Cincinnati Reds: Can Dusty Baker's Team Contend in October?

Steve Bittenbender@@freelancehackContributor IAugust 9, 2012

Manager Dusty Baker guided the Reds to a 10-game winning streak last month. The Reds lead the National League Central, but questions linger about their postseason prospects.
Manager Dusty Baker guided the Reds to a 10-game winning streak last month. The Reds lead the National League Central, but questions linger about their postseason prospects.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

If Marty Brennaman shaved his head after the Cincinnati Reds won 10 games in a row, one wonders what he might do if the Reds lost 10 straight.

We’re at least six games from finding out what the Hall of Fame broadcaster might do in that instance, but what we do know about the Reds is this: the top team in the National League Central is prone to streaks, both good and bad.

Five times so far this season, the Reds have pulled off winning streaks of at least five games. Conversely, Cincinnati has endured four losing streaks of at least three games, including the current four-game skid. They take two of three against the New York Yankees in the Bronx. Then they lose two of three at home to the Minnesota Twins. They can sweep the Cardinals, but they also get swept by the Brewers.

And it’s that ebb and flow that lead many to question whether the Reds are legitimate contenders for the National League pennant. It not only leaves Reds fans puzzled about the team’s chances come October, it also gives hope to fans in Pittsburgh and St. Louis, whose teams lurk within striking distance of the Reds in the NL Central.

The answer of whether Cincinnati can make it a Red October this season lies with its offense. And through the first 110 games, the Reds offense has been indicative of the team’s season. While the pitching and defense have been reliable throughout, the offense has been inconsistent at best. And that includes the lineup with All-Star slugger Joey Votto, who has been out since mid-July recovering from knee surgery.

The struggles at the top of the lineup are well known. The Reds’ first and second batters have a meager .291 on-base percentage, according to General manager Walt Jocketty tried to bolster the lineup at the July 31 trade deadline, but efforts to land Shane Victorino and Denard Span failed.

That leaves manager Dusty Baker with Zack Cozart and Drew Stubbs as his options at the top of the lineup. It’s possible Baker may move Brandon Phillips up in the order once Votto returns, but the veteran manager seems reluctant to do that, even as Cozart and Stubbs have struggled. And their problems have had a trickle-down effect on the rest of the lineup.

Using statistics from Baseball-Reference, the Reds rank third in the NL in percentage of runs scored on home runs, scoring 41 percent of its overall runs via the long ball. However, only two NL teams average fewer runs per home run than the Reds’ 1.55.

It’s one thing for an offense to rely heavily on home runs, especially for a team that plays half its games in the small confines of Great American Ball Park. However, for the Reds, it’s been a case of feast or famine as they have scored two or fewer runs in 29 games. They’ve scored a total of eight runs over the last four games, and half of those runs have come courtesy of home runs. If the Reds don’t hit for power, they often don’t hit at all.

And that does not bode well in the playoffs, when you’re likely to face the likes of Matt Cain, Gio Gonzalez and A.J. Burnett.

But first the Reds need to make the playoffs, and here’s where the news is a little rosier for Cincinnati.

It helps the Reds that their remaining schedule is chock full of teams with losing records. According to Baseball-Reference, the Reds average opponents’ record is an NL-worst 50-59. The Reds feasted on sub-.500 Milwaukee, Houston and Colorado during their recent 10-game winning streak, and they will have chances for yet another long winning streak in the coming weeks as they play the Chicago Cubs 11 times and the Philadelphia Phillies seven times. Even if the Reds play .500 ball these last two months, they would finish with 92 wins. That should be more than enough to at least claim a wild-card spot.

A healthy Votto should return to the Reds lineup within the next week, if not sooner, and that will definitely give the Reds a boost. They have 51 games left to get ready for October. If the Reds offense improves over these next eight weeks, then so will their chances for a long playoff run.