COMMENTARY | With the midpoint of the 2013 season at hand, the Cincinnati Reds are in a fight for the NL Central division. By the time the season ends, the Reds are still the likeliest team to emerge on top of not only the Central division but all of the NL. Here's 10 reasons why:
The Reds' rotation was a strength for the 2012 NL Central champs and is even stronger this year. The Reds are second in the league in starters' ERA after their first 77 games, and with a healthy Johnny Cueto bolstering the rest of a thriving staff, the Reds will vie to have the best rotation in the NL by year's end. Even if Mike Leake (2.61 ERA) and Bronson Arroyo (3.13 ERA) run into some summer headwinds, they'll continue to keep the Reds in games with their share of quality starts. Mat Latos has become a complete pitcher with Homer Bailey also on the verge of ace-caliber stature.
The value of Shin-Soo Choo as a leadoff hitter for the Reds cannot be understated. His .274 average and .424 on-base percentage in 2013 after 77 games is so much better than the .208/.254 line produced collectively by the Reds' leadoff hitters in 2012. Choo is a top 5 run scorer in the NL, and provided he stays healthy, he'll continue to be an on-base machine for the Reds.
Meat of the Order
Three-hitter Joey Votto is not only an on-base machine as the league leader in OBP, he's also top 10 in batting average. The Reds made their big second-half push last year without Votto in finishing with the second-best record in all of baseball. As long as Votto doesn't miss 49 games in the second half of the season this year, Reds Country will have the privilege of watching one of the best hitters in the game terrorize pitchers for a full season again. Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce fill out a left-right-left, 3-4-5 meat of the order that has lots of pop and run-producing prowess.
The Reds are consistently good in the field. The team ranks fourth in the NL in fielding percentage through 77 games and finished second overall last year. The concerns over the downgrade defensively between the 2013 center fielder Choo and his 2012 counterpart Drew Stubbs has not compromised the defensive strength of a team that is led by Gold Glovers Phillips and Votto.
The 2012 Reds bullpen was the best in baseball last year with a 2.65 ERA. The bullpen also was the best in the NL in opponents batting average at .219. The Reds' bullpen in 2013 has not fared so well. The 3.95 bullpen ERA is 19th in the majors, but despite the bulging ERA, the Reds' relievers have held opponents to the third-lowest batting average in the NL through 77 games at .232. With Aroldis Chapman closing and Tony Cingrani in the eighth, Reds Country should expect the bullpen to counter much of the disappointing first half of the season turned in by the relief corps.
The Reds demonstrated their resiliency in 2012 when the injured Votto was out of the lineup. The 2013 Reds have also shown their resiliency by overcoming the opening day injury of cleanup hitter Ryan Ludwick. Phillips is second in RBIs in the NL batting cleanup in Ludwick's stead. While Ludwick will remain out for the foreseeable future, the Reds will have Chris Heisey back in left field, now that he has finally returned from a lingering hamstring injury. The Reds' bullpen hasn't shown the same kind of resiliency with the loss of Sean Marshall this year and the struggles of relievers Jonathan Broxton and Logan Ondrusek, but the healthy return of Marshall and Broxton from the disabled list and an improved Ondrusek from the minors should reverse the bullpen's first-half adversity.
Under general manager Walt Jocketty, the Reds have used the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline to their advantage. The 2009 trade for Scott Rolen helped a young team develop into a perennial contender. The addition of Broxton in 2012 solidified the bullpen for their playoff push last year. Whether or not the Reds ply those non-waiver trade waters again this year remains to be seen, but they have the chips and the resolve to bolster the team for another playoff run.
The Reds' home attendance is currently on pace to break the record set for Great American Ball Park in 2003. The 30,750 average home draw in 2013 is the sixth highest in franchise history. If the Reds continue on this pace for attendance, the playoff environment that they will enjoy at home during the regular season will provide the kind of atmosphere that a playoff team needs to turn themselves into a World Series team. The 2012 Reds fell short at home in the NLDS to the San Francisco Giants despite the home-field advantage, but a second chance may make all the difference in the world for a team whose collective skin is thickening with their continued excellence each year.
The Cardinals may enjoy the best record in baseball in 2013 going into the final days of the first half of the season, but it will not last. The league-leading starters' ERA held by the Cardinals for most of the season is diminishing, and their bullpen remains a weakness despite the success of their unlikely closer. The Cardinals' hitters could continue close to their lead-leading pace, but at the end of the day, it will be good pitching that beats good hitting and that advantage will ultimately go to the Reds. Overall, the Cardinals just aren't as good as the Reds anymore.
The 2010 Reds won the NL Central after the team suffered nine straight losing seasons. The Pirates undoubtedly have the same visions of success after 20 straight losing seasons, but in their case such a turn of events with the current team are more delusions of grandeur than realistic expectation. The Pirates have to first thwart second half collapses if they want to breach the .500 threshold for the first time since 1992. The second-best record in baseball heading into the midway point of the season is a nice building block, but not good enough yet to impede the progress of the Reds toward October success.
Robb Hoff has worked as a freelance researcher for ESPN's production and news departments for the past five years. You can read his articles about the 2012 Reds season here.
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