Can the Reds keep it up? If they're healthy ...
Dayn Perry / FOXSports.com
The Cincinnati Reds just took two of three against Houston, swept a two-game set against the Cardinals, sit atop the National League Central (the toughest division in baseball thus far) and are on pace to win 110 games.
For fans of a team that hasn't had a winning season since 2000 and hasn't made the playoffs since 1995, this is no doubt a welcome turn of events. Still, none but the truest of believers expected the Reds to contend in 2006; so it bears exploring whether they can keep this up.
First, let's take a look at how the Reds stack up among their NL peers in a number of key categories:
Statistic Number NL rank
Run differential +24 3rd
Runs scored 158 1st
Runs allowed 134 13th
On-base percentage .363 1st
Slugging percentage .471 2nd
Starters' ERA 4.72 9th
Bullpen ERA 4.64 12th
Strength of schedule 5th
Thus far, two key factors are in Cincinnati's favor: a good run differential and a fairly demanding schedule. That means the Reds have been logging semi-comfortable wins against, generally speaking, the better teams in the league. It's far too early in the season to read too much into run differential, but so far so good.
As for the breakdowns, the nature of the Great American Ballpark must be considered. The Ballpark, of course, is probably the best hitter's environment in the NL outside of Coors Field. This fact serves to make the offense look better than it really is while making the pitching staff look worse than it really is. That said, even in a neutral context, run prevention will remain a concern for the Reds.
Bronson Arroyo has been tremendous thus far, posting a 2.06 ERA in 43.2 innings, including Monday's complete-game gem against St. Louis. While it's highly likely Arroyo will regress modestly as the season progresses, a handful of Cincinnati starters are also underperforming their forecasts. Brandon Claussen (6.04 ERA) and Dave Williams (9.53 ERA) can't help but improve. Also, Eric Milton and Paul Wilson are on the disabled list, and once they return, they will at least give the Reds options (if not optimal ones).
Overall, Arroyo and Aaron Harang make a credible front of the rotation, at least for a team that scores oodles of runs. It will be a matter of bludgeoning the opposition to death — something the Reds are capable of provided they can get league-average innings from the middle of the rotation. Accomplishing this may require some creativity on the part of manager Jerry Narron. For example, starting the fly-balling Milton, once he returns from injury, only on the road (so as to spare him and the team from the homer-rich environs of Cincinnati) is a good starting point.
The bullpen is a mishmash of reasonably promising arms, but it's not a stellar unit by any means. Kent Mercker and Chris Hammond are fairly strong from the left side, but the right-handed corps is altogether less inspiring. Trying out a healthy Paul Wilson in the pen is one possibility, and, of course, it's rather simple to upgrade the bullpen come trade-deadline time. Also, Narron should be willing to play matchups in the ninth inning rather than ritually devoting himself to a flawed closer like David Weathers.
As for the offense, it's been tremendous thus far. Adam Dunn is putting up his customary numbers; the highly promising Edwin Encarnacion is showing impressive skills growth in the early going; Austin Kearns is healthy and hitting, and Ryan Freel soldiers on as a first-rate on-base threat. Perhaps most encouraging is that the Reds have thrived this season while getting only 31 at-bats from Ken Griffey Jr. Griffey is slated to come off the DL this week, and — as always — it'll greatly help the Reds' chances if he's generally healthy.
Brandon Phillips, while still a player of considerable abilities, is hitting over his head thus far. Yet, it's still encouraging that the Reds opted to cut bait on Tony Womack, which means Phillips will have to play himself out of the lineup. On the whole, the Cincinnati offense is an imposing one in any environment. But health will be the key, as Griffey and Kearns have long and grim injury histories.
Overall, the Reds' success will depend on winning the high-scoring affairs that are so common in their new home digs. They have a number of lavishly gifted hitters; so the runs will come. Keeping the rotation afloat will again be critical, but the Reds are better in that regard than they have been in years. In the long term, the Cardinals, barring serious injury, are the better team and should win the division. However, the Reds are absolutely a wild-card threat.
Nothing out West is of a concern, and the East right now is the Mets and a throng of mediocrities. They'll certainly receive intra-divisional challenges from the Brewers and perhaps the Astros, but the Reds, if healthy (a major qualifier, to be sure), have a lineup core that's capable of carrying them to the postseason for the first time in more than a decade.
Dayn Perry is a frequent contributor to FOXSports.com and author of the new book, "Winners: How Good Baseball Teams Become Great Ones" (Available now at Amazon.com).