keyboard_arrow_uptop

As disappointing as the Twins have been, that’s how surprising the Reds have been. They have the best record in baseball this morning, and are coming off of a mini-sweep of the Cardinals at home that solidified their spot atop the NL Central.

We can comfortably say that the Reds aren’t as good as their 19-8 record. Few teams are .700 teams, and this Reds team isn’t going to be one of them. However, their true performance–Clay Davenport estimates that they’re playing .556 ball (15-12), with the difference between that mark and their actual record largely due to a 9-3 record in one- and two-run games–is beyond what many people projcted for them. I was as bullish as anyone on the team, and I had them finishing 83-79, well behind the Cards in the Central and a handful of games out of the wild card.

This team is in first place because it’s been scoring like Ashton Kutcher on a “Singles Over 40” cruise. The Reds lead the NL in runs, runs per game, OBP, OPS and EqA, and are second in homers and slugging. They’re on pace for 948 runs, surpassing even the 901 I thought they could score. The offense is a mix of performances that could reasonably be expected to continue (Adam Dunn‘s .264/.426/.609, Austin Kearns‘ .299/.367/.536), some younger players playing well in their first opportunities (Edwin Encarnacion‘s .301/.402/.554 and Brandon Phillips‘ .343/.375/.567) and unexpected bumps from veterans like Scott Hatteberg (.431 OBP), Ryan Freel (.433 OBP) and Rich Aurilia (.547 SLG). Led by Felipe Lopez (9-for-9), the Reds are 23-for-28 stealing bases, a tremendous rate.

The minor pickups the Reds made, a mix of moves slagged (Hatteberg, Aurilia) and praised (Phillips) in these pages, are all turning out to be good ones. What’s truly encouraging is how quickly they moved to cut bait on Tony Womack.

How the runs have been assembled is not as important as noting that the Reds, like the Twins, aren’t that far removed from their expected offensive output. They’re capable of scoring like this, more or less, for the next five months.

Of course, they might have to. For all the attention Bronson Arroyo has garnered, this is a mediocre pitching staff that has been over its head for a month. Even Arroyo, who’s looked like the control fiend of 2003 and 2004 for a month, hasn’t pitched that much better than his less-heralded teammate, Aaron Harang, despite an ERA not half of Harang’s:

           IP   ERA    K/9   BB/9   K/BB   HR/9   BABIP
Arroyo   43.2  2.06    7.0    2.1    3.4    1.2    .193
Harang   39.1  4.35    7.6    2.1    3.7    1.4    .301

The entire difference between the two is in the last column. Arroyo’s ERA will rise as that figure does, although both pitchers’ strong peripherals suggest that they can be credible starters for a contending team. They’re not the problem here.

The problem is the guys behind them. Eric Milton, Dave Williams and Brandon Claussen have been getting murderized by opposing hitters, allowing 17 home runs in 60 1/3 innings over 12 starts. Milton is on the DL now, but the other two are taking their turn every fifth game, combining to average fewer than five innings a start and putting pressure on a bullpen not built to carry the team. There’s very little help in the organization; Elizardo Ramirez was pitching reasonably well at Triple-A before his call-up, and he left behind a staff of Quadruple-A veterans, guys like Justin Germano and Darrell May. It’s nice to catch an Aaron Small in a bottle, it’s just not something you can plan for. Getting Paul Wilson back isn’t going to change the overall picture, especially given the arduous process of returning from shoulder surgery.

A great offense and problematic rotation can work if there’s a bullpen good enough to win a lot of 7-6 games. This isn’t that bullpen, although it’s looked better of late than it did in the season’s first couple of weeks. Still, it’s a collection of journeymen middle relievers–David Weathers, Rick White, Kent Mercker–looking around for the closer. Maybe one of these guys turns into 2006’s Todd Jones, but nothing in their early-season performance records indicates that kind of season. The hope is that big Todd Coffey, who’s allowed one run in 17 2/3 innings, can emerge as a high-leverage guy. Ryan Wagner, eternally on the horizon, has a 7.30 ERA at Louisville and can be considered off the radar for now.

You can’t win a division with three effective pitchers, no matter how well you hit. The Reds are going to have to get effective innings from somewhere. Claussen and Williams have to keep the ball in the park, Weathers and White have to sustain a performance at the top of their range, and the Reds are probably going to have to get lucky with a random like Matt Belisle. This wasn’t a championship-caliber pitching staff a month ago, and it isn’t now. That, coupled with a below-average defense, is going to make for a lot of long games in Cincinnati this summer.

The Reds will simply have to outscore people, then make a decision in 70 days as to whether they have a real chance at the postseason. They’re not going to put the division away, and their best-case scenario has them on the bubble, needing at least one pitcher and maybe two. This will be the first real shot at contention the Reds have had since Great American Ballpark was built, and it’ll be interesting to see how this team manages it.