Why Dontrelle Willis Could Be the Key to Cincinnati's Playoff Hopes

Austin FoxCorrespondent IIJuly 14, 2011

MILWAUKEE, WI - JULY 10: Dontrelle Willis #50 of the Cincinnati Reds pitches against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park on July 10, 2011 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Scott Boehm/Getty Images)
Scott Boehm/Getty Images

The Cincinnati Reds are currently four games out of first place in the NL Central, and are two games under .500.  However, they will likely be buyers at the trading deadline, as their playoff hopes are still very much alive. 

After winning the NL Central last year, this year has been a disappointment for Cincinnati fans.  A big reason they won the division last year was a great offense.  Actually, their offense has been very good again this year.

Scott Rolen, who was a key part of the offensive success last year, has taken a big step back this year.  But it hasn't been a problem because of the offensive strides Jay Bruce has made. 

You could easily make the argument that Jay Bruce, not Joey Votto, has been the best player for the Reds this year.

Cincinnati's bullpen is very strong as well, possibly one of the best in the National League.  This may come as a surprise to some, seeing as how Aroldis Chapman has struggled and not been much of a factor. 

Bill Bray and Logan Ondrusek have stepped up their game and have been lights out for the Reds.  Francisco Cordero had been very solid all year at closer, but has struggled recently.  Jose Arredondo and Nick Masset have also pitched well out of the bullpen.  Sam LeCure has pitched well in both the starting rotation and out of the bullpen.

Obviously, the Reds have no problems with their offense or bullpen.  The reason they are currently under .500 at the All Star Break is because of their starting rotation.  To put it simply, it has been something of a disaster this year. 

Injuries and ineffectiveness have taken their toll on the Reds.  Bronson Arroyo, a pitcher who Cincinnati has always been able to count on, has been terrible.  His ERA is over 5.5.  After an absolutely amazing rookie year last year, Travis Wood has not enjoyed the same success and is currently in the minors.

Homer Bailey was good early in the year.  But that success was short lived and he was put on the DL.  However, he has recently returned to the rotation. 

Mike Leake has bounced between the Reds and their minor league team this year, and has also dealt with off-field issues.  He is currently part of the rotation, but has been very mediocre.

However, the biggest disappointment may be Edinson Volquez.  In 2008, Volquez was downright amazing for the Reds.  He had a 17-6 record, a 3.21 ERA, had over 200 strikeouts, and was a strong contender for the Cy Young award. 

After injury shortened seasons in 2009 and 2010, the Reds were expecting big things from him this year.  He has been awful, though, with an ERA approaching 6.00.  He even tried shaving his famous dreadlocks, but that didn't work.  The Reds had no choice but to send him to the minors.

If there has been one bright spot in Cincinnati's rotation this year, it has been Johnny Cueto.  He missed part of the first half due to injury, but since he's been back, he has been lights out with a 1.96 ERA. Cueto has been the only player the Reds can truly count on in their rotation. 

Because of all the problems, Dontrelle Willis was recently called up from the minors and made his first start for the Reds on June 15.  He pitched well in that start, going six innings and only giving up two runs. 

Control was a problem as usual for Willis, as he walked four batters.  However, one encouraging sign is that he threw a first pitch strike to 19 of the 26 batters he faced.

If Willis can work with Bryan Price and limit his walks, he could be very effective pitching in Cincinnati's rotation.  Whether he sticks around or not is yet to be seen, but if he pitches like he did on Sunday, it would be hard to take him out of the rotation. 

Reds fans probably shouldn't be too optimistic about Willis, but it's hard not to be a little excited after seeing how effective he was.

His next start will probably tell us a lot.  If he can pitch even remotely like he used to, this could go a long way in boosting Cincinnati's playoff chances.  They have been hoping to acquire a top of the rotation pitcher at the trade deadline.  Now it might not be such a glaring need. 

Nevertheless, it still wouldn't be surprising to see them go out and get a starter to solidify the rotation even more.

If Willis can somehow pitch effectively down the stretch for the Reds, it would actually give them a very solid 1-2 punch with he and Johnny Cueto.  Obviously, whether or not he can pitch effectively will be the biggest question moving forward.  However, if Willis keeps pitching well and the Reds go out and get another starter, it will help their playoff chances tremendously.