The Cincinnati Reds had hardly been a one-man team through the first three-and-a-half months of the 2012 season.
But losing their best hitter and MVP candidate Joey Votto for three to four weeks after arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee appeared to be a significant blow to a team that was playing up to expectations and looked to be asserting itself in the NL Central.
The Reds haven't exactly gone into a downward spiral since Votto went out, however. In fact, they're playing their best baseball of the season. They've gone 11-2 since July 15, Votto's last game before knee surgery. And after Sunday's 7-2 victory over the Colorado Rockies, the Reds have won 10 games in a row.
Cincinnati is tied with the Washington Nationals for the best record in baseball at 61-40. It has a three-game lead over the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL Central. But how are the Reds doing this without their superstar first baseman batting third in the lineup?
It's All About the Pitching
The Nationals have been celebrated for the strength of their pitching all season long. Their team ERA is 3.25. But the Reds are currently right behind them with a 3.26 mark.
Johnny Cueto is among the top five NL leaders in ERA. Homer Bailey has had a breakout season with a 9-6 record and 3.53 ERA. And Bronson Arroyo also has an ERA under 4.00 with a 3.76 mark.
But Mat Latos may be the difference between the Reds having a good rotation and a great one. In his past seven starts, Latos has allowed two runs or fewer in six of those games.
This is the pitcher for whom general manager Walt Jocketty gave up a package of four players—each of whom is contributing in the majors—to the San Diego Padres.
As SI.com's Joe Lemire writes, the Reds are also the only team in the majors whose starting pitchers haven't missed an appearance. Staying healthy is always a key to success.
But what about the bullpen?
Aroldis Chapman has been nearly unhittable since taking over as closer. He's compiled 21 saves while racking up 94 strikeouts in 49.2 innings. That's a rate of 17 strikeouts per nine innings.
Sean Marshall and Jose Arredondo are also averaging double-digit strikeouts per nine innings.
How much do the Reds covet their relief pitching? They wouldn't trade Logan Ondrusek to the Phillies for Shane Victorino, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer's Paul Daugherty. Maybe that speaks to how Victorino is currently regarded, but not giving up a middle reliever for a full-time outfielder is pretty eye-opening.
These Reds Are Deep
Before the season even began, Cincinnati lost closer Ryan Madson, one of its big offseason acquisitions. Yet the Reds had Marshall, then Chapman, ready to step in. And though Madson would surely help, the bullpen hasn't really missed him.
Scott Rolen goes down with a shoulder injury and rookie Todd Frazier has not only replaced him capably, but he's exceeded his offensive production. With a .277/.333/.523 slash average to go with 11 home runs and 35 RBI, Frazier is an NL Rookie of the Year candidate.
Frazier proved even more valuable once Rolen returned. Rather than sit on the bench in favor of a veteran, the rookie has filled in at first base in Votto's absence. Of course, he's no Votto in terms of on-base capabilities, but he's been a decent replacement.
Elsewhere on the field, Chris Heisey has rotated between left field and center field, providing a reliable backup for Ryan Ludwick and Drew Stubbs at their respective positions. And when Devin Mesoraco didn't develop into a starting-caliber catcher, Ryan Hanigan made sure the Reds didn't suffer behind the plate.
Players Are Excelling in Different Roles
Brandon Phillips is no one's idea of a cleanup hitter. Though he does have a 30-homer season on his resume, someone with speed who can get on base is better suited for the upper part of the batting order.
Yet Dusty Baker wants a right-handed bat to stick between Votto and Jay Bruce (who has 20 homers, 62 RBI and an .810 OPS) in the cleanup spot. With Rolen out because of his shoulder, there weren't many other candidates to put there. So Phillips got the call.
Though he struggled in the role at first, Phillips has produced nicely. In the No. 4 spot, Phillips has a .303/.344/.460 slash average with 13 doubles, 10 home runs and 50 RBI. He might not be the prototypical slugger, but with that kind of output, opposing teams might have to hesitate just a bit before intentionally walking Votto.
Baker has also been batting rookie shortstop Zack Cozart in the leadoff role, something his skills really aren't suited for.
Cozart doesn't hit for a high average (.243), doesn't get on base (.289) and strikes out too much (third on the team with 80 strikeouts). He doesn't show much speed on the basepaths, either.
Though Stubbs seems better equipped for a leadoff role, he hasn't done well at the top of the order, either. So Baker apparently prefers Cozart's extra-base power providing some pop from the leadoff spot.
If there's one deal the Reds should make at the trade deadline, it's to get a true leadoff hitter. But they've gotten this far with Cozart, so maybe they can get by with him at the top.
Just about everything else has worked with this team thus far.
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