Springtime Storylines: Will the Reds break .500 for the first time in a decade?

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Reds logo.gifBetween now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30
teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally
breaking down their chances for the 2010 season.  Next up: The Redlegs


The
big question: Will the Reds break .500 for the first time in a decade?

I’m pretty optimistic about this team. Within reason, of course — they won’t seriously challenge the Cardinals and aren’t good enough to compete with the second bananas in the East or the West for the Wild Card — but I think the Reds are going to take a leap forward this year and post their first .500+ season since Bill Clinton was in office.

I think the biggest reason for this is that the Reds are going to have some respectable pitching. Aaron Harang is in a contract year and seems like a good candidate to bounce back to his former, quasi-ace status. Bronson Arroyo had an under-the-radar 15-win season last year. Homer Bailey’s return and resurgence in the second half last season — a 1.70 ERA in 58.3 innings with a 53/24 K/BB ratio in his final 9 starts — was largely ignored because it occurred on a team going nowhere, but he gave those who did pay attention a reminder of why everyone was so high on him a couple of years ago.  Johnny Cueto has great stuff, has shown flashes of brilliance and, at age 24, could certainly take a step forward.  Edinson Volquez won’t be back until August, but if the Reds are in it he could provide a late boost or, at the very least, some hope for 2011.  And of course there’s a fellow named Chapman down in Louisville who will almost certainly contribute this year.

The biggest question is the offense. It’s a group that, if everything goes right, could be more than respectable. Joey Votto is a young star, Scott Rolen is an old star, and if both of them can stay in the lineup the Reds have a couple of bats that will certainly play. Jay Bruce is a highly-touted enigma. I could see him turning in an All-Star breakout season just as easily as I could see him put up one of those ugly 30 home run, 150 strikeout, terrible OBP lines.  It’s nice to see that Walt Jocketty hasn’t given Dusty Baker some new version of Willy Taveras or Corey Patterson on whom to waste hundreds of plate appearances, but there is still uncertainty in centerfield and left. Drew Stubbs is an interesting prospect who came up and hit for some power late last year and he’ll hit better than Tavares did, but how much better is an open question.

Like I said: this is an “if everything breaks right” kind of team. Given that the majority of things rarely tend to break right in any given setting, I don’t think the Reds are going to win 90 games or anything. But I do think they’ll be a surprising bunch, primarily due to pitching, and will finish second — and above .500 — in an otherwise weak division.

So what
else is
going on?

  • The Aroldis Chapman watch, of course. As I mentioned yesterday, traditional arb-clock politics is going to cover this, as it probably should from the Reds’ perspective. Besides, if he embarrasses AAA hitters for a month or two his legend will only grow, leading to a big sell-out crowd in Great American Ballpark some day in June. OK, like I did with Strasburg, let’s call this thing: Friday, June 11th vs. the Royals. Which is who I think Strasburg will start against too, both for competitive and attendance reasons. I may invite the Royals to my son’s t-ball league too.
  • I really like a Jonny Gomes/Chris Dickerson platoon in left.  Dickerson has an OBP-heavy career .845 OPS against righties. Gomes is a career .885 OPS hitter against lefties. These are the sorts of things that get me kinda excited but which make my wife and non-baseball fan friends scratch their heads.
  • Dusty Baker is in his third season as Reds’ manager. He’s a lame duck too, and one which would probably require a lot of money to keep around. I don’t hate Dusty Baker as much as a lot of web writers do, but I don’t think he’s the best guy to be leading this team either, so part of me hopes that the Reds improve enough to give the fans hope but not so much that the team feels obligated to bring Dusty back.
  • Travis Wood is likely to take the fifth starter’s spot. Here the Reds have a couple of good options — the other being lefty Mike Leake — but Wood seems like he has the edge. Assuming both Harang and Arroyo are allowed to walk next year — a safe assumption given their salaries — both of these guys are likely to be starting for the Reds in 2011.

So
how
are they gonna do?

I think the Reds will be a pleasant surprise. The sort of team that everyone imagines the Marlins are supposed to be every year: 85 wins, maybe, and kinda dangerous to visitors who are more squarely in a pennant race than they themselves are. The sort of team that causes Lou Piniella to finally throw his hands up and say “ah, screw it, I’m retiring” and really angers Brewers fans who want to know why they can’t get a couple of decent pitchers like the Reds have.

Prediction: A somewhat distant second place in the NL Central.

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And That Happened: Saturday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the rest of Saturday’s scores and highlights:

Cubs 4, Blue Jays 3: The Blue Jays didn’t look any more comfortable at Wrigley Field on Saturday than they had during Friday’s series opener, dropping their second straight game after Anthony Rizzo sealed the go-ahead run on an RBI single in the seventh inning. The Cubs, meanwhile, reveled in Jose Quintana’s second quality start of the month and delighted the crowd with a two-RBI effort from Ian Happ and footage of David Ross jumping out of a plane — a stunt that would have doubled in entertainment value had Ross successfully convinced manager Joe Maddon to join in the fun.

Pirates 6, Cardinals 4: Neither the Pirates nor the Cardinals had relievers to spare when a one-hour, 56-minute rain delay disrupted their contest in the second inning. Chad Kuhl and Michael Wacha were forced to return to the mound after the downpour subsided, both to very different results. Wacha struggled to regain command of the strike zone, slipping on two home runs and a productive double play as the Pirates built a five-run lead in the second. Kuhl, on the other hand, limited the Cardinals to one run over five innings, setting down six strikeouts and clubbing a second-inning double en route to his sixth win of the season.

Dodgers 3, Tigers 0: Curtis Granderson made his Dodgers debut on Saturday, scoring on Adrian Gonzalez’s RBI single in the seventh inning to put the club on the board. The win, capped by a smart Yasmani Grandal home run in the ninth, marked the Dodgers’ sixth straight victory and placed them in the history books alongside the 2004 Rays and 2006 Red Sox with 13 consecutive Interleague wins in a single season.

Mariners 7, Rays 6: Mitch Haniger is back from the disabled list, a point he emphasized in the third inning of Seattle’s win with his first career grand slam:

The Rays returned with three solo shots in the last third of the game, but fell just short of the tying run after Edwin Diaz shut down the top of the order in the ninth. With the win, the Mariners positioned themselves half a game back of a wild card spot, though they’ll need to edge the Angels and Twins to avoid any potential tie-breakers.

Angels 5, Orioles 1: Albert Pujols didn’t get any closer to tying Jim Thome’s home run record on Saturday, but that didn’t stop teammate Mike Trout from entering the history books. Trout clubbed two home runs in the Angels’ first win of the weekend, becoming the third Major League player with six consecutive 25+ homer campaigns before his age-26 season. Luis Valbuena, while a good 511 home runs shy of Pujols’ career record and 94 home runs and six years too late to match Trout’s milestone, also collected two home runs to back a solid effort from JC Ramirez.

Twins 5, Diamondbacks 0: The Diamondbacks were toppled in a rare shutout on Saturday, taking their second consecutive loss after an even rarer implosion from ace right-hander Zack Greinke. Greinke expended 96 pitches and a season-high four walks in four innings, while Minnesota trounced the D-backs with a five-run spread in the fourth. The righty’s early exit will put a strain on Arizona’s bullpen during their series finale as the club tries to stop their skid and retake their one-game lead over the Rockies in the NL wild card race.

Reds 11, Braves 8: It looked like Robert Stephenson‘s luck may have finally taken a turn for the better. The rookie right-hander grabbed hold of his first win of the year on Saturday, backing the team’s 11-run outburst with five innings of two-run, three-strikeout ball. Cincinnati’s bullpen was far from flawless, especially after Blake Wood surrendered four runs in the ninth, but Scooter Gennett‘s go-ahead grand slam in the top of the inning gave the Reds enough of a cushion to pull off the series win.

Mets 8, Marlins 1: Marcell Ozuna wore several hats during Saturday’s loss to the Mets, from sole run producer to professional outfield field balloon patrol.

Despite his best efforts, the Marlins couldn’t rally against Rafael Montero, who helped snap a five-game losing streak after scattering one run and five strikeouts over six innings.

Yankees 4, Red Sox 3: Newly-returned from the disabled list, CC Sabathia stifled the rival Red Sox through six innings while Todd Frazier belted the winning run with a 363-footer in the sixth. The Sox still sit four games up in the NL East, however, and commemorated the loss with a solo shot by 20-year-old Rafael Devers, who bounced a home run off the Green Monster for the third homer he’s collected in as many games against the Yankees. For the record, no Major League player under the age of 21 has managed the feat since Babe Ruth in 1915.

Astros 3, Athletics 0: Astros’ third baseman Alex Bregman learned an invaluable lesson during the club’s 3-0 shutout on Saturday: If you’re thinking of running on Boog Powell, don’t.

Indians 5, Royals 0: Trevor Bauer may not understand why he dominated during the Indians’ shutout on Saturday, but that didn’t make him any less grateful for the win. “It’s backward,” Bauer was quoted by MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian. “I wasn’t sharp. I didn’t punch people out. I had a lot of balls hit hard. And no runs. So I don’t know. I’ll take it.” Bauer flummoxed the Royals through 6 1/3 innings, granting seven hits and two free passes while the Indians put up a modest five-run backing against Jason Vargas.

Rangers 17, White Sox 7: The Rangers hit season highs in almost every category on Saturday, dismantling Derek Holland and the rest of the White Sox with a whopping 17 runs, 20 hits and 36 bases. Home runs from Rougned Odor, Mike Napoli and Shin-Soo Choo crowned their efforts as the White Sox took their sixth loss in seven games and dropped to a disappointing 21.5 games back of the division lead.

Brewers 6, Rockies 3: Jesus Aguilar hasn’t been pencilled into the starting lineup since August 16, but that didn’t stop the rookie pinch-hitter from making his presence felt. He cranked a two-RBI home run off of Greg Holland in the ninth, giving the Brewers an edge as they tried to stay ahead of the Diamondbacks for the first wild card spot in the National League. Key defensive moves also played a role in the win, not the least of which was a rare 2-6-2 double play to nab Neil Walker at the plate and close out the first inning:

Padres 3, Nationals 1: Yangervis Solarte played spoiler to Stephen Strasburg on Saturday, taking the right-hander deep on a 1-2 pitch in the first inning for his 13th home run of the season. It was the fatal flaw in an otherwise pristine outing, during which Strasburg distributed four hits, two runs and eight strikeouts in six innings. That’s not too shabby for a pitcher coming off the disabled list with elbow issues, and certainly enough to put the Nats’ minds at ease as they push into the postseason. The Padres still have a 12-game gap to close if they want to contend this October, which will require them to scoot past the Pirates, Marlins, Cardinals, Brewers and Diamondbacks for a wild card spot.

Phillies 12, Giants 9: Denard Span didn’t come to mess around. The Giants’ centerfielder squared up the first pitch he saw from the Phillies’ Jared Eickhoff, postmarking it to the right field corner in the first inning. He needed just 15.79 seconds to touch home plate again, logging his first inside-the-park home run since he legged one out in Little League.

The Giants’ offense mustered up an additional eight runs behind Span’s initial effort, but had no way of preventing Ty Blach and Josh Osich from returning all nine runs and then some. The Phillies’ win, powered by a seven-run explosion in the sixth inning and Ty Kelly‘s go-ahead grand slam, was their second in 10 games and snapped a six-game skid.

Watch: Mike Trout ties MLB record with his 25th home run

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It was only a matter of time before Mike Trout courted another all-time record, and on Saturday, he found himself in elite company with his 25th and 26th home runs of the season. He put the Angels on the board with a 429-foot blast in the first inning, depositing an 0-1 fastball from the Orioles’ Kevin Gausman into the left field bleachers:

In the third inning, with the Angels up 2-1, Trout returned to tack on another insurance run. He targeted Gausman’s slider for his second solo shot of the evening and cleared the center field fence with a 418-footer to bring his total to 26 home runs on the year.

Trout has mashed at a staggering .339/.471/.596 clip since his return from the disabled list last month, and Saturday’s totals helped mark his sixth consecutive season with at least 25 home runs. That’s a record few have matched before their age-26 season; in fact, only Hall of Fame sluggers Eddie Mathews and Frank Robinson have ever pulled it off.

Assuming he continues to rake in hits and plate appearances over the last six weeks of the regular season — and there’s nothing to indicate that he won’t — Trout is in line to join elite company of a different kind. The 26-year-old entered Saturday’s game with a 206 OPS+ (park-adjusted on-base plus slugging). According to MLB.com’s Matt Kelly, that means Trout’s hitting at a better clip than the average Major League player by a full 106 percent. Should he finish the year with a 200 OPS+ and 502 plate appearances or better, he’ll be the first player to do so since Barry Bonds obliterated the competition with his 263 OPS+ in 2004.