6 Early Signs the Cincinnati Reds Will Win the NL Central Division Title

Tyler Duma@@TylerDuma_BRFeatured ColumnistApril 17, 2013

6 Early Signs the Cincinnati Reds Will Win the NL Central Division Title

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    The Cincinnati Reds got off to a hot start this season taking two of three from both the Los Angeles Angels and the Washington Nationals

    They then took the first of three from the St. Louis Cardinals and proceeded to go on a five game losing streak before beating the Philadelphia Phillies on April 15. 

    That win pulled the Reds to 6-7 on the young season.

    Although a 6-7 start is not all that impressive, there are signs that this team could be good enough to bring home their second National League Central title in as many years.

    Here are six early signs that the Reds will win the NL Central division title in 2013.

    All 2013 stats courtesy of Cincinnatireds.com unless otherwise noted.

    All prior season stats and 2013 season splits courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.

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Mat Latos Is Pitching Like an Ace

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    Mat Latos is slowly becoming one of the more dominant pitchers in the National League.

    After an impressive second half in which he posted a 7-2 record with a 2.84 ERA with a 1.12 WHIP and ratios of 7.5 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 3.11 K/BB, 7.1 H/9, and, most importantly, 0.69 HR/9 (per Baseball-Reference.com).

    This season, Latos has picked up where he left off and, through three starts, owns a 3.26 ERA with a 1.19 WHIP and ratios of 8.8 K/9, 1.4 BB/9, 6.33 K/BB and 9.3 H/9 over 19.1 innings pitched.

    Latos has logged quality starts in all three appearances in 2013 and would have been the victor in two of those had he not been the victim of some shaky bullpen work.

    Latos' performance in 2013 will be critical to the success of the Reds, even more so if Johnny Cueto's recent injury proves to be a long-term issue.

    With Cueto out for an undetermined amount of time, Latos will need to step up and function in a capacity similar to Cueto as the team's No. 1 starter.

    Luckily for the Reds, Latos has shown that he has the ability to pitch at a high level in his time with the organization.

    When Cueto does return, that, coupled with the emergence of Homer Bailey as a legitimate No. 2 or 3 starter, will give the Reds one of the better front ends in baseball.

They Finally Have a True Leadoff Hitter

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    The Reds biggest problem last season was their lack of a competent leadoff hitter.

    Over the course of the 2012 season, Reds leadoff hitters combined for a .208/.254/.327 slash line with just 83 runs scored and 10 stolen bases.

    The Reds were, by and large, the worst team in the league when it came to producing out of the leadoff spot.

    This season, the addition of Shin-Soo Choo has completely reversed that trend. Through the team's first 13 games, Choo has been their only leadoff batter.

    Choo has compiled 51 at-bats in the season's early goings and has set the table for the rest of the lineup with a .333/.463/.556 slash line, three HR, three doubles, seven RBI, a stolen base and 11 runs scored.

    With Choo leading the charge offensively, the Reds leadoff situation has gone from the worst in baseball, to one of the best in the league.

    Among NL Central teams, only Cardinals leadoff hitters have scored more runs—13. Choo also leads all other NL Central teams leadoff hitters in HR and OPS (per ESPN.com).

    The major benefactors of Choo's production have been Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips. The two superstars have combined for 46 at-bats with runners on base and 28 at-bats with runners in scoring position.

    In those situations, the two are slashing a combined .345/.487/.517 with two home runs, two doubles and 14 RBI.

    Getting opportunities for Votto and Phillips to hit with runners on base, and more importantly in scoring position, is going to be critical for the Reds in 2013 and, so far, Choo has yet to disappoint.

Joey Votto Is Healthy and Raking

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    The health of Joey Votto has been a concern of Reds fans since his return from the DL late last season.

    There was some legitimacy to these worries, though, as Votto was unable to hit a home run after returning to the Reds lineup. Votto has finally started to put those worries to rest in 2013.

    Votto has played in all of the Reds' 13 games this season and is starting the year off on an absolute tear.

    Votto racked up 63 plate appearances and 41 at-bats early on and has posted a gaudy slash line of .295/.530/.432. To accompany his already impressive triple-slash, Votto has one home run, one double, one triple, three RBI, 10 runs scored and a stolen base.

    While it's a bit disconcerting that Votto has only three extra-base-hits, consider the quality of pitches Votto is getting to hit.

    Pitchers are still working around Votto. In his 63 plate appearances, the 29-year-old star has racked up league leading totals in walks, OBP and intentional walks with 21, .530 and 3 respectively.

    Even when teams aren't deliberately pitching around, the target location on most pitches is away, away, and further away.

    Votto will continue to get on base at a high rate, and that will play heavily in Cincy's favor as the team works toward their second straight NL Central title.

...and so Is Brandon Phillips

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    Brandon Phillips is generally a consistent producer over the course of any given season.

    This season, though, Phillips has far exceeded his career averages for the months of March and April.

    In 190 career games during those two months, Phillips owns a .274/.331/.458 slash line with 162 game averages of 23.9 home runs, 91 RBI, 94 runs scored, 18 stolen bases and 95 strikeouts.

    This year, given Phillips' stats through the first 13 games, the 31-year-old second baseman is setting a torrid pace with a .327/.356/.636 slash line.

    Additionally, Phillips has contributed four home runs, five doubles, 16 RBI and 11 runs scored.

    Phillips' current pace is setting him up for a career season at the plate, and that's a huge positive for the Reds in multiple ways.

    A productive season from Phillips will help shift the burden of offensive production away from Joey Votto. While Votto is a steady offensive threat, it's unreasonable for him to carry the load all season long.

    What Phillips' offensive production will also affect is the quality of pitches Votto sees in a given at-bat.

    Phillips has done a good job protecting Votto in the Reds' lineup and that's best evidenced by his numbers with runners in scoring position.

    In 18 at-bats with runners in scoring position, Phillips is slashing .444/.450/.722 with one HR, two doubles, 12 RBI and just three strikeouts. Phillips also has a sacrifice fly and a sacrifice hit to his credit in those 18 at-bats (per Baseball-Reference.com).

    With Phillips' hitting well behind him and Choo excelling in the leadoff hole, pitchers will find themselves in situations where they cannot afford to pitch around Votto. That situation alone can help carry the Reds to an NL Central title.

Aroldis Chapman Is Resuming His Dominance

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    Aroldis Chapman's role with the Reds was very much up in the air with just two weeks left in spring training.

    Walt Jocketty and the rest of Cincinnati's upper management had hoped to make Chapman a starter this season, but the 26-year-old flame thrower threw the organization a proverbial curveball when he went public with the fact that he wanted to remain a closer (per ESPN.com).

    The organization obliged Chapman and promptly reinserted him into the closer's role.

    Chapman has been dominant and has pitched 7.1 innings over eight appearances and has yet to allow an earned run.

    Chapman's ratios and peripheral stats are also off the charts, as he's allowed just a 0.68 WHIP with ratios of 16.0 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, 6.50 K/BB, 3.5 H/9 and a triple-slash against of .125/.192/.167.

    With Chapman anchoring the bullpen, the Reds can own the ninth inning, and that will be a key component to their success within the division.

They're Clutch in Late Innings

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    As discussed in the previous slide, the Reds have one of the best closers in baseball. They also have two of the best set-up men in the game between Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton.

    With the pitching side of things locked down, the Reds have blossomed into a clutch-hitting organization in late inning situations.

    According to ESPN.com, no team in baseball has scored more runs in the seventh inning or later—33—this season than the Cincinnati Reds.

    Additionally, in those same late-inning situations, the Reds are outpacing the rest of the NL Central in OBP, SLG, OPS, XBH and PH-BA.

    Games can easily be won or lost in the latter stages of a contest and locking down those games which are decided in the seventh inning or later can go a long way toward building confidence and momentum.

    The longer the Reds continue to excel in tight, late-inning games, the more likely they'll be to win games as the season progresses.