7 Biggest Takeaways from the First Month of the Cincinnati Reds' Season

Kyle Newport@@KyleNewportFeatured ColumnistMay 7, 2014

7 Biggest Takeaways from the First Month of the Cincinnati Reds' Season

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    Al Behrman/Associated Press

    A rough start to the season is in the past for the Cincinnati Reds, so looking back is one way to see how far this team has come in a short amount of time.

    Everything that could go wrong in April did go wrong. Yet, there were plenty of positives that fans could take away from the first month of the season.

    This is a team that has made the postseason in three out of the past four seasons. A slow start to the season and numerous injuries had another trip to the playoffs in doubt early, but now the team has started to hit its stride.

    However, one recent injury could keep the team from taking off. Fortunately, this team has done a good job of overcoming missing pieces.

    In the season preview, it stated that staying around .500 was the goal. A late surge brought the team close to .500, so a 15-16 record should be considered a success. It looks even better considering the St. Louis Cardinals are currently only half a game ahead of the Reds.

    Keep reading to find out what Reds fans can take away from the first month of the 2014 MLB season.  

    *All stats via MLB.com as of 5/5/2014

Injuries Could Derail Cincinnati's Season

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    Just when it seems like the Reds are starting to get healthy, another injury occurs. There are only so many injuries that one team can handle before it's too much to overcome.

    As Skip Schumaker neared his return last weekend, center fielder Billy Hamilton injured his hand. Now that closer Aroldis Chapman appears to be in the final stages of rehab, right fielder Jay Bruce went down with a knee injury. 

    Check out all of the injuries the Reds have had from the start of spring training through May 4:

    CF Billy HamiltonFinger, KnucklesDay-to-day
    2B Brandon PhillipsBackPlaying
    RF Jay BruceTorn MeniscusDisabled List (expected to miss about a month)
    LF Ryan Ludwick ToePlaying
    3B Todd FrazierGroinPlaying
    C Devin Mesoraco Oblique, HamstringDisabled List
    C Brayan PeñaHamstringDay-to-day
    UT Skip Schumaker Left ShoulderActivated from DL on May 3
    INF Jack Hannahan Torn Labrum Disabled List
    RHP Mat Latos Elbow, Torn meniscusDisabled List
    LHP Aroldis ChapmanFacial FracturesDisabled List (rehab assignment)
    RHP Jonathan Broxton ForearmActivated from DL on April 9
    LHP Sean MarshallShoulderActivated from DL on April 19
    LHP Tony Cingrani ShoulderDisabled List (eligible to return May 16)

    Those are all players who were projected to make the Opening Day roster and have missed games this year due to injuries. 

    That list would be even longer if it included spring training injuries. Johnny Cueto (side), Homer Bailey (groin) and Mike Leake (abdominal) all battled injuries during the spring. Luckily for the Reds, none of those pitchers have missed time during the regular season.

    All of the players on the list above—with the possible exception of Skip Schumaker and Jack Hannahanwere expected to make big impacts this season.

    Joey Votto and Zack Cozart are the only regulars who have yet to get banged up this season. Cozart may not be smoking the ball at the plate, but the Reds don't have a viable replacement, especially on defense.

    Now the Reds will be forced to find a way to survive without Bruce for a minimum of three weeks, according to MLB.com's Mark Sheldon. Don't forget that this is the same injury that Votto had back in 2012 and Latos had at the start of spring training. It's not clear how similar the injuries are, but it's tough to rush an outfielder back from a knee injury. 

    Bruce's power, speed and glove will be missed mightily. He has hit at least 30 home runs in three consecutive seasons and has played great defense throughout his career. This year, he had five stolen bases before getting hurt.

    At some point, injuries will catch up to the team. But if the Reds can stay in contention through May, getting Bruce and possibly Latos back in June will give the team a big boost. 

Johnny Cueto Is a National League Cy Young Award Contender, When Healthy

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    Johnny Cueto made only 11 starts in 2013 due to injury, so fans might have forgotten just how good he is when healthy. The start of the 2014 season reminded everyone that he can go head-to-head with any pitcher in the majors.

    Through his first seven starts of the season, he leads the majors in just about every category: innings pitched (55), ERA (1.31), WHIP (0.73), complete games (two) and ranks second in strikeouts with 60. His 60 strikeouts are the most through the first seven starts in franchise history.

    Had it not been for a meaningless home run in the ninth inning of his April 22 start in Pittsburgh, he would have tossed back-to-back shutouts against the Pirates in a span of six days. He followed up those gems with eight innings of shutout baseball against the Atlanta Braves in his next start.

    For those who believe that a pitcher's record matters, look at Cueto. The right-hander has gone at least seven innings in every start and has yet to allow more than two runs in any of them. However, he is only 3-2 on the season. According to ESPN.com, the Reds have averaged only 2.57 runs per game when Cueto is on the mound, which is among the worst run support in the majors.

    There isn't much to complain about when it comes to the 28-year-old.

    Sure, some fans can complain that he has allowed six home runs. However, he has allowed only eight total runs this season. It's better to get the damage over with on one swing of the bat rather than run up a high pitch count in a long rally.

    Cueto's windup makes him susceptible to a side injury. He left Game 1 of the 2012 playoffs with an injury, and he missed most of last season after tweaking his side. That's certainly a concern, but a shortened windup helps minimize the chances of an injury.

    The veteran may not have been named the National League Pitcher of the Month, but he certainly had as good of a case as anyone. Now, he will turn his attention to trying to become the first pitcher in franchise history to win the NL Cy Young award.  

Starting Rotation Will Keep Reds in Contention

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    During spring training, the starting rotation appeared to be an area to keep an eye on after pitchers kept getting hurt. However, the rotation has exceeded the high expectations that it has set in the past.

    Before the Reds' series against the Boston Red Sox began on May 6, the team's rotation ranked among the best in all of baseball. Check out some of the numbers:

    StatMLB Rank
    205.2 IP 1st
    2.93 ERA4th
    1.08 WHIP2nd
    .215 AVG1st
    172 K5th
    19 GIDP 3rd

    The starters lead the majors in innings pitched despite playing in one fewer game than the next closest team. That's impressive.

    All of those numbers are good, but think how much better they would be without yet another slow start by Homer Bailey. 

    The right-hander has always been a slow starter in his career. He has a 4.71 career ERA in April, and his 6.15 ERA through April this year only added to his early-season struggles. Now that it's May, the 28-year-old is ready to get in a groove. He showed that by shutting down the major's best team—the Milwaukee Brewers—over eight innings on the first day of May.

    Oh, those numbers were also posted without Mat Latos. Alfredo Simon, who has spent the past two seasons in the Cincinnati bullpen, has done one dandy of a job filling in.

    The veteran has recorded a quality start in each of his six starts. His 1.99 ERA puts him seventh in the majors, which isn't too shabby for a guy is used to coming out of the bullpen.

    Mike Leake continues to build on a solid 2013 season. The biggest area of improvement the right-hander has made this season is his ability to pitch deep into games. He has thrown 43.1 innings through his first six starts.

    Unfortunately, Tony Cingrani recently went on the disabled list with a shoulder injury. That puts the Reds two starters down, but instead of calling someone up to take the southpaw's place, off days will allow Cincinnati to use a four-man rotation until May 17.  

    As mentioned above, the starters have done a good job of eating innings. Through the first 31 games, the starters have gone at least seven innings 15 times. In three other games, the starters have come within one out of throwing seven innings.

    With the offense's early-season struggles, the Reds have been able to stay in every game thanks to outstanding starting pitching.

Banged-Up Bullpen Is Bad News

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    As good as the starting pitching has been, the bullpen has been nearly as bad. At least there is reason for optimism that the bullpen will improve.

    Cincinnati's relievers have been among the league's best in recent seasons, but injuries have made this bullpen a serious liability.

    The Reds bullpen has posted a 4.39 ERA, which ranks 26th in baseball and 14th in the National League. Most of the bullpens that rank near the bottom of the league have been overused. That's not the case here. Cincinnati's relievers have thrown the fewest innings (67.2) of any group in the league. In fact, manager Bryan Price has had a hard time finding enough innings for every reliever at times.

    The workload isn't the problem; injuries are the issue.

    Going into spring training, there weren't many spots open in the bullpen. Guys like Nick Christiani, Curtis Partch and Trevor Bell didn't stand much chance of making the club. However, injuries allowed all three relievers to make the Opening Day roster.

    Cincinnati started the season with its closer (Aroldis Chapman) and two setup men (Jonathan Broxton and Sean Marshall) on the disabled list. Not only are those the highest-paid relievers on the team, but they are also the best.

    Slowly, the bullpen has been getting healthy. Broxton returned early in the season, and Marshall was activated a couple of weeks later. By the end of this week, the bullpen could be close to 100 percent with the return of Chapman.

    Marshall hasn't looked great since coming back. He has thrown a total of 13.1 innings since the beginning of last season, so he's going to be rusty right now. Once he gets going, he's a dominant southpaw. Price needs Marshall to return to form quickly considering how shaky left-hander Manny Parra has been this season.

    Broxton's return was key. It allowed some relievers to settle into roles. Broxton immediately took over as closer. Sam LeCure settled into the setup role, and Marshall joined him once he was activated. With how deep the starters have pitched into games, not too many other relievers need set roles.

    Even when Chapman returns, the bullpen won't be complete. Until Mat Latos returns from injury, the bullpen will be without Alfredo Simon. Given the way he has pitched this season, he is an important part of the bullpen.

    No bullpen could succeed without its three best arms, especially when one of them is Aroldis Chapman. Now that the arms are getting healthy, though, the Reds bullpen should return to being a strength.

Lineup Benefits from Having Offensive Catchers

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    The Reds' offense is down this year, but the team's catchers have arguably been the best hitters on the team through the first month of the season. That was what the team had in mind this past offseason when it essentially swapped Ryan Hanigan for Brayan Peña.

    Last season, Cincinnati catchers struggled. Hanigan battled through injuries throughout the season, and Mesoraco struggled in his first full season in the majors. 

    Mesoraco has improved mightily this season now that he has gotten a chance to play every day (when healthy), and the addition of Peña has been a success.

    Check out how the team's catchers (Mesoraco, Peña and Tucker Barnhart) rank compared to the rest of the league:

    StatMLB Rank
    .368 AVG1st
    .411 OBP2nd
    .614 SLG1st
    1.025 OPS1st
    10 2BT-3rd
    6 HRT-4th
    20 RBIT-3rd
    16 R4th
    3 SB1st

    Those numbers are a vast improvement over last season's group of catchers. Last year, the team's catchers combined to hit .221 with 10 home runs and didn't steal a base. Three different catchers have already hit home runs for the team this year.

    There might be a slight decline in defense without Hanigan, but Peña has done a good job of handling the pitching staff so far. 

    Now that the catchers are producing at the plate, it provides a bit of balance throughout the lineup. Last year, the bottom third of the lineup had a tough time getting on base. This season, the Reds are getting a lot of production out of the seventh spot.

    Mesoraco and Peña have combined to give the Reds a dangerous threat at the plate out of the catcher's spot. Although they have both knocked the cover off the ball, the are currently dealing with hamstring issues. Peña appears to be fine, but Mesoraco had to go to the disabled list for the second time this season.

    Catcher hasn't been an offensive position for the Reds in recent seasons, but that has changed drastically this season.

Aggressive Baserunning Helps Generate Offense

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    New manager Bryan Price made it quite clear in spring training that the Reds would be aggressive on the bases. After all, the 2010 club, led by Scott Rolen, wreaked havoc on the bases by taking an extra base when possible.

    This year's club has some trouble scoring, so being aggressive is a way to manufacture runs.

    The Reds finished last season with 67 stolen bases, thanks to 13 in September by Billy Hamilton. At the end of the day on May 4, Cincinnati ranked second in the majors behind the Los Angeles Dodgers with 30 stolen bases in 31 games. Hamilton has missed seven starts due to injury, so the Reds' total could be even higher. 

    Having Hamilton in the lineup makes it easy to be aggressive. However, it's not just him. Nine different Reds have at least one stolen base. First baseman Joey Votto has even gotten in on the act, and catcher Brayan Peña has stolen two bases. 

    Being aggressive also has a downside. Aggressive baserunning can lead to some easy outs.

    The Reds have been thrown out 10 times on stolen base attempts. Although Hamilton leads the way by getting caught stealing five times, replays have shown that he may have been safe one or two times that he was thrown out.

    Cincinnati leads the league in being thrown out at home plate while trying to swipe an extra run, according to Baseball-Reference.com. The Reds have been thrown out at home nine times already. No other team has been thrown out more than six times.

    Third base coach Steve Smith is still learning the roster and who has good speed. As the season goes on, there should be fewer outs at home plate. 

    Price had his team running throughout spring training, and now it has carried into the regular season. There's a fine line between aggressive and reckless. Right now, the Reds are riding the line. The offense is starting to score runs with more frequency, so there won't be as much need to take huge risks on the bases.

Taking Advantage of RISP Is the Difference in 1-Run Games

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    Pitching and defense will keep a team in every game, but the offense needs to come up with a timely hit or two in order to pull out a victory. Early in the season, this was an area that the Reds struggled with. The team has recently improved their hitting with runners in scoring position but could still get better.

    Through the first 31 games, the Reds have played in 14 one-run games and are 5-9 in those contests. Five of the first six games of the season were decided by one run, and the lone exception was a one-run game until the Reds lost on a walk-off grand slam.

    Playing in one-run games can be decided by timely hitting and luck. So far, the Reds have had a lot of bad luck.

    The Reds don't have a lot of trouble getting on base. They are hitting .256 with the bases empty and have a .323 on-base percentage. However, they rank 22nd in the majors with only 120 runs. That's due to their failures of hitting with runners in scoring position.

    Cincinnati currently ranks 18th in the majors with a .231 average with runners in scoring position, which ranks above the St. Louis Cardinals. The Reds also rank 20th with a .198 average with runners in scoring position and two outs.

    Ryan Ludwick and Devin Mesoraco are both hitting over .360 with runners in scoring position, but no other regular is above .290. Chris Heisey comes in third at .286 and Brandon Phillips is next at .250.

    Most Reds fans will call out Joey Votto for his lack of hits with runners in scoring position. He has only three hits in 16 at-bats in those situations, but he has also drawn 11 walks. That puts the onus on Phillips and Ludwick.

    With Jay Bruce out for the next month, there will be even less power in the lineup. That means hitting with runners in scoring position will be one area that the Reds will need to take advantage of in order to win games.

    Cincinnati's offense has some big bats, but it's clutch hitting still needs some work. If the team can get an extra hit here and there, Cincinnati's record in one-run games will begin to swing the other way.