COMMENTARY| At the All-Star break last year, the Cincinnati Reds had a one game lead in the NL Central division and were nine games over .500. It took a 15-1 run between July 19 and August 4 last year -- without star Joey Votto -- to put the Reds comfortably atop the division for good. Short of another red-hot streak like last year, the Reds will have to answer five questions after the All-Star break this year to put the team in a position to better contend for a third division title in four years.
How Healthy are the Injured Players?
The Reds currently have four instrumental players on the disabled list: Johnny Cueto, Ryan Ludwick, Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton. The Reds' ace Cueto has landed on the DL three times already this year, last year's cleanup hitter Ludwick has been out since opening day with a shoulder injury, lefty specialist Marshall has pitched a grand total of seven innings this year due to shoulder issues and eighth-inning reliever Broxton has missed nearly a month with elbow inflammation. The Reds have survived these injuries so far this year, but need to know what to do next based upon the health of these players or else the status quo could be the downfall of the team in 2013.
Are the Reds Buyers at the Trade Deadline?
Much of Reds' decision to be buyers is based upon the health of the team's injured players. The rest of the answer to the question is based upon availability and affordability.
The Reds' bullpen recently picked up the slack left by the absences of Marshall and Broxton by throwing 27-2/3 scoreless innings in a row after the re-injury to Cueto forced him out of his last game on June 28. The Reds have to decide whether or not to roll the dice with the existing bullpen if either Marshall or Broxton or both can return to full health for the rest of the season after the All-star break.
Fortunately for the Reds, the loss of Cueto for an extended time is survivable without trade, provided that his replacement Tony Cingrani continues to pitch well as a starter and there are no other injuries to the rest of the rotation.
The Reds' biggest need remains a right-handed cleanup hitter who can play left field. If the Reds are relying on Ludwick to return sometime in August, then there's no buying at the position. The Reds have survived the loss of Ludwick so far this year using a left-field platoon of Xavier Paul, Derrick Robinson and Chris Heisey, but the lack of punch by the Reds offense in a 25-game stretch since June 12 (three runs or less scored 16 times) should be a self-evident indicator that the team does not score enough runs and an acquisition should be a priority.
How Should the Batting Order Change?
The Reds would undoubtedly like to return to the team's opening day lineup that featured Shin-Soo Choo leading off followed by Brandon Phillips, Votto, Ludwick and Jay Bruce , but the lack of a better alternative has forced Phillips to hit cleanup all year. Despite being a Top 5 RBI producer in the NL during the first half of the year, Phillips is better suited to hit second between Choo and Votto if the Reds can find a cleanup hitter who has more power production than Phillips, which would require looking at trade options rather than finding a solution internally.
The Reds have primarily relied on Zack Cozart to bat second, but his difficulty advancing runners (eight non-flyout sacrifices and 10 double plays in 277 plate appearances batting second) and hitting for average overall with runners on base (.191 in 141 at-bats) leave more to be desired than the Reds can afford if the intention is to advance to the playoffs.
Reds' manager Dusty Baker has tried a combination of Choo and Robinson as an alternate 1-2 in the batting order based on the opponent's starting pitcher, but the two have combined for just seven hits in 50 AB's with just one sacrifice.
The bottom line is that the Reds need better production from the two-hole in order to score more runs, and that should force some kind of change to the lineup.
At What Point Would the Reds Become a Seller?
The Reds really only have one trade-candidate starter who will command significant interest if the Reds decide to sell before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, and that player is Choo. The Reds will have to answer a couple of questions first before Choo is dangled. The first would be whether or not the Reds have a realistic chance to at least vie for a wildcard berth if not the division. It would take a complete collapse for that to happen by July 31 but not by the end of August when the waiver trade deadline looms. The other question regarding Choo is whether or not the Reds can or want to sign Choo to a new contract prior to the end of the season. With Scott Boras as his agent, Choo is all but certain to test the free agent market, and with Billy Hamilton at Triple-A awaiting his turn to take over center field for the Reds, the team may not have anywhere for Choo to play in 2014.
What Should be Done with the Coaching Staff?
The clamor for the firing of Baker will be ubiquitous in Reds' Country if the Reds spiral out of contention this year, but Baker is under contract for 2014 and unlikely to be the one fired regardless of the outcome of 2013. The only coach likely to be on the hot seat if the Reds do fail to reach the playoffs is batting coach Brook Jacoby because if the Reds don't make the postseason, it will most likely be because the Reds batters didn't hit their way in.
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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