Among the more dreaded stories still to be told this summer is the outcome in the National League Central, which could have been sort of a pup fight between six teams with little claim to superiority. But three of the dogs -- the Reds, Houston Astros and Pittsburgh Pirates -- proved early to be sickly, and the top dog half through the season, the Milwaukee Brewers, isn't distinguishing itself outside this pen.
Perhaps in the belief that they could turn it around and at least climb into sight of first place, the Reds replaced manager Jerry Narron July 2 with Pete Mackanin, who was working for the club as a major league scout. The Reds also considered coaches Billy Hatcher and Bucky Dent for the interim role but decided to go outside the staff.
Reds General Manager Wayne Krivsky clearly agonized over the decision, as he should have. Krivsky knows not only that Jerry Narron isn't the problem, but he knows Narron made him look pretty good last year, keeping the Reds on a straight path as the front office constantly changed the roster on the fly.
By this year, the Reds should have been stabilized, but three relievers acquired last summer -- Eddie Guardado, Gary Majewski and Bill Bray -- all have been injured. Tired of calling for relievers who quickly turned leads into deficits, Narron began asking his starting pitchers to go longer, and now Bronson Arroyo is struggling, possibly with a weary arm.
It's true that Narron has irritated fans with the odd move here and there, but he's been trying to manage an unstable and unreliable ball club, which doesn't always provide clarity of direction.
Little of it worked, especially this year. As everyone knows, it's a losing proposition to work from a position of deep despair and few options.
Now those dreary circumstances belong to Mackanin, who worked for the Reds in the early 1990s as their Triple-A manager in Nashville. He won't solve any of this club's problems. He'll just deal with them a little differently. He's a different face for the players to see, a different lieutenant for Krivsky and a different target for angry fans.
Suddenly dreary becomes fresh, new and interesting. But fresh, new and interesting is an illusion. The reality for this club, with its sick bullpen, is dreary. If Mackanin can do no better with the Reds, at least he's on a honeymoon, which means the heat is off for a while.
It's not like Mackanin is a veteran major league manager who has seen all there is to see. But when your ball club is 20 games under .500 on July 1, it might be just as well to have a new guy look at it. Though Narron doubtless was disappointed to leave, he must have been tired of looking at this club, too.
The Reds assessed, rightly, that Narron can't improve the situation. They might also have assessed, rightly, that no manager can improve this situation. But when a club is going badly, it's not even July 4 and the fans have lost interest, a change can at least make the public believe progress is being made.
It's not. Only a remodeling of the bullpen can help the Reds out of last place in the National League Central. Relievers won't be any better just because they're taking the ball from Pete Mackanin instead of Jerry Narron.
The bottom half of the NL Central this year is a lesson for all of us. The difference between a good bullpen and a poor bullpen is the difference between having a chance and having no chance. The Reds, Pirates and Astros bullpens are the three worst by ERA in the NL. While Reds relievers invite opponents to nickel and dime them by giving up walks, the Houston and Pittsburgh relievers just serve up home run pitches.
Of the three clubs, the Pirates are holding up the best, if we presume a competition between them to stay out of the division cellar. For as little as the Pirates hit and pitch, they probably shouldn't be ahead of anyone, but the Astros and Reds give away so many games late that the Pirates know something of what they're doing in comparison. From the mound, Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny give Pittsburgh a chance to win every night they pitch.
The Astros are just now coming to grips with the reality that beset them a year ago. They're not very good, key young players on whom they're counting have regressed and now, on top of that, their bullpen is ragged. The Brad Lidge psychodrama, now in its second year, is joined by the lost effectiveness of Dan Wheeler and Chad Qualls.
An injury to shortstop Adam Everett has made the Astros one bat better with Mark Loretta in his place. The Astros have begun scoring a bit, rising to offensive numbers right in line with the league average. But no lead is safe lately for the Astros.
That goes doubly for the Reds, who show the highest discrepancy between actual wins and "expected wins" of any National League club. The SABRmetric of expected wins shows that the Reds should have won five more games. That's all bullpen.
Though the Reds score their fair share of runs, they can't shorten a game with their bullpen, and trying to shorten the game with starters is an additional danger.
But the Reds, as poorly as the season has left them, aren't exactly trapped in the cellar. They can still finish in the first division. It's not like the Pirates and Astros and St. Louis Cardinals are going to stop them.
Until they solve the back end of their bullpen, however, the Reds won't find their own way from the bottom end of the standings no matter who's managing the club.