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A Delicate Balance

When I was younger, I had an obsession with balancing things. I would often sit mesmerized for extended periods of time, searching for the precise point at which I could freeze a pencil in mid-air, balancing it on my finger, the edge of a table, or anything else that was in reach. No lie, for about two years of my life, if someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would respond with "a balancer." I don't think I was really aware at that point that jobs generally had to pay some sort of money, so balancing things seemed like a great way to spend my time. I think what fascinated me the most was that, no matter how many small adjustments I made, no matter how much back and forth occurred, it was nearly impossible to find that point where perfect symmetry was reached. And, on the rare occasion that nine year-old Reed was able to strike such an accord with gravity, all it took was the slightest adjustment for the pencil to reach its literal tipping point and come crashing down. Even then, fascinated and mesmerized, I would pick the pencil up and start all over again.

After this weekend of baseball, I couldn't help but contemplate the National League Central race in the context of a pencil teetering in the balance. While Cubs fans might tell you otherwise, the reality is that the NL Central is going to be won by one of two teams: the Cardinals or the Reds. Despite finally playing a good weekend of baseball, the Cubs are in third place in the division and are already 10 games out. The rest of the teams in the division are in the same situation, if not worse. Meanwhile, both the Cardinals and the Reds have proven repeatedly to be quality clubs, so I don't see the Cubs, Brewers, Astro's or Pirates making a legitimate push towards the top. With that in mind, the question becomes: how evenly matched are these two teams, and what will it take to propel one over the other into the playoffs? Is there a 'tipping point' that exists in this race (currently only a half game separates the two) or will it come down to which team has the better final week of the season?

Most baseball fans would automatically assume that, due to the fact that the Cards have Albert Pujols and the Carpenter/Wainwright combo, coupled with their overall history of success in recent years, that the Cardinals are the odds-on favorite to run away with the division. Maybe they are right. However, as a Reds fan I know that the 2010 Reds are a different brand than we have grown accustomed to over the years; and I am confident they are here to stay. That being said, in order to best analyze which team might come out on top, I've compiled a position-by-position comparison between the two, giving an edge to one team or the other. If there is advantage to be had in this race, maybe this will help us find it.

Catcher – The Cards have two very good defensive catchers in Yadier Molina and Jason Larue. However, beyond defense, they haven't provided much this year. Molina is hitting .238, and Larue is below the Mendoza line at .192. Not exactly Mike Piazza numbers. Meanwhile, the Reds' tandem of Ryan Hanigan and Ramon Hernandez, while maybe not bringing the overall defense of Molina, have pitched in WAY more on offense (Hanigan and Hernandez are hitting .314 and .286, respectively.) I am inclined to give the nod to the Reds on this one, but being that the power numbers are nearly identical, I won't go that far. EDGE: PUSH

First Base – While Votto's numbers this year certainly make this decision harder, it's still pretty easy. No one strikes fear into the hearts of pitchers like Albert "The Machine" Pujols. He might just end up being the best player there ever was. EDGE: CARDS

Second Base – As easy as it was to choose Pujols over Votto, it is easier to make the call on this one. Skip Schumaker has been a huge disappointment for the Cardinals, not hitting for average (.262) and definitely not hitting for power (3 HR's). And, more importantly for second basemen, he doesn't play nearly the caliber of defense that Brandon Phillips does. If Phillips is a defensive wizard, Shumaker is a Mudblood. Yup…Harry Potter reference. That just happened. EDGE: REDS

Third Base – Not only does Scott Rolen's year make this one a laugher, one could also make the case that even super-sub Miguel Cairo would take this one over Cardinal's regular third basemen David Freese. Rolen has had a renaissance year in Cincy, playing the best he has played since, well, he was a Cardinal. Meanwhile, Freese has played like balls. Another easy choice. EDGE: REDS

Shortstop – If it weren't for Brendan Ryan's overall dreadfulness (.192 BA, prone to weight room toe injuries), this one may have been a thinker. Orlando Cabrera has definitely pulled his weight in the field (see: recent brilliant plays on grounders in the hole which the broadcasting team always feels the need to call "Jeter-esque") and started out well at the plate. However, his average (.258) dipped in June, and he has proven to be more of a 7-hole guy these days than anything else. Still, .258 is way better than .192, and Cabrera doesn't even know where the weight room is, so: EDGE: REDS

Right Field – Let's face it, Jay Bruce just hasn't figured it out yet. Still hitting in the mid-200's (.261) and still wracking up the K's, Bruce hasn't looked like the star we expected since his first week in the bigs where he had about 14 straight hits and basically walked on water for five days. Since then? He's been just OK. Ryan Ludwick on the other hand, while having a mediocre year as well, is still hitting 15 points higher and has an OPS of .822, compared to Bruce's .759. EDGE: CARDS

Center Field – I'll admit, there is a lot to like about Colby Rasmus. He plays a great centerfield, hits for power, and has an overflowing toolbox. Funnily enough, the same could be said of Drew Stubbs. However, the comparison ends when you compare their OPS'. The difference is .853 (Rasmus) to .712 (Stubbs). And that's about the time you stop comparing and just put it in the books. EDGE: CARDS

Left Field – Since the All-Star break, Holliday has been on fire, and was as important as anything else in the Cardinals 8-game win streak. As much as I like Jonny Gomes for everything he brings to the table, tangible or not, Holliday is a $100 Million Man for a reason. Plus, Jonny sometimes completely overruns balls and turns fly-outs into triples. Ok, so that only happened once. Still - EDGE: CARDS

Rotation – Before Edinson Volquez' last start, I would have given the edge to the Reds right away. I was that jacked up about their potential, especially after Volquez looked literally unhittable in his first start. Trouble is, he looked everything BUT that in his second, and it really brought me back down to Earth. While I am sure Volquez will be very good over the long haul, it is hard to say how he will progress from his injury, and how many more hiccups he will endure along the way. That said, the Reds still have a very impressive rotation. Bronson Arroyo is a great second half player, Cueto is developing into an ace, and The Twins (a.k.a Mike Leake and Travis Wood) seem to give you a shot every time they take the mound. The Cardinals, on the other hand, are less consistent, yet have more of a chance to be brilliant on a given night. Adam Wainwright is on track to compete for the Cy Young (especially with Ubaldo taking a turn toward negative town) and Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia have been almost as good. However, with injuries to Brad Penny and Kyle Lohse, the Cards have been forced to run Jeff Suppan (6.18 ERA) and Blake Hawksworth (5.23 ERA) out there every 4th and 5th day. That hurts. So, given the Reds consistency, 1-5…EDGE: PUSH

Bullpen – This one is tough, simply because the Cardinals have no one that has been nearly as dominant as Arthur Rhodes. However, they have a bunch of other guys that have had very good years (Jason Motte, Mitchell Boggs, Ryan Franklin) and the Reds' relievers have struggled, as a whole. Still, (and this may be my bias peaking through for the first time) I think the Reds' relievers are better than they have performed so far, especially Nick Masset and Co-co Cordero. Plus, they have Jared Burton and Aroldis Chapman waiting in the wings, and more overall depth in the pen and in the minors. EDGE: PUSH

Bench – This one isn't close, in my mind. Whichever Reds catcher doesn't start is way better than Jason Larue (he is worthless at the plate) and Paul Janish provides ri-freakin-diculous defense. Meanwhile, Miguel Cairo has been forced into extended duty at both first and third base and has out-performed 80% of the Cardinals roster. Finally, Chris Heisey and Lanyce Nix provide decent pop and defense off the bench. Therefore, I leave it to you to examine the resume of the Cardinals' subs because, truthfully, it's not worth my time. EDGE: REDS

Analysis – After a quick survey of our winners and losers above, I get a count of 4-4, with three categories that were too close to call. Now, I'm no mathematician, but what this tells me is these two teams are PRETTY DAMN EVEN. The Reds have a better infield, but the Cards have Pujols. The Cards have a better outfield , but not by much. The Reds have better depth, but until someone gets injured, just how much does that matter over the long haul? And finally, the two teams' pitching staffs are so close that it is hard to even decipher between the two. Indeed, parity has arrived at the top of the NL Central.

So, what will be the difference maker? I am going to go out on a limb and say injuries. The Reds currently have two questions of PARAMOUNT importance that spring from injuries, i.e. the cases of Scott Rolen and Edinson Volquez. The way they both respond to their injury concerns is key. If they come back STRONG, I say the Reds win the divison. I just have that feeling. However, without Volquez the Reds will resort to Aaron Harang, and at this point that's basically like trying to put out a fire with gasoline. Without Rolen, the Reds have proven to be prone to having games where they couldn't buy a run if they offered gold bricks and cocaine. Meanwhile, the Cards are vulnerable at the back end of their rotation; Suppan and Hawksworth have proven that. Also, (and not that they have ever given any indication that they will) if Pujols, Carpenter, or Wainwright goes down, the Cards are flat out done. They are an extremely top-heavy team, as far as talent goes, and that can sometimes play out in nasty ways.

One way or the other, it's clear that a balance has been struck at the top of the NL Central, and it now becomes the responsibility of the Reds to discover the tipping point. With a healthy Scott Rolen and a returned-to-form Volquez, I see them matching the Cardinals blow-for-blow until the last weeks of the season. However, should those chips not fall in their favor, I fear the pencil may come crashing down. Either way, I'll be sitting here, fascinated and mesmerized.

Reed Domer-Shank 7-26-2010

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