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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.

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Much is being made of the Reds struggle on the mound, but I posit the real problem is in the field. Team ERA: 6.02, Team FIP: 4.76. This is the 2nd worst differential in the majors so far.

When you look at the primary culprits, given the early fielding data, 4 guys make up the vast majority of the problem. Stubbs, Cabrera, Gomes, and Rolen.

Anybody who knows anything about Stubbs knows that he's an elite defensive CF. While he may have played poorly thus far, those numbers will be positive when its all said and done. Rolen, while certain lacking in his once amazing range, is still very solid and should be in the vicinity of average.

Cabrera and Gomes on the other hand... Yikes! Gomes is a DH in LF, Dunnesque you might say. Cabrera, while once a very good SS, is now a SS in name only and you don't need advanced defensive metrics to see that. His range is horrible.

The Reds' DER this year is .672 (13th in the NL). Last year it was .705, 3rd in the NL. Given that the team is average or better everywhere else on the diamond and that the only significant changes are Rolen for EE (big upgrade) and Cabrera for Hairston/Gonzalez/Janish/Rosales (downgrade), we should expect the Reds defense to be at least league average this year. As the defense performs up to its abilities, the Reds team ERA will drop accordingly. And if Dusty wises up to Cabrera's ineptitude and plays Janish more, the team's defense should yet again be an asset and it's run prevention more middle of the pack.

If you really want to describe a long term concern for the Reds, take a look at the offense and its collective inability to find first base.

My uncles and cousins are Reds apologists also, because they rarely leave Cincinnati and have no idea that most other teams have better players, managers, and owners. This leads to a severe case of Pete Rose-colored glasses.

The Reds suffer from the same problem they've always had: a lack of reality and perspective from their fans and media. The Reds, for three years running now, have been predicted to be contenders, surprisers, or spoilers in the NL Central due to their plethora of "young talent". But to date, none of their so-called can't-miss prospects have done jack or squat in the majors, nor have they shown much indication that they can put together sustained success.

I want to see them win as much as the next ex-Cincy-resident, but until they can PROVE something, I'm not buying. The Reds youngsters will need to show that they aren't graduates of Alex Gordon's School of Busted Prospects before anybody can seriously take them seriously. Seriously.
Bitter, party of 1? I would appreciate not being lumped in with the broader Reds fanbase, such as your apparently poorly informed uncles and cousins, and the stuck-in-the-70s local media (save for C Trent Rosencrans). As somebody who has not lived in Reds country in 20 years, who prides himself on his objectivity, and who is routinely critical our of backwards management, I heartily object to your stereotyping.

I'm not apologizing for anybody and I don't think there is any homerism in my post. I'll happily provide any evidence you'd like to back up my claims. Don't be confused; I do not believe the Reds are a playoff contender as currently constructed and I have very little faith in our management group's ability to get us there any time in the near future.

However, because of Cincy's relatively small market, I think most analysis of the team is relatively lazy and simplistic, based primarily on an narrative that is no longer relevant. The problem with our prevention to date this year, as noticed in our team ERA has been more a failure of defense than pitching. That was my point. A team ERA of 4.72 (our current FIP) would hardly be bragging. But it would be more in line with our staff's abilities.

I actually find it sad because you see a guy like Jay Bruce, who is by all accounts quite intelligent, go from talking like this "It's not about taking pitches; it's about taking pitches you can't do anything with. It's about taking balls and swinging at drivable strikes." to this "it's hard to know how to win until you've done it. That's what we're struggling with right now." When you've got your players worried about "knowing how to win" instead of "knowing how to play the game well", you know you've got a bigger problem than just talent.

At the end of the season, I believe you'll see a team that is league average in terms of run prevention and below average at run production. The rotations' current struggles and the team's recent history of poor pitching is a bit of a red herring in discussing what 2010 has in store for the organization.
Totally agree. Sorry, I re-read my post and the use of the word "also" in the first sentence conveyed that I was trying to lump you in with my relatives, who other than their blind idiocy concerning baseball, are very nice people. It wasn't my intention though, because I agreed with a good chunk of your post (more on that below).

My only sticking point there would be where you (perhaps unintentionally?) tried to portray guys like Rolen as players with upside. My bitterness enters because as an Astros fan, I read the same justifications for past-their-prime players Lee, Berkman, Matsui, Feliz, Oswalt, etc. on a daily basis in the media. Relying on bounce-backs or improved play from has-beens only leads to disappointment and annoyance.

As to what I agreed with, again as an Astros fan I am seeing marked improvement in ERA due to the improvement in infield defense from 2009 to 2010, albeit in a small sample size. So, yeah your point was well made there in my opinion, and Rolen & co. should be better on defense. On the other hand, while I can see defense benefiting pitchers such as Oswalt, it has been a long time since Harang or Arroyo were better than slightly-above-average, and defense won't change the fact that Harang, Arroyo, Cueto, and Bailey gave up 221 walks in 667 innings last season.
I went to a game at Target Field about a week ago. I certainly cannot tell how it will play by just looking at it, but my observations were that the park is pretty symmetrical with relatively little foul area. There is also an overhang in right field that reminded me of old Tigers Stadium.

There were four home runs that day. Ankiel hit one to right, Thome to dead center, and Hudson to left (upper deck, I believe). Ankiel hit another one, but I was out looking for a Vincent burger--hamburger with prime rib and Gouda cheese in the middle--at the time.
"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. "

What's the worst rate of all time? They have to be leading the pack.