Tony Cingrani Must Have Sparkling September for Cincinnati Reds to Win NL Central

Starting Rotation Remains Key to Reds' Success

Yahoo Contributor Network

COMMENTARY | The Cincinnati Reds have finally realized the starting lineup envisioned at the beginning of the season. With power hitter Ryan Ludwick back from shoulder surgery and now hitting cleanup or fifth on a regular basis, the Reds' offense shouldn't be as problematic as it was for much of the season.

The biggest obstacle the Reds face as the team makes a bid to claim a third division title in four years is the starting rotation, which has been stellar all season but especially impressive in the absence of ace Johnny Cueto. The continued overall success of the rotation will largely rest in the left hand of Tony Cingrani, who needs to return from the disabled list in September as sparkling as he was before a strained back knocked him out of action in August (2.76 ERA with a 6-3 record and 112 Ks in 97.2 IP).

The Return of Johnny Cueto

Now that the injured Reds ace has tweaked his throwing motion and appears poised to return to action sometime in September, Cingrani is hardly less important than he has been all season. Cueto won't replace Cingrani in the rotation in the unlikely event Cueto is declared healthy enough to actually start a game before the end of the regular season. Cueto will most likely only pitch in relief in September in preparation for a potential postseason start.

The Collapse of Mike Leake

After pitching seven shutout innings against the San Diego Padres on July 29, Leake had an ERA of 2.59 in what looked like a pleasantly surprising career year. Six starts later, Leake's ERA stands at 3.51 and his hold on a rotation spot has to be in serious question if the Reds are going to be division contenders. Despite the decline of Leake, the Reds aren't likely to replace him in the rotation, which is why Cingrani will become even more important as a stopper between Leake and fellow innings-eater Bronson Arroyo.

The Ups and Downs of Bronson Arroyo

Since his arrival with the Reds in 2006, Arroyo has been a peculiar force on the mound. His gravity-defying approach to pitching has served him astonishingly well, but when his junk-ball arsenal turns from mesmerizing to just plain junk, Arroyo gets blasted like few other major-league pitchers. If Arroyo throws a dud or two in September like he did in August, the last thing the Reds need is another pitch-to-contact pitcher taking the mound for potentially another bashing. A strong Cingrani pitching in between Leake and Arroyo will give the Reds hope for ace-like stuff if the Reds' revived offense can't keep pace with the intermittent barrage when Arroyo and Leake pitch.

The Loss of Jonathan Broxton

The Reds' bullpen took a hit with the season-ending loss of Broxton, whose eighth-inning power arm has been replaced by a combination of Sam LeCure and J.J. Hoover. Whether or not LeCure and Hoover can continue to withstand the rigors of stress innings remains to be seen. But when Cingrani pitches with his shutout capability, the bullpen can better withstand the loss of Broxton, especially if Cingrani is able to improve upon 5.6 innings per start.

The Loss of Sean Marshall

The Reds' bullpen was also rocked by the loss of the lefty specialist Marshall, who has pitched all of seven innings in 2013 due to shoulder issues. After a rocky start, Manny Parra admirably replaced Marshall as the primary lefty specialist by posting a 3.55 ERA over 46 appearances.

Despite the relative success of Parra, the Reds would likely replace Parra with Cingrani as the late-inning lefty out of the pen if Cueto does return to the rotation before the end of the regular season. That rotation return of Cueto remains unlikely, though, which is another reason why a sparkling Cingrani in the rotation will go a long way to spare a makeshift bullpen from pitching too often under stress -- especially if Marshall doesn't return in 2013 and the Reds are left with Parra and Zach Duke as the team's lefty specialists.

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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