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The Hunt for a Reds October

As most of you probably do if you are reading this blog (except those of you who have no interest in the Reds and just read this because you know me and I made you promise to do so…a.k.a. the bulk of my readership…a.k.a probably just my brother…thanks, bro!), I have read every single MLB mid-season awards column that is out there. And, if most of you are like me, you are tired of reading people award Joey Votto with the "MVP", Arthur Rhodes with the "Cy Young", and Mike Leake with the "Rookie of the Year." Granted, these guys are all worthy of such distinctions, but I mean my niece could come up with a column like that…and she's two. I also contemplated fashioning a column full of "senior superlative" type awards; things like the "Mr. Ed look-alike" prize or the award for "most likely to get caught speeding because he was hungry." However, I decided that, while humorous, a column like that would leave a lot of substance on the table. If the Reds were having their typical throw-away season (similar to what the Cubs have had since the beginning of time), I could see it. However, the Reds are in the midst of (potentially) their best season in a long while, and I think we owe it to ourselves to engage in some meaningful analyses. So, in that vein, I present to you my own mid-season awards, as well as the five most important reasons the Reds will make the playoffs for the first time in 15 years.

Most Pleasant Surprise – A strong case could be made for Mike Leake here. Most baseball fans are familiar with his historic jump from the MLB first-year player draft to the big league mound, and are aware that he started the season 5-0. However, what most people don't realize is that he is also an incredible athlete, fielding his position well and hitting the cover off the ball when given the opportunity. I would have given Leake the nod here if it weren't for his recent slide (he's given up five or more runs in four of his last six starts). Another possibility would be Brandon Phillips, as he is no doubt having a career year. However, if you're like me, you have always kind of expected these kinds of numbers out of Brandon, so he is more worthy of the "what took you so long?" award than anything else. That leaves me with Jonny Gomes. Not only was he cast away by the Rays after a 2008 season in which he hit .182, he came into this season just hoping for playing time. By wracking up 60 RBI's and starting the season sizzling-hot (his batting average has since cooled to .277), he has played a huge role in a Reds offense that went from "will they score enough runs?" to "will they end the season as the best offense in baseball?" More importantly, by batting .285 against righties, Gomes has finally shed the cumbersome tag of "platoon player."

Biggest Disappointment – On a team of players who are either matching or exceeding their personal bests, there weren't a lot for contenders for this "award". Certainly Aaron Harang could have been considered for the start he had, but he also has been pitching much better of late, and if we're being honest, who ACTUALLY expected him to have a good year after notching two straight 16 loss seasons? I also considered Daniel Ray Herrera. He had a surprisingly effective season in 2009 as a situational lefty, but then at some point in 2010 decided he was going to start playing like an Oompa-Loompa instead of just looking like one, and has subsequently been demoted to AAA. However, again, it is expectations that make Herrera unsuitable for this one. No one really expected Herrera to continue to be a great option out of the 'pen. Viable? Maybe. But we all knew at some point someone (Bill Bray, Aroldis Chapman, off the top of my head) was going to unseat him and he would eventually be dragging his flat-brimmed cap to Louisville. That leaves us with Nick Masset. Masset was beaten out last year for a rotation spot by Micah Owings, and responded by completely blowing hitters away as the 8th inning set-up man. He was so effective that, entering the 2010 season, many had already carved "Nick Masset, Closer-In-Waiting" in the wood paneling above his locker. Oops. Masset has been a failure this year, plain and simple. Posting a 5.26 ERA in the first half and wracking up less holds than Anthony Munoz in his prime, Masset has climbed into second place in the "Oh-snap-why-are-they-bringing-him-in?" sweepstakes. Cordero has pretty much locked up first place there, but nevertheless, Masset is the pick.

Best Management Decision – Hands down, it has to be the lineup shuffle that occurred in May. After what seemed like 10 years of fan outrage, Dusty Baker finally moved Brandon Phillips up in the lineup (at first to the two-hole, then to the leadoff spot). Phillips has completely changed his approach at the plate, and is currently hitting 30 points above his average as the catalyst for an explosive Reds offense. And, while slumping currently, Orlando Cabrera has given good at-bats at the top of the order, produced some timely hits, and more aptly fills the role of the heady number two hitter. It was a long-overdue modification on Dusty's part, but the wins quickly followed.

Captain without the 'C' – No one has worn the wishbone 'C' on their jersey since Barry Larkin hung up his spikes. Personally, I like that the Reds don't hand out the Captain distinction to any Shmoe off the street who has a couple good years. Not only was Larkin a Hall of Fame caliber shortstop, he was also a fantastic clubhouse leader and a beaming role model for Cincinnati youngsters. However, even without an official captain, every good team needs leadership and the Reds get it from a lot of places. Joey Votto leads by example; in a few years he very well could be made el capitan, officially. Brandon Phillips is the vocal leader and team spokesman. Orlando Cabrera is a born winner whose playoff experience should prove invaluable down the stretch. All these guys definitely play a role in maintaining the chemistry that has made this club so resilient. However, my vote goes to Scott Rolen, a guy who represents the perfect blend of leadership qualities. He's a quiet, lead-by-example guy like Votto. However, like Cabrera he brings a ton of experience in winning, a quality that is rare in Redsland. Finally, he isn't afraid to speak up when things are going wrong, and he has the whole team's attention when he does. You cannot underplay the fact that Phillips credits Rolen for his level of play this year, or that the Reds win something like two-thirds of their games when Scottie starts.

Most Indispensable – Again, this one is tough. Brandon Phillips, Scott Rolen, Arthur Rhodes, and Joey Votto all made the All-Star team, and they all deserved it. While Scottie has been amazing for the reasons listed above, and Phillips is having a career year, a very good debate could be waged between Rhodes and Votto. Arthur Rhodes has been the rock-solid stud of the bullpen in the first half, and that is evidenced in that he was one of only a handful of middle relievers in the last 20 years to make the All-Star team. Before he gave up a couple runs against Philly, he was one scoreless inning short of breaking the record for relievers. He also had a sub 0.50 ERA. However, I have to go with Votto here. Much like Pujols is for the Cardinals, Joey Votto is the great equalizer in the Reds lineup. With Joey Votto, you always have a chance. And without him, well, we all saw what happened last year when he took some time off. I have no doubt that losing Votto would absolutely wreck this team's productivity, so he gets the nod.

Most Dispensable – My first inclination was to go with O-cab here, despite the intangibles he brings to the team. His early season production (he was hitting .281 at one point in May) has definitely leveled off, and at shortstop he has the tendency to look stiffer than Kramer in dungarees. Plus, Paul Janish, a.k.a. Silk, (yeah, I just gave a nickname to our most under-used player) is waiting in the wings, always ready to give a boost to the Reds' team fielding percentage. However, for the reasons mentioned above, Cabrera brings a valuable presence to the Reds lineup that I wouldn't go as far as to call dispensable. A better candidate would be Drew Stubbs. Most fans of Stubbs (and, ultimately, I count myself as one) point to his off-the-chart toolset as the reason he needs playing time. I couldn't agree more. He has blinding speed, plus power, and has great range in centerfield. However, could we have done just as well this season (or better) with Chris Heisey in center? I submit that we could have, and we would have. Stubbs gets bad jumps in the outfield, misses balls he should catch, and strikes out about a third of the time. Essentially, he is learning how to play the game before our eyes. Heisey, on the other hand, has made some fantastic plays in the outfield, comes up huge in clutch situations at the plate, and simply looks more polished. In the long-term interest of the club, Stubbs needs to play every day. I get that. But as far as who is the MOST replaceable, in the context of the Reds' overall success thus far? I'm goin' with Stubbs.

And now, five simple reasons the Reds will be playing baseball in October…

  1. Edinson Volquez – In addition to the Reds' bevy of quality starting pitchers, they add Volquez, an All-Star and a Cy Young candidate in 2008. Aside from Texas getting Cliff Lee, no one is adding a better starter at the trade deadline. And the Reds are getting him for free.
  2. Walt Jocketty – 2010 will mark one of the first summers since 1995 that the Reds have been buyers at the deadline. Jocketty has already proven he has the savvy and drive to put the Reds in a winning position (Chapman signing, Rolen and Cabrera pick-ups), so I wouldn't be surprised if he wrangled one or two more key pieces before July is over.
  3. Joey Votto – Not many teams have the caliber of player that the Reds do in Votto. As stated above, he is our Pujols. Pitchers fear him. Ladies love him. Men want to be him. At least I do.
  4. Aroldis Chapman – It wasn't long ago that a team from Tampa made the postseason for the first time ever and deployed their ace (literally) in the hole, one Mr. David Price. The Rays brought Price up late in the season to strike fear into the hearts of their opponents…and it worked. The Rays wound up in the World Series, Price later transitioned into the rotation, and eventually, became the All-Star game starter. If he can consistently find the strike zone in Louisville over the next few weeks, I fully expect Chapman to follow a similar path.
  5. Defense – The Reds are tops in the National League in team defense. Dusty Baker credits this improvement as the primary reason for the Reds' turnaround, and I don't think he is too far off. Phillips has been insane, Rolen and O-Cab have been great stabilizing forces, and Bruce has played Gold Glove caliber D. While it has been clear the Reds pitchers (especially the younger guys) have placed an emphasis on throwing strikes this year, it would all be for naught if the boys behind them couldn't catch the ball. Also, unlike the ebb and flow of offensive production, defense is constant. Either you can play it, or you cant. The Reds can.

So, (and in a not-so-thinly-veiled attempt at seeing just how few people read this thing) I submit to you that the keys to success listed above are only one man's opinion. Will the Reds continue their Cinderella season? More importantly, if they do make it to the promised land, what will be the driving factors behind their success? Did I hit all five nails on the head? Can anyone hear me??

(Not you, bro…put your hand down.)

Reed Domer-Shank 7-15-2010

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