After losing two of three to the Braves, the Mets head out to Cincinnati to take on the NL Central leading Reds for a three game set. At 69-46, the Reds find themselves five up on the Pirates and seven up on the Cardinals. Despite missing star first baseman and MVP candidate Joey Votto in the second half, the Reds have been able to keep winning thanks to a strong starting rotation, a lights-out bullpen anchored by flamethrower Aroldis Chapman and a lineup filled with young, solid homegrown regulars. The two teams faced off twice at Citi Field in the first half, splitting a two game set in May before the Reds swept the Mets in three games in June. To help preview this series, I enlisted RijoSaboCaseyWKRP, manager of SB Nation's Red Reporter to answer some Reds' questions for us and he happily obliged. (I also answered some Mets questions for them)
Amazin' Avenue: The Reds have had an outstanding 2012 season and find themselves in first place, five games ahead. Do you think they'll be able to outlast the upstart Pirates and the veteran Cardinals in the NL Central race?
Red Reporter: I think they will, partly thanks to the fact that it's mid-August. The Reds could go 23-24 over the rest of the season and the Pirates would have to go 28-19 just to tie. Of course, this isn't as comforting after what happened last season, but I don't think the Reds are going 1-game under-.500 the rest of the way with 15 games left against the Cubs and Houston. The Pirates and Cardinals would both have to go on a tear, which could certainly happen. The Cardinals might be the greater threat. Aside from the refrain about them having "been there," they're also performing well under their Pythagorean record. They have the second-best run differential in the NL.
I think the Reds have the talent to hold them off and are hoping for returns from Votto and Rolen and for Bruce to go "Live with the E Street Band" at the end of the season (when he usually plays his best).
AA: Johnny Cueto has had a fantastic season but for the second year in a row, he's greatly outpitching his peripherals in a fly ball park, no less. What does Cueto do well to keep the ball in the yard and is this level of performance sustainable?
RR: I think peripherals can take more time to stabilize than most people have patience for, myself included. So it's still possible Cueto is still pitching over his head or getting away with something the league hasn't caught up to. With that said, Cueto has posted a sub-2.50 ERA for two seasons and 317.2 innings. His numbers have improved across the board every year in the majors - most notably, his control and HR-rates. He's been getting around a 50% GB rate for the past two years, while his FB% has dropped every year in the majors. That's exactly the trend you'd hope for in any pitcher, especially a Reds pitcher.
I think you have to credit the deception in his Tiant-y delivery, which can make hitters take later, shorter swings. He has a nice gap of almost 10 mph between his fastball and change, while he can throw his fastball for 96 when he gets lathered up. He's using that change-up more and coaxing more groundballs with it than any other pitch. That HR/FB rate might not be sustainable, but what he's doing isn't a fluke.
AA: New Jersey product Todd Frazier has been great this year. Do you think he's the Reds' third baseman going forward and how strong of a rookie of the year candidate is he this year?
RR: He could be the Reds' LF too, since he's shown his bat would play there. I think it's increasingly likely, though, that the Reds get all excited and re-sign Ryan Ludwick. The question for Frazier at 3B is his defense, but it looks plenty good enough for his bat so far.
Frazier has hit better than any rookie in the NL (with over 250 PAs), but he may get docked points for being 26.
AA: During both his stints in San Francisco and Chicago, we've heard near universal praise of Dusty Baker from the mainstream media and we seem to be hearing the same in Cincinnati. Being able to watch him on a regular basis, how would you classify the job he does and is it worthy of all of the praise from the talking heads?
RR: Dusty does some infuriating things with his lineups, excessive bunting and goofy bullpen management. But it's hard to be dissatisfied with how he's guiding the ship right now. I would say the Reds are even overachieving and some of that margin should go to the manager. Critiquing manager's performance is both very easy and nearly impossible, but you have to give him credit, at least for "doing no harm." The rotation hasn't suffered an injury, there have been breakouts from Ludwick and Frazier and he's generally kept calm while Joey Votto has been injured. He's not instantly some kind of visionary because his team is doing well, but he's an interesting, ultimately likeable dude, who - at the very least - knows how to motivate teams who have mold-able talent.
AA: Which Reds players have been playing well over the last few weeks and which players have been struggling?
RR: Todd Frazier and Ryan Ludwick continue to lead the way in Votto's absence. Drew Stubbs and Jay Bruce, who have been streaky all year, haven't done much of anything of the last two weeks.
Thanks to RijoSaboCaseyWKRP for helping us to preview this series! Here are the pitching matchups: