The Cincinnati Reds are entrenched in first place, primarily because of two key decisions. Manager Dusty Baker, who has received much praise for leading the club to one of the best records in Major League Baseball, went against both of those decisions.
"Sean Marshall's our closer for now," Baker said to ESPN.com on April 2, after the lefty went 1-0 with a 3.27 ERA in 11 innings over 10 Cactus League outings. "He's closed a few games, not a lot. He can throw that breaking ball for strikes anytime he gets ready and that's hard to do in Arizona with this light air and all. He's not fazed by situations. He's been around awhile. He's a veteran guy and has had success."
Baker, as has been his habit, stuck with the "veteran guy" for nearly the first two months of the season. Finally, and with much reluctance and his trademark exasperation with the desires of most Cincinnati fans, Baker replaced Marshall with Chapman.
The move looks brilliant now, since Chapman has been nearly unhittable in converting thirty straight saves. One has to wonder, though, had Baker ever have made the move were it not for the constant clamoring of the Cincinnati fans.
The other key decision that has made the Reds a first place team was the promotion of rookie Todd Frazier. Once again, Baker fought that decision just as he had fought the idea of making Chapman the closer.
Frazier was the hottest hitter on the club coming out of Arizona, where he led the team in home runs and runs batted in for spring training. In spite of those impressive numbers, Baker sent Frazier to Triple-A Louisville to begin the season.
Again the Cincinnati fans criticized Baker for that decision, but he seemed determined to ignore the rookies in favor of the veterans. Baker, however, was forced to promote Frazier when one of those veterans, Scott Rolen, went on the disabled list.
Rolen was hitting under .200, so Frazier's production quickly helped carry an anemic offense. Since then, Frazier has been the most consistent Cincinnati hitter with his combination of a high batting average and nearly 20 home runs.
The move looks brilliant now, especially when Frazier had to fill in for Joey Votto at first base. One wonders, though, whether Baker would have ever made the decision without the injuries and the pressure from the fans.
Before giving Baker too much credit for Cincinnati's success this year, remember that he was steadfastly reluctant to make the two decisions that turned the club around. Had it not been for injuries to Madsen and Rolen, Baker would have been content to play basically the same lineup and bullpen that finished under .500 and in third place in 2011.
Doug Poe once delivered newspapers to Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, and Tony Perez, three customers who have made him a lifelong fan of the Reds.