The Cincinnati Reds were picked by most to finish last in the NL Central this season.
They’re currently first.
With a surprising 19-9 record, the Reds have vaulted over the St. Louis Cardinals and the Houston Astros to take first place in the Central. Moreover, they now have the second-best record in all of MLB (the Chicago White Sox are a game ahead at 20-8).
So how are the Reds doing it? How has Cincinnati remade itself from one of baseball’s worst teams to one of the best? How have the Reds taken all of MLB by storm?
It’s a funny thing. Because, you see, they haven’t really changed a thing.
Save for the acquisition of pitcher Bronson Arroyo (acquired from the Boston Red Sox for Willy Mo Pena just before the season began), Cincinnati has stuck to its guns.
Basement dwellers in the NL Central for three out of the last five seasons, the Reds didn’t apply new makeup. They didn’t spend big via free agency during the off-season in the hopes to “win now.” And they only have two perennial All-Stars on their team (Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr. – who has ironically been on the DL since the eighth game of the year).
However, what the Reds do have going for them is youth. Young talent. Fire. And a little naivete.
Much like their Ohio brethren, the Cleveland Indians, or last year’s Atlanta Braves, the Reds are winning games because they’re playing baseball the way it is meant to be played. Having more in common with the White Sox than the Red Sox, Cincinnati is using speed, solid pitching and just enough power to become a serious early-season contender for MLB’s “Most Improved Team” award.
At the center of the improvement is Arroyo. Having begun his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Arroyo has made a return to the NL. In doing so, he’s looking like a monster. Arroyo is currently 5-0 with a 2.06 ERA. And he’s giving the Reds something they haven’t had since the days of Tom Browning: a reliable starter.
Cincinnati’s woes since the new millennium began had everything to do with pitching and nothing to do with hitting. Since 2001, the Reds have always hit. Having Griffey in the lineup will do that for you. But when it came to pitching, Cincinnati had been atrocious.
From 2003 to 2005, the Reds had (respectively) the fourth, second and third-worst pitching staffs in the majors. The team ERA rested over five. And even though Junior and the boys could be counted on to deliver an average of five runs a game, you could always bet that the Reds’ pitchers were going to give up more.
This season though, that’s changed. Thanks to Arroyo and consistently reliable outings from Aaron Harang and Brandon Claussen, the Reds have lowered their team ERA to 4.55 (13th in MLB).
Remarkably, Cincinnati did not overhaul its roster to improve its staff. Rather than follow the clear-cutting path that has plagued most of MLB since the mid-’90s (the effort to constantly replace ineffective young starters with high-priced free agents), the Reds simply allowed their pitchers’ arms to develop.
Combine the improved pitching with some serious lumber, and you have a Reds team that is for real.
First-year third basemen Edwin Encarnacion, Dunn, the fleet-footed Felipe Lopez and Austin Kearns are the centerpieces of a lineup that leads all of the NL in runs scored. And they’re doing it all with Griffey on the bench.
It’s enough to make one think that the second incarnation of the “Big Red Machine” may not be that far away.