Votto's injury could lead to changes for Reds, NL Central race

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When I asked Reds first baseman Joey Votto about the posters that hung on his bedroom wall as a kid -- expecting the usual answer from a kid in the 1990s of Ken Griffey Jr. or, given his Canadian roots, Larry Walker -- Votto surprised me with his answer. "Ted Williams," he said.

I quickly realized I should not have been surprised. Few major leaguers are better students of hitting and history than Votto. During his five seasons in the minors, Votto carried with him Williams' 1971 opus, The Science of Hitting.

Now for the next month the Reds will have to make do without their own version of Williams, what with Votto being the linchpin of the franchise, a lefthanded metronome of consistency and one of the five most indispensable players in baseball.

(You can add one of your own to Andrew McCutchen, Justin Verlander and Matt Kemp. I wouldn't argue against Troy Tulowitzki or Jose Bautista, who, on a bad night in a bad year for injuries to star players, left Toronto's game last night in New York with a wrist injury, while David Ortiz hobbled out of Boston's game with an Achilles injury.)

After Votto struggled since a June 29 slide that jarred his left knee (.258 since then), the Reds announced last night he will need knee arthroscopic surgery to repair the meniscus and will be sidelined three to four weeks.

Votto should return to full health and once again get back to his modern day impression of Williams. He was leading the league in doubles, walks, intentional walks and, for a third straight season, on-base percentage. Votto was on pace to join Rogers Hornsby (1924) and Stan Musial (1953) as the only players to lead the National League in doubles and walks in the same season. More impressively, he was making a run at one of the most longstanding records in baseball: the 67 doubles by Earl Webb of the 1931 Red Sox. Votto, with 36, was more than halfway there.

There are two immediate fallouts to the injury: The Reds just handed a window to the Pirates and Cardinals, their closest pursuers in the NL Central, to gain ground, and the pressure just turned up even more on Cincinnati GM Walt Jocketty to find a lefthanded bat for an imbalanced lineup.

How important is Votto? He had scored or knocked in nearly a quarter of the Reds' runs this year. And tellingly when it comes to Jocketty's task, Votto had accounted for 55 percent of the entire team's total of hits by lefthanded batters. No team in baseball has a greater imbalance than the Reds, who give 76 percent of their plate appearances to righthanded hitters.

Some of the names kicked around by the Reds include Juan Pierre and Shane Victorino of the Phillies, Coco Crisp of the Athletics, Ryan Sweeney of the Red Sox, Denard Span of the Twins and David DeJesus of the Cubs. The Reds are playing great baseball because their starters have been healthy and pitching deep into games and their bullpen, led by Aroldis Chapman, who is simply overpowering hitters with his fastball, is punching out hitters at a greater rate than any unit in baseball.

Beneath this success -- and even with a healthy Votto -- the Reds are a flawed team that needs a midseason tweak as much as any contender in baseball. Manager Dusty Baker, for instance, has a weak bench that leaves him with few late-game options -- in fact, he has no lefthanded hitter on the bench. Only the Giants and Braves have had fewer hits from their bench players.

Most concerning of all, the Reds somehow have survived giving the most plate appearances to hitters who get on base the least. Entering this week the Cincinnati leadoff hitters ranked last in batting average (.198), OBP (.242), OPS (.552) and stolen bases (3). Their number two hitters weren't much better: 11th in batting average (.265), 10th in OBP (.322) and last in strikeouts (94). Zack Cozart and Drew Stubbs have taken most of those plate appearances, and while each of those young hitters has pop and promise, neither is adept at getting on base.

The combined effect is that no team is worse at setting the table than the Reds, who have a .282 OBP out of the 1-2 spots -- the worst in the league and 28th in baseball. (Baltimore and Seattle are worse in the AL.) While Votto kept the Reds afloat, they actually were wasting his talents. Look at it this way: Through 86 games for each of them, Matt Holliday, the three-hole hitter for the Cardinals, batted with 72 more runners on already than Votto, the three-hole hitter for the Reds (272-200).

Votto's injury does afford more at-bats for Todd Frazier, who actually is outperforming fellow rookie Bryce Harper and has been causing some heat for Baker when it comes to deciding between Frazier and Scott Rolen at third base. Frazier, who started last night at first base, has become not just a fan favorite, but also something of a local legend: he has hit home runs one-handed (off Adam Wainwright) and no-handed (off Jamie Moyer, in which the bat flew out of his hands just prior to contact), not to mention saving a man's life at a Pittsburgh restaurant by using the Heimlich maneuver, which earned him an on-field citation from Dr. Heimlich himself. Just call him Forrest Frazier: go, Forrest, go.

If there is good news for the Reds about the Votto injury it can be found in the schedule. If Votto indeed is to miss four weeks, he will miss just three games against winning teams -- three against Pittsburgh are the only ones in a string of 27 games for the Reds. It's hard to find a difficult stretch anywhere for Cincinnati. There are only seven other winning teams in the league, and the Reds are done with three of them (Nationals, Giants and Braves). Seventy-two percent of their remaining schedule has them playing losing teams (53 of their final 74).

Even without Votto for three or four weeks, the Reds have the look of a playoff team. Their pitching and defense have been superlative and they have been the healthiest team in baseball, using the fewest pitchers (13), the fewest starting pitchers (5) and the fewest players overall (29). I've maintained for years in the testing era that nothing helps define success as much as keeping your starting pitchers healthy, and the season thus far seems to dovetail with that idea:

The Marlins are the only losing team in the bunch. In some ways, it has been a charmed season in Cincinnati, a good baseball town where the fans have not seen their team win a postseason series in 17 years. To continue deep into October, not only do the first-place Reds need Votto healthy, but they also need to find him a little more support.