A few weeks ago I might've been carrying on in this space about how the Mets need to beat up on second-division teams like the Reds if they are to stand any chance of winning their division. Now, the Mets are looking like an also-ran while the Reds head into the last series before the All-Star break with a better record and smaller divisional deficit than the Mets. I tossed some questions to Joel Luckhaupt of SB Nation Reds site Red Reporter to see what's what in Cinci.
Who has been the most pleasant surprise for the Reds this season and why?
I would have to say Ryan Hanigan. He's batting .333 with a .422 on base percentage, which as you know is outstanding for a rookie and a catcher. Given that he's 28 years old and still a rookie, there weren't many expectations for him this season. However, he's not only hitting well, though admittedly without any power, but he's also been excellent defensively, throwing out 44% of the attempted base stealers. Of course, most of his playing time came while Joey Votto was on the DL as Ramon Hernandez covered 1B in his absence. Since Votto has come off the DL, Hanigan is back to starting just once or twice a week and since he's the only backup catcher, he's rarely used otherwise. I guess Dusty Baker just couldn't tolerate all of his base clogging.
Who has been the most miserable failure and why?
Bronson Arroyo. Despite leading the team with 8 wins, Arroyo has been bad for most of the season, posting a 5.85 ERA over 17 starts. He's been particularly awful of late, surrendering over 10 runs per 9 innings pitched over his last 5 starts while average just over 5 innings per start. Arroyo has been bad in the first half each of the last two seasons, but this year seems different as his strikeout rate is way down at just 4.7 K/9 and his walks and HR rates are both up over their norms. Particularly discouraging - mainly because it makes it hard to trade him - is that Arroyo has been dealing with carpal tunnel syndrome all season and has admitted that he'll probably need surgery in the off-season. Then again, he also claims that the CTS isn't affecting his pitching, so who knows? Whatever it is, he's been pretty bad this year on the mound.
The Reds are 4.5 games back in the central and have a better record than the Mets. Are they close enough to make a run for the division or will they start trading off parts soon?
It's hard to say. I think the general feeling among fans is that this team doesn't have nearly enough to compete in the playoffs, even if they were to acquire a much needed bat. But then, nobody in the NL Central is running away with this division either. I think if a deal presents itself that will clearly improve the offense without adding on too much payroll, Walt Jocketty will take it. However, I think deals like that are much harder to come by these days since so many teams still think they are in it and the majority of teams that are looking to trade away talent are doing so in order to cut payroll. I honestly don't expect that we'll see any major moves by the Reds at the deadline.
Then again, if the current trend of their play continues, I could see them shopping a few of their veteran players around in an attempt to snag a shortstop or catcher of the future (both are clearly the weakest positions in the organization). If the Reds are slumping their way out of the race, I'd think that players like Arthur Rhodes, David Weathers, Ramon Hernandez, and possibly Aaron Harang or Bronson Arroyo could be shopped around. It's a young team though without a lot of tradeable veterans, so I still doubt we'll see much action from them.
If they decide to make a run for it, what are their areas of need?
They need a big bat, preferably right-handed since Dusty Baker would rather shoot his foot off with a crossbow than bat lefties back-to-back. It seems like left field is the most obvious place to fit a bat in, but that's only because Jay Bruce is manning right field and it's unlikely that they'll replace him this year despite his struggles. They could also use a shortstop, so if the Mets want to give up Jose Reyes (if healthy), we'll take him off your hands.
Micah Owings: more valuable as a pitcher or as a hitter (objectively, he has .1 WAR pitching and .3 WAR batting)?
Definitely more valuable as a pitcher, but that's because he can hit. He's your typical 5th starter. He'll give you 2 or 3 good starts and then 2 or 3 bad starts. Those pitchers aren't that easy to find, but the Reds could probably replace him with somebody from the minors and get basically the same results. What they would lose though is having the extra bat on the bench, as Owings has proven to be a useful pinch hitter this season as well. However, I don't think he's a good enough hitter to get 500 PA a season unless he does the Rick Ankiel thing and spends time in the minors just as a hitter. His bat is definitely valuable because it comes from a pitcher, but I'm not so sure he could be a regular starter in the field. The fact that he's a pitcher almost makes it like the Reds have a 26-man roster.
The Reds' bullpen has been pretty great, huh? What's that all about?
Some of it is just the natural variability of a bullpen. However, the bullpen has been helped dramatically by a starting rotation that was going deep into ballgames at the start of the season. For the first couple of months, the Reds starters were averaging well over 6 innings per start, which took a lot of pressure off of the bullpen and allowed Dusty Baker to use the pen much more effectively. The starters have slipped up lately though and now we're starting to see some cracks in the bullpen.
The old guys have been outstanding though. Francisco Cordero is deservedly an All Star and Arthur Rhodes has been lights out despite the fact that Baker hasn't been using him strictly as a LOOGY, which is what we expected his role to be coming into the season. The big surprise in the bullpen has been Nick Masset, who the Reds acquired from the White Sox in the Ken Griffey Jr. deal last season. The Reds considered using him as a starter during Spring Training, but since he's moved to the bullpen he's been able to let loose with his stuff and he's been consistently hitting the high 90s with his fastball, which he has paired up with an excellent curveball. Throw in good performances from David Weathers and junk-balling left-hander Daniel Ray Herrera and the bullpen has managed to be a definite positive for the Reds this year.
What does Dusty Baker do well as a manager? And not so much?
The best thing about Dusty Baker is that the players really appear to love to play for him. He does seem to respect his players and does what he can to make them confident in themselves. He's probably the most loyal manager I've ever seen. If Dusty declares you to be one of his starters, you are made man and it'll take the hounds of hell to get you out of the lineup. I imagine that helps players feel confident that they aren't going to be dumped just because of a slump.
What does Dusty do poorly? Just about everything else it seems. I'm being a bit facetious there. His biggest problem is that he's not a very good in-game tactician. He sticks to "the book" almost religiously, except when he doesn't at really odd times during the game. The Reds currently lead the majors in sacrifice bunt attempts, which is really quite amazing for a team that is 3rd to last in the NL in OBP. For a team that really struggles to get runners in, it's a shame to use up all of those outs so easily.
His loyalty can also be seen as a bit of stubborness. Willy Taveras is still the centerfielder and still batting lead-off despite a .286 on base percentage and despite the fact that Chris Dickerson has been outstanding defensively and is sporting a .369 OBP. It's not always a bad thing - he's stuck with Jay Bruce for probably a lot longer than most managers would - but it's frustrating when he's loyal to players that I don't like in the first place.