If someone had come up to me in April and said, "I bet the Cincinnati Reds will go to the World Series this year," I would have laughed and made jokes at their expense for such an idiotic prediction.
That shows what I know.
Each month, many experts and fans have been waiting for the Reds to falter; to revert back to the losing ways they've mastered of over the past decade. Those experts are still waiting. Except now, it looks to be too late.
With a seven game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals as of September 5, and the best record in the National League thanks to the San Diego Padres' recent plummet back into uncertainty, I think it's safe to say that the Reds are all but in the playoffs for the first time since 1995.
The question is, how far can they go? Are they in for a Wild Card round exit? Or can they actually make a run?
Judging by the title, my opinion is they can make more than just a run, they can make it to the World Series, and possibly give the American League representative serious trouble. In fact, I think they're the favorite to come out of the National League.
It would be foolish to solely mention the strengths of the team while completely avoiding their weaknesses, so let's get that out of the way now. It doesn't take a genius to realize that the Reds pitching isn't the greatest.
As a team, their stats are average. Their best ranking in what I view as an important category come October, is save percentage, where they rank fourth in the National League. Typically, they are around seventh or eighth in the NL in virtually all categories. Not horrible, but certainly not a strength.
It's no secret that pitching, specifically the bullpen, might be the most important characteristic of a championship contender. That's why the Yankees have been so dominant behind Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer of this generation and probably ever, for the past 15 years. It's rare to find a squad without at least an above average staff that wins the World Series.
For the Reds, their bullpen doesn't have names that the casual fan would recognize. Nick Masset, Arthur Rhodes, and Francisco Cordero don't jump off the page. However, they've become the centerpiece of a bullpen that's usually effective. Masset and Rhodes each have a K/BB ratio of around 3, a WHIP under 1.25 (Rhodes' is under 1), and average a strikeout per inning. Cordero, the closer, has been solid for years. Yes, he can be wild at times, but he's effective.
There's also a kid who's been receiving massive attention the past week or so: Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman. He's appeared in three games, and has consistently thrown over 100-mph, reaching as high as 105. To go along with that, he's got a Randy Johnson-like slider and comes from a deceptive angle which makes it even harder for hitters to pick up the ball. Talk about no chance. This guy is going to be what Francisco Rodriguez was for the Anaheim Angels back in 2002 and what David Price was for Tampa Bay two years ago.
Onto the starters, where again, there are no big names. They have a six pack of starters who could ultimately start in the playoffs. My bets would be on Bronson Arroyo (the only one with major playoff experience and their leader in wins with 14), Johnny Cueto (the only strikeout pitcher on the team), and Travis Wood (a young lefty who's won five of his last seven starts). If Aaron Harang or Mike Leake recover from their respective injuries in time, Wood may go the bullpen or become the 4th starter.
Now onto the strengths. The Reds do one thing better than any NL team, and that's hit. They lead the NL in team Batting Average, Runs Scored, and OPS. This helps make up for their deficiencies in pitching because the rotation can count on getting five runs a game to work with.
The individuals doing the mashing are little more well known than the pitching staff. Joey Votto made headlines during the All-Star break for leading the league in HR, but requiring a win in fan voting to make the team. He's now become a serious MVP candidate (with an outside shot at winning the Triple Crown along with Albert Pujols), currently in the top 3 in HR, RBI, and BA (32-98-.321) and leading the league in OPS (1.013). If it weren't for Pujols, he'd be the best first baseman in the National League.
The supporting cast is led by third-baseman Scott Rolen; Votto's protection in the lineup. His numbers aren't eye-popping: 19-78-.297, but he keeps pitchers from consistently walking Votto. Rolen's also the one guy on the team who's played a major role in winning a World Series when he did so with the Cardinals back in 2006.
As for everyone else, four other starters including Rolen and Votto are hitting above .260 (Orlando Cabrera, Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce, and Jonny Gomes), four other starters have over 15 HR (Bruce, Phillips, Drew Stubbs, and Gomes), and four have over ten steals (Stubbs, Cabrera, Votto, and Phillips, though not Rolen).
Pretty solid, right? That would be most teams biggest strength? Most teams would sell their souls to have an offense that potent.
Funny thing is, that's NOT their biggest strength. That would be their fielding.
While the Reds have the best hitting team in the National League, their fielding is the best in all of baseball. As a team, they have the fewest errors and the best fielding percentage in the majors. No starter has more than ten errors (Orlando Cabrera, the team's shortstop, has ten exactly) or a fielding percentage lower than .977.
Scott Rolen will most likely win another Gold Glove at third, and there are a few other players who have a chance at winning one. The catchers are also adequate at keeping runners from stealing.
This team just doesn't throw the ball around. They don't make stupid mistakes, which further benefits the pitching staff. Keep the ball in the park, and chances are the defense will have a chance to make the play. Keep the ball on the ground, and it's a virtual certainty. When the stakes are at the highest level in the playoffs, being able to field the routine ground ball is monumental (just ask Cubs fans about Alex Gonzalez, the real goat in the Steve Bartman game).
Are the Reds the prohibitive favorite in the National League? Probably not. Do I think they deserve a better chance than people may be giving them? Absolutely.
The teams' strengths are able to make up for their weakness, which are closer to being average than bad. If I were a playoff team, I would want absolutely nothing to do with the Reds come October.