By Tom Verducci
July 20, 2010

Making sense of the Cincinnati Reds as a contender can be tricky business, seeing that they appear not to have received the memo that this is the Year of the Pitcher. The Reds win games by bludgeoning teams in their bandbox of a ballpark and by beating up the four tomato cans in the worst division in baseball. Pitching? Their ERA is only middle-of-the-pack acceptable: 4.07, the worst of the eight playoff spot leaders today (Cincinnati leads the NL wild card).

That could be about to change. No team has received more good news about its pitching in just the six days since the second half resumed than Cincinnati. You can stop wondering if the Reds are for real. Here's what happened in the past week to help explain why they're in it for the long haul:

Edinson Volquez, making it back one month earlier than expected from Tommy John surgery, threw six strong innings against Colorado on Saturday (one run, nine strikeouts) while throwing harder than ever before, thanks to a stronger, fitter body. Volquez hit 96 mph and has hit 97 in his minor league rehab starts, a couple of ticks better than his pre-surgical form.

It's the added bonus of Tommy John surgery for those willing to put in the work: a year of rehabbing can strengthen muscles, especially core muscles, that may have been neglected before.

"He's definitely stronger," GM Walt Jocketty said. "He's in great shape -- better shape than before his surgery."

Jocketty made a run at acquiring Cliff Lee from Seattle -- the Mariners liked young Rangers first baseman Justin Smoak more than Reds' prospect Yonder Alonso -- but a healthy Volquez could provide the same effect as an ace added through a trade.

Aroldis Chapman touched 102 mph -- yes, 102 -- while striking out all four batters he faced in a recent Triple-A game as Cincinnati converts him into a pennant-race reliever (think Joba Chamberlain 2007 and David Price 2008). His slowest fastball was clocked at 97 mph. Overall, despite his usual command issues at times, he is averaging 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings.

The Reds still believe his future is as a starter, but with their rotation stocked this season and their bullpen in need of reinforcement, Jocketty decided to move Chapman to the pen only for the second half of this year.

Reds pitching coach Bryan Price devised a transition program for Chapman to covert to the bullpen, though Chapman did have some experience pitching out of the bullpen for the Cuban national team. Chapman struggled at first, especially in his second innings of relief appearances, but he may be turning a corner now. He could be in the Reds' bullpen soon -- as soon as he gets comfortable pitching back-to-back days and with two-inning appearances.

• Rookie Travis Wood, 23, allowed the Rockies one run over six innings in his first home start on Sunday, giving him a 2.03 ERA after four big-league starts. Wood was the 60th pitcher taken in the 2005 draft, the 30th selected out of high school.

"Right now he's a solid fourth or fifth [starter]," Jocketty said, "with the potential to be a two or three one day."

Wood, who took a perfect game into the ninth inning against the Phillies on July 10 in his third start, was the last starting pitcher cut in spring training, losing the fifth spot to fellow rookie Mike Leake, 22.

• Starters Aaron Harang (back) and Homer Bailey (arm) are expected to return in the next two or three weeks, which could provide a breather for Leake, who has thrown 109 2/3 innings this season. The Reds plan to cap his innings at right around 170, but want to save some of those innings for the stretch.

• Jocketty is working the trade market to turn up an experienced reliever, but added, "There are not a lot of quality arms out there."

If not successful in his trade talks, Jocketty will rely even more on rookies Jordan Smith (3.60 ERA) and Logan Ondrusek (13 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings with just four hits). Cincinnati already has used 10 homegrown pitchers between 22 and 27 years old, with half of them signed in 2005.

"It's a fun team," Jocketty said. "The thing that stands out is that they get along so well with each other. I know you hear that a lot with teams that are winning, but it really is true with these guys."

It's been too long since the Reds had this much fun: no winning record since 2000 and no pennant race since 2006, when they were 2 1/2 games out with five to play with a losing record. Both streaks should end this summer -- thanks in part to a soft schedule and a solid inventory of pitching that should prove itself in the second half.

The Reds have their flaws. They don't have a legitimate leadoff hitter. (Orlando Cabrera, who has a .292 on-base percentage and is the least patient hitter on the team, hits there most often, while overall their leadoff hitters post a .277 OBP, the worst mark in baseball.) They have blown six saves in the ninth inning; only the truly awful Diamondbacks (8) and Orioles (7) have more. The bullpen is 18-19 with a 4.26 ERA.

What they have going for them is Great American Ball Park, where they slug 72 points higher than they do on the road, and the NL Central, baseball's equivalent of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision. The Reds are 20-8 against intradivision losers Chicago, Milwaukee Houston and Pittsburgh, and 32-34 against the rest of baseball.

"That's something you have to do to be in it, to play well within your division," Jocketty said.

People often talk about the inequities of interleague play, but one of the least noticed inequities is the existence of only one division with six teams -- and it happens to be the one with four of the seven worst teams in the league over the 17 full seasons of the six-division format (Cubs, Reds, Brewers, Pirates).

So bottom-heavy is the NL Central that the Reds have played 49 games against losing teams this year -- more than twice as many as the Diamondbacks (23). Arizona, Washington, Cleveland and Seattle -- all last place teams -- all have more wins against quality teams (.500 or better) than do the Reds.

And if the Reds can hang in the race into September, they have an easy stretch run: 19 of their final 22 games are against the Brewers, Astros, Pirates and Diamondbacks.

So let's see: the highest scoring team in the league, ace starter and 102-mph lefty reliever riding to the rescue, a cupcake schedule . . . yep, the Reds are here to stay.

You May Like

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)