With 95 games and an All-Star break in the books, the 2014 Cincinnati Reds sit seven games over the .500 mark at 51-44, a manageable 1.5 games out of 1st place in the National League Central.
Through the eyes of the preseason predictions, that seems just about right. Joey Votto would be fresh off an 0 for 1 All-Star Game (with a walk), his .304 average and league-leading OBP anchoring the 3 spot in the lineup. Jay Bruce would be fresh of a 12 dinger June and an appearance in the Home Run Derby, Homer Bailey's in-prime form would have him showing his $105 million contract may have been a bargain, and Brandon Phillips' Gold Glove defense would be overshadowing the continuing decline of his years of power and speed.
Except that couldn't be further from how things have materialized. While the cover of the 2014 Reds book has held true (3rd place, behind the St. Louis Cardinals, anchored by strong starting pitching and backed by an iffy offense), the pages have told a decidedly different story. True to expectations, there have been two offensive battleships driving the team, but they've been Devin Mesoraco and Todd Frazier, not Votto and Bruce. There has been a breakout pitcher to back Johnny Cueto in the rotation, but it's been Alfredo Simon, not Bailey or Mat Latos. Twists and turns, breakouts and injuries have characterized this squad, yet nearly 5/8ths of the way through the season the standings portray almost exactly what had been expected from the sum of the team's parts.
With 67 games remaining and a jumble atop most every division, the Reds are smack dab in the thick of things. Here are a few storylines to focus on as things ramp back up beginning Friday.
The Health of Joey Votto & Brandon Phillips
There's no second half story to be told that won't trace its roots back to the injury statuses of the stalwarts of the right side of the infield. Votto's knee/quad and Phillips' thumb have left both perennial All-Stars facing lengthy DL stints, and the nebulus parameters around each's specific recovery date have likely thrown large wrenches into the front office's trade deadline plans.
If the 6-ish week recovery times hold for each, and if each then returns at nearly 100% health (or close enough), then the Reds are set to receive a mid-August boost to both their offense and defense that won't warrant a high-dive jump into the acquisition pool as the trade deadline nears. However, if either is significantly delayed in their recoveries (or if either returns as merely a shell of their former selves), the Reds may be in a late season pickle with neither viable options or enough time to improve the club available. Banking on Brayan Pena and Ramon Santiago to fill their shoes for the rest of the season simply isn't good enough.
That leaves the Reds with just two weeks from today to assess the progress being made by their two most high profile injured players before the July 31st trade deadline passes. There's always the option of making a move before the August 31st deadline, but that would involve a different tier of players due to their need to clear waivers before a trade. And, of course, that's one fewer month's worth of games that the Reds would have to make up ground with whichever player they acquired.
Getting both guys healthy is obviously important; knowing if and when they'll be healthy, however, may well have a bigger impact on their 2014 chances than anything else.
As ESPN's Buster Olney noted, 16 of the final 19 games of the Reds season will come against the Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals, and Pittsburgh Pirates, including a 6 game homestand to finish the season against the Beers and the Bucs. Also, 38 of their final 67 games will come against teams that currently sport a record over .500, which is second only to the San Francisco Giants (42) among NL teams, meaning they've got a rather tough gauntlet to go through to emerge with one of the 3 playoff spots available to them.
What that really means, of course, is that the NL Central is full of four good teams (and the Cubs), and they'll each have their opportunities to beat up on each other as the season rolls on. While that may seem daunting, the Reds currently own the best record against their division of any team in the Central at 29-17, so perhaps that's actually a very good thing.
Also, of the 12 interleague games left on the Reds schedule, nine of them will be played against teams that currently have a record at or below .500. The Reds begin their second half with a 3 game set against the New York Yankees (47-47) in the Big Apple, head north to face the Cleveland Indians (47-47) for the first half of a 4 game split-city set in early August, they have a quick 2 game series against the Boston Red Sox (43-52) at Great American Ball Park in mid August, before they finally face the Baltimore Orioles (52-42) for their first series in September. That is 8 of 12 on the road in AL parks, though, which means the already depleted bench will be called upon to muster some semblance of a DH, too. (Thanks for everything, Bud.)
So while the records may be intimidating, there will be ample opportunity for the Reds to row their own boat down the stretch. There's also a little 4 game series in Denver against the Colorado Rockies immediately after the Red Sox series that I'm slightly, slightly excited for.
Walt Jocketty's Alarm Clock and the $$ in the Banana Stand
Since the end of the 2013 season, the Reds have added Brayan Pena, Skip Schumaker, David Holmberg, Roger Bernadina, and Ramon Santiago to the big league squad from outside the organization, and they re-signed free agent Manny Parra to return for 2014 after his contract was up following the 2013 season.
So far, those acquisitions have accrued a total of -0.4 bWAR for the 2014 team.
These, of course, have each been minor moves in the grand scheme, but they've unfortunately also been the only moves to impact the major league squad since the shrewd December 2012 trade that brought in Shin-Soo Choo from the Indians. Given the uncertainty surrounding the key injuries to the lineup (and the inconsistencies in the bullpen), the Reds will undoubtedly be on the lookout for ways to bolster the current roster for a stretch run.
But how much flexibility do they have?
The Reds entered the 2014 season with a team-record payroll that was in excess of $112 million, the highest in the NL Central and 12th highest in all of baseball, and that number doesn't include the 7-year, $30 million contract reached with Cuban pitcher Raciel Iglesias last month. Is there any payroll flexibility remaining for the team to add significant parts? Will the Reds have to part with one of their two prized prospects - Robert Stephenson or Jesse Winker - in order to get a team to cover salary in any acquisition? Will Banana Bob open the purse strings to approve a payroll boost for a Beltre, a Price, or even a Zobrist?
Will Walt balk at any potential move in a patient hope that his injured stars will return at full speed...again?
While those are the major storylines for the final 3+ months of the season, there are other parts of the final 67 games that will be worth watching, too.
I'll be hoping that Homer Bailey's early season funk morphs into a 14 start stretch that mimics his previous two seasons more than his initial 19 starts in 2014.
I'll be watching intently to see if Devin Mesoraco's .341 BABIP and 23.9% HR/FB ratio come back down from their astronomical levels, or if he can maintain his early season otherworldliness en route to a Top 5 finish in the 2014 NL MVP voting.
I'll be wondering if converted reliever Alfredo Simon can stand up to what projects to be a 200 inning season.
I'll be paying attention to each and every thing Billy Hamilton does, as there's nothing about the way he plays baseball that isn't must-see TV.
I'll be expecting returns to form from both Mat Latos and Jay Bruce, as each has recovered from early season injury troubles and begun to perform like the top-tier players they truly are.
Most importantly, perhaps, I'll be watching to see how Bryan Price manages down the stretch in his first full season as a skipper, as he'll be pulling the strings in a pennant chase for the very first time.
The tail end of this season is going to be an absolute hoot, y'guys. As I first said when the team managed to eek back to .500 on June 19th: Get yer popcorn ready.