A Total Loser's Guide to Staying in First Place

We're not going to tolerate being shoved in the mouth by opposing players very many more times before writing a stern letter.

I always seem to root for teams that have trouble winning. From the Cincinnati Rockers to the Washington Generals. And with the exception of 2010, this has been a Millenium of losing for the Reds. Not until the offseason's contract extensions set a backdrop to the Reds' success through (almost) the end of June did I start to seriously ponder sustained winning by the hometown team.

Now the Reds are tasked with staying in first place with a little less than half the season in the books and a pre-All Star Break stretch run of 11 West Coast games in 11 days ahead of them.

Here's how to do it:

Just sort of generally hope nothing goes wrong. This is probably the most critical, yet least controllable, element of winning. It consists of two parts: (1) hoping regressions don't make the team worse AND (2) hoping no one gets injured. Or, if heaven forbid someone does, that they are not important.

On the first count, I think things look pretty good. Key cogs in the bullpen have been regressing lately: Chapman and Arredondo both have ERAs above 6.00 over the last 14 days. Homer Bailey may have found his level yet again as a ~4.40 pitcher. These could be made up for - and then some - by big leaps from Mat Latos and Mike Leake. If those two assume their spots as roughly #2 and #3 in the rotation, then run prevention could be steady-to-slightly improved.

On the offensive side, there certainly aren't any overachievers headed for a fall on the bench. The only regular (now semi-regular) that fits is probably Todd Frazier. And possibly Ryan Ludwick. Joey Votto could descend to a lower cloud of heaven too, I guess. With potential starting pitching improvements and possible uptick from Rolen and Bruce, I don't think "suddenly sucking" is a major worry.

Injuries are impossible to predict, of course, but this is where the Reds are very vulnerable. There's a serious drop-off at almost any position outside the bullpen if any starter other than Rolen goes down. The Reds have been very lucky to have their rotation intact since Opening Day. History says this won't continue: the Reds have averaged close to 10 pitchers making at least one start per season in the Dusty Baker era and around 8 pitchers making 3 or more starts.

Stay rested. No one like seeing the best players play less than all the time. But if you have a 25-man roster, while carrying 7 relievers, you should be able to keep everyone fresh. Dusty scaled back Ondrusek's time lately, which was commendable. Two pitchers that are on pace for a major innings leap are Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey, both of whom suffered injuries last season. Their workload will have to be monitored.

There's Scott Rolen, too - who I still think has no business starting more than 50-60% of the time with Todd Frazier around. He's had a couple multi-hit games since returning, but this is his line since 2011: .227/.271/.376. Less is more.

Cut your losses to improve the bench. I already whined about how bad the bench is, despite being pretty easily fixable. With one major injury, a bench player can become a regular. The situation has improved since the snapshot in that post, with Ludwick/Rolen/Frazier now rotating through a bench spot once occupied by Willie Harris and Kris Negron.

Miguel Cairo and Wilson Valdez are non-entities at the plate. Maybe that's tolerable for now, but if BP has to hit the DL, I'd like to either see Todd Frazier at 2B or a trade for someone like Mike Fontenot.

Make a run at someone major before the trade deadline. Teams get desperate and a leverage usually shifts to the seller's side as July 31 approaches. Still, with a bench and AAA team as thin as the Reds have, the move might buy them a marginal win or two that pushes them to a division title. If the team is happy with Frazier in partnership between Ludwick and Rolen, then they should set their sights on a starting pitcher they think will be an improvement on Homer Bailey. Or even just a depth starter who has options. There will be names like these available, and possibly names like Josh Beckett on the pitching side.

Optimize the lineup. With limited talent, keeping a steady stream of good hitters in front of and behind Joey Votto is harder than we realize. The Reds don't get on base particularly well as a team, so it's kind of shell game to find a good one-two punch to set the table du Votto. And lineup tweaks are mostly wasted effort. But there has to be a better situation than, for example, hitting Cozart lead-off.

They've been getting a .196/.235/.300 line from the spot that comes up most during a baseball game, worse than any other spot in the order but 9th (and not really much better).

Here is who has lead off this season, by OBP (overall), Gs and PAs in that spot:

Hitting 1st:

Player Games started PAs Season OBP Career OBP
Zack Cozart 51 237 .295 .298
Drew Stubbs 8 38 .310 .323
Chris Heisey 7 34 .301 .312
Brandon Phillips 6 26 .330 .322
Willie Harris 2 8 .170 .327

-- No.

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