Sunday, July 23, 2006

Reds Remain Contenders; Division, Wild Card in Reach

After a phenomenal season start that saw the Cincinnati Reds post a franchise-best month of April for wins (17-8), the succeeding months proved to be a dose of reality. May was a shock to the system, seeing the team post 12 wins versus 16 losses in bringing the overall record closer to .500. Despite the critics that seemed to be surfacing after May, June was tolerable, if not respectable, at 15-12, raising the overall record back to eight (8) games over the .500 mark by the start of July.

The record at the start of today (7/23/2006) is 52-46, six games over .500 and four games behind frontrunner St. Louis in the NL Central. The Reds are the NL leaders for the one NL Wild Card spot, 1 1/2 games ahead of a few contenders (Diamondbacks and Padres from the NL West) as well as familiar names across the league (Dodgers, Brewers, Braves, Phillies, Rockies, and Astros) who are all within six games of the Reds for that spot. Interestingly, the Braves have been surging despite a horrible season start to put themselves into contention once again, despite being a distant second to the NL East-leading Mets (with the NL's best record at 59-38).

July has been the good, the bad, and the ugly for this ballclub. The good: eight (8) wins in the month, seven (7) since the All-Star break, and looking for their second home series sweep versus the Brewers this Sunday (the other was a four-game sweep over the Rockies last weekend). The bad: six straight losses to start July, a 1-8 record before the break in the month, and a trade that saw two offensive weapons (Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez) traded away for relief pitching. The ugly: the return on that Kearns-Lopez trade with the Washington Nationals hasn't yielded much, particularly with reliever Gary Majewski blowing leads and losing games since arriving with the club.

The better? Eddie Guardado has been a welcome presence in an easy trade from the Seattle Mariners that has seen "Everyday Eddie" return to his familiar role of closer. The team needed Guardado more than anybody, and the added presence of Bill Bray (a hard-throwing lefty) and Royce Clayton (a veteran shortstop) from that same Nationals-Reds trade has been a net positive. This team has had many come-from-behind wins, with a decent number from bad relief pitching performances, but the difference now is the late innings have seen the bullpen hold more scores than let things get out of hand.

My "prognostication" for the club is that the playoffs are still within reach, and the upcoming series versus division rivals Houston and Milwaukee could seal the deal. With a critical St. Louis series looming in early August, the club has an "easier" September within reach if it can survive the remainder of July on the road and then a tougher schedule with NL West rivals throughout August at home. The improved performance at home is certainly a breath of fresh air for loyal fans who have been attending these many home games to date and seen the Reds post a better road record than a home record.

Stay tuned, Reds fans ... this ride isn't over yet!

Thursday, July 13, 2006

A Reality Check ... Did Reds Really "Lose" In Today's Blockbuster Trade?!?

OK, I have scanned over a number of comments from my fellow fans so far, and I have seen very few which were positive in favor of the Cincinnati Reds getting the better part of this deal. As a lifelong Reds fan, I can say that I completely support any move at this stage of the season that strengthens the team's bullpen and delivers some hope to make a run for the playoffs. Why? Let's break it down...

Austin Kearns: Unquestionably, he is the most talented player involved in this trade. Kearns has been playing solid defense, has begun to learn to hit for average, and has more than enough power to be a threat in any team's lineup. I like Kearns personally, but, at the same time, his upside potential is limited to his ability to make contact. Austin swings for the fences (much like his counterpart Adam Dunn) but doesn't always reach his destination. It is harder for me to see Kearns go, but we have to give up something to get something.

Felipe Lopez: Lopez may have been the Reds' All-Star of 2005, but he has not been that same player this year. Barry Larkin, he is not. What Lopez had done well last season was hit for average and power as well as showcase awesome speed and good defensive range. What Felipe has failed to do this season is hit for as much power, strikeout more often (with a lower BA), and commit stupid errors at critical points in games. Whether his fielding ultimately cost his job remains to be seen, but it certainly did not help his cause.

Ryan Wagner: I thought Wagner was the closer in the wings when he made the team last season, but he has languished in AAA all season this year and failed to prove his ability to make the MLB club full-time with a variety of pitches. He has plenty of pop (95-99 mph on the gun), but his control needs work. He and Kearns may be the two we may regret down the road, while Lopez may ultimately be forgettable (imho).

So, for our three players (two ML'ers and one in AAA) we receive five players (indicating more players to offset the potential talent lost). I cannot say I am expert at our team's acquisitions, but here is my take on each ...

Gary Majewski: 26 yo righty with ML career with the Expos / Nationals. He does not appear to be overpowering, but his ERA was close to team-best for Washington last season (2.93) and one of the best this season (3.5, despite a bad outing (3 runs in 1/3 inning on Sunday) that raised it nearly 0.5 (from 3.11 to 3.5. Given the Reds have a bullpen ERA over 5.00 (at 5.16 before Thursday), Majewski is a net help immediately.

Bill Bray: Former 1st round pick (like Ryan Wagner, same draft) with upside potential and nice speed on the fastball. The 23 yo southpaw looks like the diamond in the rough for the Reds and is a key pitching prospect / talent from the Nationals' organization.

Royce Clayton: Almost anybody who follows baseball knows about Clayton. Clayton's strength is more about his defense than his batting, but, offensively, his best years may be behind him. Clearly a journeyman shortstop, he can still play everyday at the age of 36, but even his defense has weakened a bit with 11 errors this season to date. His best defensive seasons were with the Chicago White Sox in 2001 and 2002 with .988 and .989 FP%, respectively, as well as under 10 errors in each year (7 and 5, respectively). Clayton can be a fair sub for Lopez on a day-to-day basis if not platooning with Rich Aurilia and/or Ryan Freel around the infield, including Juan Castro and Brandon Phillips, who both can play at SS as well.

Brendan Harris: The bench player / pinch hitter should be a help for the infield with solid defensive skills as well as the ability to deliver a pinch hit in the clutch. Harris is only turning 26 yo in August, so I think his career potential has upside at this juncture. The Reds should feel comfortable with Harris as a late-inning defensive sub and/or another bat off the bench. But, the other Reds' players affected include ...

Ryan Freel: Freel may get a chance to be more of an everyday player with Kearns or Lopez around, but he will continue to find his niche here no matter what. His speed is impressive, and his defensive skills at a variety of positions make him a versatile, and valuable, utilityman.

Chris Denorfia: With the absence of Austin Kearns, Denorfia moves up from AAA to have an opportunity to take over RF full-time. His first audition earlier this season showed some of his worth, before being sent back to AAA in mid-May. He had four hits in only eight AB (.500) with seven game appearances on the season. GM Wayne Krivsky is very keen on Denorfia as an everyday player, and, in turning 26 on Saturday this week, Denorfia is ready to prove himself as an everyday player.

All in all, the bullpen of the Reds needed the most help, so having both Majewski and Bray should be a net benefit to a club that is offense-heavy and pitching-weak. Kearns will be missed for his solid and consistent play (and likely All-Star future) while Lopez will be missed for having failed to deliver what "could have been" in carrying on the tradition of Reds at SS with Concepcion and Larkin. Wagner's jury is still out, although I personally am a big supporter of the kid.

Majewski and Bray may not be Kearns and Lopez today, but, combining the two new Reds with the other three, the trade seems reasonable and balanced to me for a team in need of pitching.