None of the pundits, and few of us, expected the Reds to be clinging to a tie for first place in the highly competitive NL Central on May 12. Our stay at the top might be fleeting and fragile -- held together by gum and good luck. We don't really want to sacrifice or leverage the future to prolong this sweet runup and pipedream of success.
At the same time, why let a golden opportunity slip away to redress years of mediocrity? We all know it's a long shot that we'll remain atop the heap come the All-Star break, but even so, we've got to claw and chug, and keep shuffling the decks creatively, so we not only stay competitive, but actually defy gravity and all the negativity surrounding this franchise for the past decade or so.
Here are four baby steps we can take now to keep winning -- not only this season, but hopefully, for a few years to come. None of these steps involve sacrificing any of our long-range goals or prematurely using the trading chits we have available to us.
1. Send a strong, performance-based message to our porous bullpen by designating White for assignment, the same way Womack got the heave-ho. Shackelford and Hammond have higher ERAs than White, but they have shown flashes of command and presence, and they are both lefties, while White is a righty, consistently bad, a veteran running on empty, who keeps adding fuel to every fire he's supposed to extinguish. Give him his walking papers now before he does any more damage. Call up Carlos Guevara from Chattanooga to replace White in the bullpen. If Guevara can't hold his ERA under 5 or so, then we keep auditioning other guys from within our minor league system until we find someone who can. Failing at that, we bite the bullet and make a trade at a time when it's more expected, less desperate, and when we might reap more return on investment.
2. Place Mercker on the DL if he's too sore to pitch. Call up Mike Venafro from Louisville to temporarily fill the LOOGY slot. Venafro might only manage a 4 or 4.50 ERA, but that's still better than Shackelford and Hammond have done to date. Remember, we're only talking baby steps here. When Mercker is eligible to be reactivated, hand him the ball, letting either Venafro or Shackelford return to Louisville, whoever is not getting the job done.
3. If Milton is ready to come off the DL in another week or two, then by all means, he must be reinserted into the rotation. We have too much money invested in him not to do so. He should replace Williams, whose 7.85 ERA is just not acceptable, even for a 5th starter. Williams can go to the pen or be sent to Louisville to try to work out the kinks preventing him from being a decent starter. I wouldn't cut him completely loose. He's young enough to get a handle on his problems. But he does have obvious issues he needs to address in a less stressful and critical role, whether with the big club or with Louisville.
4. Finally, DL Freel, giving him some time on account of his tight groin to resolve his groan-worthy lack of plate discipline the past month. Call up Cody Ross, who is hitting .316 with three home runs in his brief injury rehab at Louisville. I know Denorfia has more fans on Redszone, but Ross is the better candidate to fill a part-time bench role for now. Besides, we'll lose Ross if we don't call him up, whereas Denorfia still has options. In an ideal world, Ross will prove just as exciting and valuable as Denorfia. In that case, knowing we can't possibly or legitimately keep them both, we can decide at the appropriate time who stays and who to dangle as trade bait to continue plugging the gaps in our bullpen and/or rotation.
That's it. Four small, concrete baby steps toward improvement.
Now, allow me to digress with one quick whine. Which idiot persuaded Narron to cut Josh Hancock in spring training for showing up flabby? Dumb, flabby, totally premature judgment call.
Hancock has a 2.33 ERA in 15 games pitched for our arch-rival St. Louis Cardinals. Opponents are batting .197 against him. I won't argue that Hancock will go down in history as one of the greatest relief pitchers of all time, but with our pen, we sure could use someone like him riding shotgun and protecting Coffey's back.
That's one of the baby steps where we stumbled. I didn't have a clue in advance that Hancock's ERA would be 2.33 at this stage of the season, but I did project him to be hovering around 4.00 or better. Considering we are carrying four relievers with ERAs at 4.61 or higher, the decision to make an example out of Hancock looks mighty bone-headed. It not only looks dumb in hindsight, it was dumb the day it was rendered.
The Yankees, the Red Sox, even the Cards can throw money around like drunken sailors to papercoat those kinds of misguided moves. We can't.