Before the 2009 season began, I felt the Cincinnati Reds could be surprise contenders in the National League Central Division—I felt that way in 2008 as well.
For a while, it looked like the Reds might hang around and maybe, just maybe, make a push for the playoffs.
But then they looked in the mirror and realized they were the Cincinnati Reds.
They have opened the second half with three wins in 16 ball games and now find themselves dead last (even behind the powerhouse Pirates) in the NL Central.
So much for high expectations.
The Reds have had numerous injuries to deal with—any team that loses their ace (Edinson Volquez) and their big bat (Joey Votto) will surely struggle—but what is to blame for this current slide? What is to blame for this team being 15 games below .500?
The Great American Ballpark, home to the Reds, is known for being a hitter's park, yet this current squad is hitting a laughable .242 as a team, ahead of only one other club (San Diego Padres).
The Reds actually place in the top half of the National League in home runs, with 102, so there appears to be a silver lining.
A closer look at the numbers reveals a team on-base percentage of .311, second-to-last in the National League.
A team that hits home runs on a regular basis, therefore, is not putting enough men on base to have those home runs impact the game in a positive way.
Add in a 4.47 team ERA (the fourth-worst in the league) and it's no wonder to see the Reds are where they are.
But now for the good news, Reds fans.
You have Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips.
These two superstars-in-waiting (or, now, for that matter) need to be the bookends to any revival of Cincy baseball.
Phillips' numbers (16 HR. 69 RBI, 17 SB, .269 BA, .464 SLG) are topped only by Votto's impressive line (17 HR, 52 RBI, 4 SB, .337 BA, .411 OBP, .602 SLG) this year for the Reds.
That's the kind of offensive production this team will need to carry through tough times where their pitching is thin.
Factor in Jay Bruce (18 HR, 41 RBI, currently injured) and the Reds have what appears to be a top-level, middle-of-the-order for the next several seasons.
Bruce is 22, Votto is just 25, and Phillips is 28—all three will have their best years still ahead of them.
Pitching-wise, this team is not as bad off as their team ERA would indicate.
Edinson Volquez, now out for the year (and most of next season) with Tommy John surgery, can still be a key arm for the Reds' future. He was an All Star last season and has the type of dynamite arm that is rare.
Johnny Cueto is a bright spot, recent struggles aside.
In his first 90 innings this year, Cueto had a 2.55 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP. He has lost his touch of late, but any 23-year-old is prone to such streaks.
Aaron Harang (31, doesn't it seem like he's been around forever?) is no longer ace-material to many, but I can think of a lot worse options for a team as a No. 3 starter.
If super-prospect Homer (D'oh) Bailey ever lives up to the hype that once surrounded him, this is a team that could boast a top-heavy pitching rotation.
With talented players on the roster, albeit some currently holding spots on the DL, this is still a team to look out for.
Here are three things that could make the Reds a contender next year and beyond:
1. Lock up Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto
As stated above, these two gentlemen are the Reds' future. Phillips is a gem at an otherwise weak position, and Votto is the kind of left-handed batter capable of high power and an even higher batting average. Letting either of these two walk would be a disaster for the Reds.
2. Change the Culture of Cincy Baseball
The Reds tried—and failed—in their attempt to change the culture with the addition of Ken Griffey Jr. several years ago. That move may not have panned out, but a Carl Crawford-type acquisition this offseason would do wonders for baseball in Cincinnati, and maybe put an end to their eight consecutive losing seasons.
3. Fire Dusty Baker
Anybody who is not a firm believer in on-base percentage (Baker once criticized former Cub second baseman Todd Walker for "clogging the bases" too much) does not deserve a job in baseball. The team power numbers are there, but the bases are too often empty when these homers leave the yard.
Also, Baker has shown reckless handling of prized arms such as Volquez (Tommy John surgery; out until at least next August) and Harang, whom he let pitch four extra-innings in a regular season game last year, which led to an eventual stint on the disabled list.
Plus, do I need to call to attention the fact that he has kept Jerry Hairston Jr., Corey Patterson, Paul Bako, and Kent Mercker on actual big-league rosters in the past two seasons?
Those players failed him as Cubs. Why would they suddenly be respectable as Reds?
I would like to see this young team finally make some noise in the National League, or at least the Central Division.
The window with which to win is too often closed prematurely for baseball teams, but this Reds team has a future to work with, provided they shape up quickly.
The puzzle can be solved; it's now about getting enough pieces to fit.