The Cincinnati Reds enter September apparently sitting pretty in their bid to return to the playoffs. With a nine-and-a-half game cushion over the second-place St. Louis Cardinals and 29 games left to play, Cincy would have to suffer a Bostonian collapse to miss out on the October festivities this year. As a dedicated and attentive Reds fan, I expected the Reds to contend this year, but I would have never guessed last spring that the team would sit on their current lofty perch even after the extended absence of first baseman Joey Votto. The presumed team leader went down in early July with a knee injury and hasn't been seen since. The situation is apparently not likely to change soon, as Reds manager Dusty Baker announced on August 31 that Votto will not return to the lineup until at least next week. At this point, I think that the Reds need to focus on preparing for the playoffs when considering how to get Votto back in gear.
If Votto will truly be ready and fully healthy by, say, mid-September, then it makes sense to get him in the lineup as much as possible. Hopefully, in a couple of weeks, the Reds will be truly coasting toward a division title and can begin resting the regulars who have carried them through the hot summer months. That would give the team a chance to take a look at September call-ups and set their pitching rotation for maximum playoff effect. It would also give Votto the chance to play everyday and regain the timing of his swing, which is surely a little rusty. Playing in the minor leagues would help prove that Votto is healthy, but the arms he would see playing for, say, the Dayton Dragons, will be a far cry from the beasts he'll face in October.
On the other hand, if Votto continues to be delayed and is still teasing the Reds with less than 15 games to go, Cincinnati will face a tough decision about the best way to handle the 2010 National League Most Valuable Player. Pushing him too fast could lead to further injury and jeopardize his 2013 season, while keeping him on the shelf through the end of the regular season would put his playoff availability in question. Of course, leaving him off the postseason roster might be seen as a slap in the face, so Baker and company will be in a delicate situation. If Votto isn't able to log several games before the playoffs, it might be hard for the Reds to justify starting him every day when the whole season is on the line. In that case, he might become a super secret pinch-hitting weapon, along the lines of Kirk Gibson.
However the Votto situation plays out, it's been a great season for the Reds so far, and they've done it in a most unexpected fashion. Baseball never ceases to amaze.
Adam Hughes was raised, and still lives, in rural Indiana. He has been a Cincinnati Reds fan since the early 1980s, when gods like Dan Driessen and Cesar Cedeno roamed the ethereally green Riverfront turf. He thinks that Dusty Baker is the anti-Davey.