The Reds are fresh off of a 10-game winning streak, and the team looks poised to finish the season strong.
With the best record in the majors, Cincinnati decided not to make any major moves at the trade deadline. The team has won with pitching and defense, but the offense recently has come around.
This team has the talent to stay in the race all year, but fans will criticize ownership for not making a big deal if the team fails to make the postseason. Luckily, the Reds will get All-Star first baseman Joey Votto back soon.
The pitching has been great, and the team is just waiting for the offense to hit more consistently. When they start to get on base more often, this team will become the best in the league.
As Cincinnati prepares for the final two months of the season, the team has several question marks to deal with. Some players will step up down the stretch, and the team will benefit from those improvements.
What should Reds fans expect to happen in the final two months of the season?
All stats are from MLB.com
Heading into his final start of July, Homer Bailey was having one of the best months of any pitcher in baseball.
The Reds have relied on great pitching all season, and Bailey turned it up a notch this month.
In July, he was 4-0 with a 1.43 ERA with one start remaining. He was the victim of a blown save last week in Houston, so he should be a perfect 5-0 this month.
Bailey has been the victim of several blown saves this season and little run support at times. His 9-6 record should be at least 12-5 as he continues to mature into a very good pitcher.
He has 15 quality starts on the season and ranks behind only Johnny Cueto for most on the team. Outside of a few shaky starts, he has been the team's second best pitcher.
Pitching deep into games and managing his pitch count has helped Bailey turn the corner this season. Errors behind him no longer affect him on the mound, but he rarely has a bad inning. Heading into his final start of the month, he had not allowed more than one run in an inning since June.
The former first-round pick is living up to his potential, and he could potentially be the No. 2 starter in the postseason. Matt Latos has been pretty good this season, but Bailey has been outstanding for most of the season. In his playoff debut in 2010, he threw two perfect innings against the Philadelphia Phillies.
The Reds would be wise to let Bailey pitch any road game they may have in October. He is 3-4 with a 4.58 ERA at home, but he is 6-2 with a 2.63 ERA away from Cincinnati.
Bailey is traditionally stronger in the second half of the season and has had a lower ERA after the All-Star break in every season but one in his career.
Cueto, Bailey and Latos will lead this team to a strong finish and a postseason berth.
Aroldis Chapman is quickly becoming the most dominant closer in baseball.
During a two-and-a-half week stretch in June, he allowed eight runs in seven games and blew two saves. He looked human for once, but he has been spectacular ever since.
Chapman has not allowed a run in any of the other 40 games in which he has appeared because he has started to mix up his pitches. He relied solely on his fastball when he was getting hit, but he is starting to use his slider more.
His 17 strikeouts per nine innings lead the major leagues, and he is closing in on 100 strikeouts for the season despite only pitching 50.2 innings.
Chapman has struck out at least one batter in 46 of his 47 outings and at least two batters in 33 appearances.
He has only blown two saves in the ninth inning since being named the closer, and those were in back-to-back appearances. He has two blown saves in the eighth inning this season, but one was the result of an unearned run.
The team is becoming more comfortable with using him in consecutive games, and he pitched in four consecutive games last week.
Cincinnati's bullpen is the best in the majors and got better with the acquisition of Jonathan Broxton. The setup men will hand the ball over to Chapman, and he will not blow another save this season. In fact, he will not allow another earned run in the final two months.
Brandon Phillips started the season in the leadoff spot, but an injury forced him out of the top spot.
He is the most versatile player on the team, and he has stepped up in Joey Votto's absence. He told John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer earlier this season on why he feels most comfortable in the leadoff spot:
“I’d love that. I just feel like I have more fun hitting leadoff. I feel can play my game all the way and go out and have a good year like I did last year.”
Cincinnati has struggled to get the first two batters on base, and Phillips is the only player with success in the top spot. In 75 at-bats in the leadoff spot this season, he hit .347 with three home runs.
However, Scott Rolen's struggles forced Phillips to move to the cleanup spot. He is hitting .303 with 10 home runs and 50 RBI in 75 games in the No. 4 spot.
He can hit anywhere in the lineup, including the No. 3 spot. Phillips is also hitting above .300 with three home runs in the third spot while Votto has been out.
With Ryan Ludwick's recent surge, Phillips could be moved back to the leadoff spot. He is most valuable when he provides protection to Votto and is driving in runs.
The Reds are playing well with Phillips in the cleanup spot, so he will stay there until the offense slumps. Votto, Phillips and Jay Bruce give the team a dangerous middle of the lineup.
Drew Stubbs is extremely talented, but he struggles to get on base.
The Reds hope he eventually will be the leadoff hitter of the future, but he strikes out too often right now. He set a franchise record with 205 strikeouts last season, and he has 95 so far this season.
Stubbs is hitting .233 with an on-base percentage just over .300 this year. With his speed, he will reach base more often as he makes more contact.
In an article I wrote before last Tuesday's game, I called Stubbs the most valuable player on the team. He won two consecutive games in the ninth inning after that and won NL co-Player of the Week.
The 28-year-old center fielder is 12-for-29 in his last seven games and has four home runs with 11 RBI during that stretch. He also stole four bases and scored 11 runs.
I stand by that claim mainly because of one stat. The Reds are 37-3 when he scores a run, and they do well when he gets on base. The Reds went 6-1 during his hot streak this past week.
Stubbs plays great defense, and he utilizes his speed in many ways. The Reds have kept him in the lineup partly because of his fielding abilities.
Once he gets consistently on base, he will help this offense become one of the league's best.
Cincinnati was in the market for a leadoff hitter at the trade deadline, but Stubbs responded to the pressure. He will continue his surge in the final two months and will help keep Phillips in the cleanup spot.
Before he went down with an injury, Joey Votto was in the NL MVP debate. He has now fallen out of the race in the past two weeks.
It is hard to argue with someone who is hitting .342 and has a .465 OBP. He also has 14 home runs and 49 RBI, so he is a great all-around hitter.
If the Pittsburgh Pirates contend the entire season, Andrew McCutchen will be difficult to beat in the MVP race. Most of his offensive numbers are better than Votto's, and he has less help on offense.
The Pirates are the surprise team in baseball, so McCutchen has an edge over every other player for leading his team into contention.
Votto has been out for 15 games, and his team has gone 12-3 during his absence. Based on the definition of most valuable player, it is tough to argue for him considering how well his team has done without him.
Brandon Phillips has been the team's most productive player, so he could receive some attention from voters. He has stepped up while Votto has been out, and he is a great all-around player.
Reds fans will want Votto to win MVP if the team wins the NL Central, but it does not look promising for the first baseman.
Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets has been a nice story this season, but Johnny Cueto is the most overlooked pitcher in baseball.
Cueto was deserving of a spot on the NL All-Star roster but was not named to the team. At 13-5 and a 2.39 ERA this season, he has put himself among the league's best pitchers.
He is no longer a strikeout pitcher, but he has become more pitch efficient. His ability to pitch to contact allows him to pitch deep into games, and he is already at 139.1 innings pitched in 2012.
The Reds pitching staff is one of the best in baseball, and Cueto leads the group in quality starts.
The right-hander is 6-4 with a 2.73 ERA on the road but has been even better at home. He is 7-1 and has an ERA of 1.94 while pitching in Cincinnati.
Only two of the five home runs he has allowed this season have come at home. Pitching in Great American Ball Park is difficult, so his great numbers there should give him an advantage over the other contenders.
The Reds need him to continue pitching well to get them into the playoffs, and he is quietly turning himself into an ace.
With the teams he faces for the rest of the season, he will have a chance to continue to put up great numbers. Cueto will be the team's No. 1 pitcher and win the NL Cy Young.
At 62-41 for the season, the Reds look to be heading to the postseason. They sit atop the NL Central and are three games ahead of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
MLB added an extra wild-card spot this year, but the Reds have the division title as their goal. Cincinnati got off to a slow start, but the team is beginning to play its best baseball.
The team went 19-7 in July and have played well without first baseman Joey Votto. When he returns, this team will be even more dangerous.
Great pitching is the reason the Reds are in first place, and MLB.com ranks the Reds as the third-best pitching staff in baseball. They have the best bullpen in baseball, and they will add Jonathan Broxton to the mix.
The starting rotation caught fire in July and rolled off 10 straight quality starts at one point. After that streak ended, they continued to pitch well during the team's 10-game winning streak.
Cincinnati's offense will continue to hit better and lead this team into the postseason.
The Reds currently have a seven-game lead on the St. Louis Cardinals, but they will still be a team to keep an eye on. Cincinnati ends the season with series in Pittsburgh and St. Louis, but the division will be wrapped up by that time.
Dusty Baker will likely need to win the division if he wants an extension, but his team will be up to the challenge.
Reds fans complain about Baker's decisions even when the team is winning. The Cincinnati Enquirer's John Fay has to deal with constant complaints from fans on Twitter.
While some of the manager's decisions are not very popular, it is hard to argue with the results. He stuck with Willie Harris and Mike Costanzo too long this year, but he has been making good decisions all season.
Baker is one of the most player-friendly managers in the league. Fay reported about Baker's frustration over the All-Star roster earlier this season, and the manager publicly campaigned for his players to make the team.
He tends to stick with players out of loyalty, and he has been rewarded for patience. Aroldis Chapman and Sean Marshall have pitched through their struggles, and Drew Stubbs is starting to get on base lately. Even Scott Rolen is improving at the plate despite rookie Todd Frazier competing for the third base job.
While Chris Heisey has been trying to gain playing time for the past two seasons, Baker is being rewarded for giving Ryan Ludwick the majority of playing time in left field.
Through June 13th, Ludwick was hitting .201 with eight home runs. He is hitting .315 with 10 home runs and 25 RBI since then.
Ludwick has given the Reds a right-handed bat besides Brandon Phillips to drive in runs.
According to the official Twitter of the Cincinnati Reds, Ludwick has been one of the top run producers in all of baseball in Joey Votto's absence.
Since Votto went on DL, Ludwick's 16 RBI tie Adrian Gonzalez for the most in the Major Leagues.— Reds (@Reds) August 1, 2012
Baker often gets blamed when things go poorly, but he should be rewarded at the end of the season when his team makes the playoffs. His loyalty to players is paying off, and he is willing to go to bat for his team.