MLB Handicapping: Reds one of Best Bets in NL
by Robert Ferringo - 5/19/2010
When most people look at the National League Central standings and see Cincinnati at the top of the heap I’m sure the first reaction of the common fan is somewhere between “good for them”, “when did that happen?”, and “I wonder what Mario Soto is doing these days”.
My first thought when breaking down Cincinnati’s early season success has been, “It’s about time.”
The Reds have been a team on my radar for four full seasons now. Ever since they peaked their head up from the trash pile that is the bottom of the Central back in 2006, posting a 80-82 mark en route to a third-place finish, I have been waiting for this franchise to take the next step from also ran to “aw, yeah!”. Instead it’s been nothing but missteps and mediocrity while averaging just 75 wins over three years while failing to finish higher than fourth place.
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In fact, the Reds have had nine straight losing seasons and have finished in fifth place in the worst division in baseball in five of nine years.
But at the start of business on Thursday the Reds sit in first place in the middling, but competitive, N.L. Central. Their 23-16 mark is their best record at this point in the season in over a decade and this is the first time they’ve been in first place since April of 2007, and the latest they’ve led the division since June 5 of 2000.
The Reds have banked $860 for a $100 backer that has bet all of their games this year. That mark rests behind only San Diego (+1105) and Washington (+960) as the most profitable in the National League. They are also No. 5 in the Majors in terms of overall profit. Tampa Bay is No. 1 and Toronto is No. 3, along with the Padres and Nationals.
Cincinnati has not only been winning, but they have been winning with flair. On Tuesday they completed a two-game sweep of Milwaukee with a three-run ninth inning and a walk-off win against Trevor Hoffman. That 5-4 win was Cincinnati’s 10th one-run victory of the season and they lead the league in wins in their last at-bat.
So the question is simple: are the Reds for real? Every season there is one “surprise team” that may head into June atop their division. But, with few exceptions, those undermanned or under-funded teams come back down to earth during the grind of the summer and by late August the thought of first place is a distant memory.
I do think that this Reds team can compete. And barring anything beyond the natural order of baseball (slumps happen, losing streaks happen, injuries happen, etc.) I think that Cincinnati can be a moneymaker throughout the year and can go stride for stride with the other supposed favorites in the Central.
The first place we have to start when talking about how the Reds have turned themselves around is at the plate. The Reds were shackled with the No. 24 scoring offense and the No. 29 hitting team in the Majors last season. Through nearly a quarter of this season they have boosted themselves up to No. 9 in scoring and No. 13 in batting. That offensive boost has helped offset a slight regression in their team ERA and has helped them keep up with some of the high scoring teams in the National League.
Of course, last year’s pathetic offense – they scored three runs or less in 76 of 162 games last year – was as much a product of fate and unseen forces as it was simply poor at-bats, lack of home run power, and a talent-deprived roster.
There are three main reasons why the Reds floundered at the plate last year. First, they didn’t have a leadoff man. Wily Tavares was in that slot most of the year and he hit .240. Not good. Second, Jay Bruce and Joey Votto, two of the pillars of this lineup in the No. 3 and No. 5 slots in the order, missed a combined 92 games due to injury. This team could barely hit with them and didn’t stand a chance without them.
Third, they didn’t have any depth on their bench. Jonny Gomes was it. He hit .267 with 20 home runs in 98 games. Other than that it’s stunning how bad the rest of the batting options were on this club. So when guys were hurt, needed a day off, or simply weren’t hitting the Reds had no one else to go to. That’s why guys like Paul Janish (292 plate appearances and hit .211), Adam Rosales (.213 in 266 PAs), Layne Nix (.239 in 309 PAs) and Tavares (.240 in 437 PAs) were sent to the plate time and time again.
However, the seeds for this season’s resurgence were planted last July at the trade deadline. At the time the trade of Scott Rolen to the Reds for Edwin Encarnacion and spare change barely registered with the general baseball public. However, that one move set a cornerstone for their success this year.
Rolen, a former Rookie of the Year, MVP candidate and six-time All Star, made an instant impact on this team. First, he shored up one of the worst defenses in the league (replacing one of the worst defensive players in the Majors) with his Gold Glove play at third base. Next, he provided a veteran presence and brought a professional attitude to a team with zero leadership, zero winning experience, and zero regulars with a World Series ring. That has all carried over to this season and you can see how he has been a stabilizing factor on this roster.
A similar move was made this offseason by bringing in Orlando Cabrera. That free agent signing barely made the papers, I’m sure, but it has had a palpable impact on this team. Cabrera is another veteran, another proven winner, and another excellent fielder with a proven track record of clutch play. He earned a World Series ring with Boston in 2004 and has played in the postseason in five of the past six years. Again, not only has Cabrera taken care of the leadoff spot but he’s also brought another presence into the locker room to lead this young team.
Want a measurable area where these guys have made an impact? According to Joe Kay of the Canadian Press, the Reds are No. 1 in the Majors in going first-to-third on a base hit, doing so 32 times in their first 38 games. Apparently this has been a big focus of Cabrera’s, as well as manager Dusty Baker, and the young guys are finally putting in the effort to do that “little thing” that makes a big difference through the course of the season.
The Twins and Rangers, two other first place teams, join the Reds in the top three. Last year four of the top five teams in this categories, the Angels, Yankees, Dodgers and Twins, made the playoffs while the Reds finished 14th of 30 teams.
So they’ve got Rolen. They’ve got Cabrera. Bruce, Votto and Brandon Phillips are all healthy and taking care of business. And with the defense and lineup secure this team can now rely on one of the most underrated pitching staffs in the Majors.
Aaron Harang, Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey and Mike Leake aren’t names that jump off the board when you’re looking for a stud arm to bet on. None of those players would be considered an “ace,” yet the Reds have gotten some of the top starting pitching in the league to this point.
Leake has been a revelation. He is the real deal and has exceptional movement on his pitches. He is 4-0 in seven starts with a 3.09 ERA and has bee one of the best arms on the staff. Cueto and Arroyo have also had flashes of brilliance and are a combined 6-3 while Bailey is just now just one start removed from a complete game shutout over Pittsburgh.
And here’s the best part: Bailey and Harang have gotten off to slow starts and have nowhere to go but up, and this team has two other options to throw in the mix with rookie Aroldis Chapman (currently in the minors) as well as last year’s ace, Edison Volquez (recovering from injury, suspension) waiting in the wings for a potential stretch run. Further, former Arizona starter Micah Owings is the long man out of the bullpen but could definitely step in for a spot start of if someone goes down.
Add in one of the most underrated closers in the league (Francisco Cordero) and the No. 4 bullpen in the Majors in 2009 and this staff is simply solid from top to bottom. Admittedly, the bullpen is off to a rough start. They have the No. 24 ERA and guys like Nick Masset haven’t gotten it going yet. But there is plenty of quality, experienced arms back there and this team can consistently retire lefty or righty batters.
That means that Cincinnati has one of the deepest rotations in the Majors. It also means that they have some chips to make a potential move this year if they are still in the ball game in July. The Reds have consistently been between No. 18 and No. 20 in the league in terms of payroll. (They are currently No. 18 at $72.3 million.) But the word is that if they are still in competition in July they may be willing to take on payroll to make a push at the postseason.
We might be getting ahead of ourselves with trade talk. But while it’s too early to say whether or not the Reds will be buying or selling I can say this: I’m buying into this team. They have had some good fortune so far this year. But in a division that no longer has a front-runner (St. Louis has looked awful and isn’t hitting the ball) I think that the Reds have enough talent, both on the mound and at the plate, to be a consistent moneymaker throughout the summer. Will they win the division? I’m not willing to go that far. But I am willing to say that they’ll finish the year in the black and continue to be a cash cow for bettors buying into this Big Red ATM Machine.
Robert Ferringo is getting hot again in MLB with three of four winning nights and Ferringo has established himself as one of the best MLB handicappers in the nation and has bagged three straight winning seasons heading into 2010. Click Here for more info.
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