The Cincinnati Reds Prepare To Play Spoiler

The Cincinnati Reds were roadkill after losing 18 of their first 21 games to start the season. But very quietly, the Reds have been making a move back toward respectability. After the long-overdue firing of Bryan Price, Cincinnati has played .500 ball in 76 games under baseball lifer Jim Riggleman. They aren’t going to make the playoffs or even get close, but their improved play and the schedule ahead suggests that they’re going to play a role in who will.

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The Reds play 16 games against the Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs, currently in a heated fight for the NL Central lead. The St. Louis Cardinals are further in the rearview mirror, but still in the mix for the division and squarely in the middle of the wild-card fight. Cincinnati plays St. Louis nine more times, starting with this weekend’s series to close the season’s first half. If you look beyond the confines of the NL Central, the Reds have a total of 14 games against playoff contenders from Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Philadelphia.

It all has the feel of a second half that could be exciting for diehard Reds fans and aggravating for the fans of playoff contenders that play them.

Cincinnati’s basic team profile is one where they score a lot of runs and don’t pitch very well. Before we attribute too much of that to the hitter-friendly dimensions of Great American Ballpark, it should be noted that the Reds rank 13th in the NL in ERA both at home and on the road. Their offense—the fourth-best in the National League overall—is only marginally worse on the road where they rank sixth.

An infield with Joey Votto, Scooter Gennett and Eugenio Suarez can cause a pitching staff serious problems when they’re hot. Votto, at age 34, continues to be a machine at getting on-base with an OBP of .424. Suarez is at .401, with Gennett’s OBP at .372.

The power is surprisingly down, given the ballpark dimensions. This is attributable to Votto only slugging .444 and Adam Duvall having a tough year so far after back-to-back 30-home run seasons. Cincinnati’s offensive success is built on drawing walks and consistently getting hits, rather than power. That’ speaks well to their chances of continued success through the dog days of August, when fatigued players and sagging shoulders can can lose power—especially on a team not in the playoff race. Good batting eyes and consistent contact are more likely to stay consistent.

Reds pitching got a boost when Matt Harvey was run out of New York by the Mets and picked up here.

Harvey has made 11 starts in Cincy and posted a 3.79 ERA. He’s the classic example of a player who might be hungry to rejuvenate his career and make a statement against contending teams. Tyler Mahle and Anthony DeSciafani are nice young arms. The ERAs are a little high, in the 4s, but both are examples of pitchers in their early 20s who might see the second half of this season as time for a coming out party. The bullpen is well-balanced, with Riggleman having five different pitchers with sub-3.00 ERAs.

The pieces are in place for Cincinnati to play winning baseball after the All-Star break. The question will be, how much will they trade off before the July 31 deadline? There’s room to deal in the bullpen and still maintain some depth. They could move centerfielder Billy Hamilton. He’s an exciting player with electric speed, who could be valuable as a role player in the playoffs. But he doesn’t hit well enough to justify the everyday role he has with the Reds.

Harvey is the big question over these next few weeks. He’s the only notable player that would be a free agent next year, so the Reds don’t have to feel urgency in moving anyone else. The front office has also given indications that 2019 is a year they’ll ratchet up the payroll to make another run at the playoffs. I hope they stand pat at the deadline and give this group of players a chance. I find the mass quitting that teams do every year at the end of July to be distasteful in any case, and in particular for a team that has as much reason for hope as these Reds.