Reasons to hope this time
Column by The Post's Lonnie Wheeler
In the league that the Reds play in, sweet springs have a way of turning into sour summers. Around here, we've learned how to read the label and divine if what we see is about to spoil.
This season, frankly, doesn't have the look of that. It doesn't bear the cruddy appearance, so far, of any of the past five, which have all been losing ones of various degree but revoltingly similar timber.
It doesn't have the feel of last year, when the Reds led the National League in scoring, set a team record for home runs and were already nine games out of first place by the end of April. It doesn't smell like 2004, when the Reds were in first place at the end of May in spite of being outscored overall; or taste like 2003, when the Reds were 2 ½ games off the lead on July 2 and just itching to trade Aaron Boone and Jose Guillen and any veteran pitcher; or bear a resemblance to 2002, when the Reds trotted out Joey Hamilton as their starting pitcher on Opening Day; or dredge up any memories of 2001, when the Reds were conserving themselves for the big move to Great American Ball Park and thought little of losing 96 games.
Why is this year different, you ask? Not because - well, not just because - the Reds have tied a franchise record by winning 16 games in April; after all, they won 16 in April of 2002. They've frequently started fast in their consecutive years of non-contending. And it's not because they hopped over the Houston Astros into first place Friday night.
It's because they're better now. And we'll give you 10 reasons why. (Feel free to scramble the order any way you see fit.)
The rotation. Bolstered by Bronson Arroyo, the starting staff is significantly more competitive than it has been. Already, the Reds have posted three shutouts. They had one all of last season. Last year, the Reds were outscored by 41 runs in the first inning. This year, they're up two. Over the first six innings - the turf of the starters, more or less - they've outscored their opponents 111-88.
Versatility. Absurdly dependent on the long ball since they moved into Great American, the Reds small-balled a win or two in Milwaukee. Then they swept Washington on the road while hitting just one home run in three games. Nor did they hit one Friday night while beating the Astros, 5-4. In that purposeful game, Cincinnati's first three runs were scored on two groundouts and a sacrifice fly.
Speed. Ryan Freel never met a single he didn't think he could stretch twice as far. He's third in the league in stolen bases. Felipe Lopez, after swiping two Friday night, is now second. Against the Brewers, Brandon Phillips scored from second on an infield single.
Total offense. The Reds lead the league in runs scored. Of course, they did that last year, which is why this is not higher on the list. They also lead the league in home runs, and did that last year, too.
Total defense. This might seem a bit presumptuous, seeing as how Cincinnati stands last in the league in fielding percentage. But Edwin Encarnacion has begun to make plays at third base, and Lopez and Phillips are taking on the sheen of a dazzling double-play combination. They turned two of them Friday night. What's more, Phillips' range at second base is profoundly pitcher-friendly.
Depth. The Reds are 11-4 without Ken Griffey Jr. With Freel (who has taken over in center field during Griffey's absence, which ought to be over any day) and Rich Aurilia (three hits Friday night batting cleanup) heading up the bench, there isn't an everyday player whose loss would be insurmountable.
Roy Oswalt. Friday night, for the first time in 16 career decisions, the Reds beat the Houston ace. Their various talents and combinations have put them in good stead when they face a top-flight pitcher, something that couldn't be said when they were so woefully one-dimensional. They've also gotten the best of Chris Carpenter, Carlos Zambrano, Ben Sheets and Dontrelle Willis (although Willis didn't take the loss).
Edwin Encarnacion. The recent roll - five in a row, eight out of nine - has come while Griffey has been unavailable and Adam Dunn has slumped. The 23-year-old Dominican, in his first full season as the starting third baseman, trails only Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman in RBIs. Run production has been immensely supplied by the bottom of the Reds' batting order, namely Encarnacion and . . .
Brandon Phillips. It's way, way, way too early to invoke Joe Morgan's name. But there's no getting around what Phillips has meant to the ballclub in the three weeks since he came over from Cleveland. He was NL Player of the Week last week, with an astounding 17 RBIs. He had two more Friday night, while smacking three hits, scoring twice and stealing a base.
Wayne Krivsky. The Arroyo and Phillips trades have been monumental to date; but then, it's only April. Krivsky is included here not for April, but for what he might mean to June and July. He and new owner Bob Castellini, who hired him, lend Cincinnati the executive potential to stay in the race for the length of the summer. It's not 2003 anymore. Or any of the seasons surrounding it.