COMMENTARY | The Cincinnati Reds' first three series to open the 2013 regular season may look like their potential postseason in reverse: the Los Angeles Angels as a World Series opponent, the Washington Nationals as a NLCS foe and the St. Louis Cardinals as a divisional round obstacle. There's a whole lot of baseball to play between now and then, but the Reds look like they're up to the task to deliver the goods, with only significant injuries the major concern to cause bumps in their road to their third NL Central title in four years.
That first bump came early with the opening day loss of cleanup-hitting left fielder Ryan Ludwick for perhaps more than half of the regular season. However, the Reds' adjustment to the loss of Ludwick paid quick dividends in the team's opening series with game-changing power coming off the bats of new cleanup hitter Brandon Phillips and new starting left fielder Chris Heisey in a pair of 5-4 home wins over the Angels.
Whether or not these changes by Reds manager Dusty Baker stick for the protracted future remains to be seen, but the early returns have induced a collective sigh of relief in Reds Country.
The second, albeit significantly lesser, bump also came in the first series with the temporary unavailability of lefty set-up man Sean Marshall due to shoulder fatigue. Marshall may have proved the difference in the Reds opening day loss if he had been available to pitch, but the two one-run wins for the Reds in the rest of the series came with the bullpen finding a way to preserve wins, especially Aroldis Chapman and Sam LeCure.
The Reds upcoming test against the Nationals won't pit them against the entire front end of a rotation that gutted the Miami Marlins to start 2013. It will give the Reds an early opportunity to hone their new batting order without Ludwick and sharpen their defense with Shin-Soo Choo in center field and Todd Frazier full-time at third base.
The upcoming matchup between Reds' ace Johnny Cueto and Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg on Sunday should be a pitcher's duel and perhaps a harbinger of a Game 1 playoff battle if fate will have it and both pitchers are capable of pitching in the postseason this year -- unlike last year.
The Reds pitching -- both rotation and bullpen -- is less of a concern now than it was when the 2013 future of Chapman as a closer was undecided, but the effectiveness of back-end rotation starters Homer Bailey and Mike Leake at Great American Ball Park will be put to the test against the Nationals over the weekend. Neither Bailey nor Leake fared well at home during the regular season last year, combining for a 5.34 ERA in 33 home starts. Good home starts by the pair will be a welcomed sight in Reds Country.
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.
- Sports & Recreation