We have guys who can hit home runs, and that’s OK,” McGwire said. “When guys are all in sync together, it’s going to be incredible to see. You’re going to see base hits to right field. You’re going to see sacrifice flies. You’re going to see a lot happening, that maybe we haven’t seen consistently so far. This is a tough time of the season for a lot of guys. You’re not in spring training anymore, but you really haven’t gotten into the full rhythm of the season. They’ll get there.”

McGwire also believes the Cardinals will cut down on strikeouts as they get deeper into the season, commenting that, “Right now, we have some guys whose pitch selection isn’t the greatest thing. We have a lot of young hitters who are still learning these pitchers.”

Will the Twins‘ new Target Field be a hitters’ park or a pitchers’ paradise? Through the first nine games played at the ballpark that sits on the edge of downtown Minneapolis, no definite trends have emerged. Teams have hit .269 at Target Field, and there have been an average of 9.3 runs and 1.6 home runs per game. In the Twins’ 10 road games, the batting average has been .264 with averages of 8.7 runs and 2.3 homers.

One of the more interesting aspects of the small sample size at Target Field is that just three of the 14 home runs have been hit between the left-center and right-center gaps. Though the power alleys have been where fly balls have been going to die, Twins designated hitter Jason Kubel believes it is going to be a fair park.

“It seems like during the day it flies a little bit better,” said Kubel, who hit the first home run at Target Field. “It’s still around 50 degrees, 60 degrees each day. Hopefully, when it gets to be in the 80s, it will start flying out. If you hit it, you’ll get it, but there are no cheap ones here yet.”

MLB Rumors and Rumblings:
The Red Sox are scouring the market for a catching solution, as Victor Martinez and Jason Varitek have combined to throw out just two of 38 basestealers. … In its never-ending quest to speed up the pace of games, Major League Baseball is reportedly set to crack down on dawdlers on the mound or in the batter’s box with bigger fines. … Blake DeWitt, who is struggling in making the conversion from third baseman to second baseman, is in danger of losing his starting job with the Dodgers. … Angels manager Mike Scioscia seems to be wavering on his commitment to left-hander Brian Fuentes as the sole closer following the way Fernando Rodney pitched in the role while Fuentes was on the disabled list. … When the Mariners activate left-hander Cliff Lee from the DL on Friday, Jason Vargas or Ian Snell is likely to be moved from the rotation to the bullpen. … The Orioles have been struggling so much to find a replacement for injured leadoff hitter Brian Roberts that manager Dave Trembley is thinking of going with shortstop Cesar Izturis at the top of the batting order despite his .298 career on-base percentage. … The Rangers are considering moving Rich Harden into a long relief role to get straightened out and calling up left-hander Derek Holland from Triple-A Oklahoma City to take his place in the rotation.