Cover Story: Relief in Sight?

The Reds reach the All-Star break knowing that if they can get a little better in the bullpen they can get a lot better in the standings

Jul 11, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Cincinnati Reds

Relief In Sight?

The Reds changed managers rather desperately last week, as if they just didn't know what else to do. But they reached the bottom, taking their beatings every night, and they couldn't just sit there and take it any more.

In times of duress, baseball clubs traditionally fire managers. Sometimes the change introduces a better manager, but almost always, it seems, the club plays with just a little more jagged determination for a week or two.

You might say that a loose manager unwound a tight club or that a disciplinarian corralled the loose talent, but the true difference a new manager makes is a fresh start for everyone.

No one is in the doghouse because no one has failed the new manager. Pros renew their commitments to come through for the new manager. Everyone goes through a slight change of identity.

It takes the players, in some way, back to the basics.

And we've kind of known about the Reds, though it's lost in fogs of late losses, that if they're just a little better they're a lot better.

The Reds aren't really a .400 club, as their current record would indicate — they're a .500 club foundering on a vacant bullpen. In the National League Central, they should be a .500 club comfortably within sight of the top.

Instead, the Reds became a mark. Opponents came to know that if they could just stay within three, four, five runs of the Reds, they could come back and win in the last couple of innings.

And the Reds had to know it, too. It became who they were. Or thought they were.

The true Reds are written on the contracts of missing men like Eddie Guardado, Gary Majewski, Bill Bray, Rheal Cormier and Kirk Saarloos, injured or failed acquisitions for the bullpen. Without them, the Reds became something they're not supposed to be.

So they needed a change of identity. A fresh start. They really needed the relievers, but a fresh start would have to suffice.

Away went Jerry Narron, along came Pete Mackanin, and the Reds returned to Great American Ball Park for one last home stand before the All-Star break, winning five of six. The Reds were the same club as always. In three of the six games, their bullpen failed.

But it didn't fail quite as badly. Instead of turning leads into deficits, the bullpen turned leads into ties, and the hitters seem to be saying they can live with that. In two games, the relievers coughed up leads and the hitters came back to win.

So the Reds were riding high at the break. Being just a little better, the Reds were a lot better.

Will Reds be sellers in the trade market?
We now look to the second half of the baseball season wondering what's in it for the Reds. They're 36-52, working on their seventh consecutive losing season. They're the last-place club in the weak NL Central.

They're not contenders, and they almost certainly can't become contenders in the time remaining. But they've also got too much offensive firepower and too much starting pitching to be a last-place club. What are they?

We might begin by looking at where the Reds were a year ago. They were the same ball club, with one important difference.

The Reds, beginning in the new front office under Robert Castellini's ownership, reflected a clear urgency to compete. If they were a long shot, and they were, they gave the fans what was missing for a lot of the Carl Lindner years — a concerted effort to win.

The front office looked at a leaky bullpen in June and treated it as a priority of the highest order. Reds General Manager Wayne Krivsky brought in Guardado and Cormier at around the same time. He withstood fierce public criticism for sending Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez to Washington for Gary Majewski and Bill Bray.

The relievers didn't work as hoped, but there were enough answers in the volume to keep the club in sight of .500, which placed them in the big photo when the St. Louis Cardinals faltered their way into a late-developing divisional race. Outmanned and needing polish, the Reds missed that opportunity, but one felt heartened that the new ownership and management were serious about improving the club and competing.

Now we've gone three months of 2007 watching the Reds lose in the late innings while management has done nothing, and the feeling is just a little too familiar. The Reds have let a season slip away by neglecting to address a terrible problem, the same terrible problem they addressed so assertively last season.

It's a problem Krivsky addressed in the offseason, signing David Weathers and Mike Stanton each to two-year deals. And it's a problem, evidently, that continuously needs addressing.

If you're Krivsky right now, you're cursing your buzzard's luck with relief pitchers. This isn't like running the Minnesota Twins, where the farm system spits out Matt Guerrier and Pat Neshek.

Krivsky is looking all over the place for guys, and they're just not coming through. One would think one or two of these guys might be healthy and get someone out.

The headlines for the rest of July will name the Reds as a seller in the trade market. The headlines might not be about actual trades, of course, but rumors will swirl, as they always do, about Junior Griffey and, to a lesser extent, Adam Dunn.

But the Reds don't need headlines or trade rumors or even, perhaps, trades. They need relief pitchers. Weathers has been solid all year, Stanton has been good for the last two months and Jon Coutlangus is making outs lately. They're the three who seem most trustworthy out of the bullpen with the lead right now.

And if the Reds find a couple more relievers who can keep games close when the club falls behind, they have the offense to come back and win a few. They can climb in the standings and maybe work their way up to third place, if all breaks well. If they can add a couple of productive relievers without tearing up their club.

National League remains wide open
Is it worth mentioning that the Reds, 13 games down in the NL Central, also are 12 1/2 down in the wild card race? It's a peculiarity of the National League this year that a 16-team circuit is separated, top to bottom, by only 13 1/2 games.

The halfway point of the baseball season might be half-informative about how it's going to end, one would think. Alas, we know nothing.

We just see 13 1/2 games from top to bottom. And we remember last year.

At the 2006 All-Star break, the Boston Red Sox were 53-33, holding first place in the American League East. Then along came injuries, along with the New York Yankees, and the Red Sox ended September far out of the picture.

Over in the American League Central, the Detroit Tigers enjoyed a cushion of 11 games over the Minnesota Twins at the All-Star break last year. The Twins won the division on the final day of the season. In the American League West, the Texas Rangers were tied for first place at the break, then finished with a losing record.

At last year's All-Star break, the Philadelphia Phillies were selling off parts. Then their work-around team contended for a wild card berth.

The Cardinals reached last year's break nine games over .500, then barely won the National League Central.

The season is long, forgiving of slumps and demanding of persistence. Of all the sports, the baseball season is the best season not just because it has the most room for ebbs and flows but because it's the most meaningful competition.

The baseball season actually eliminates worthy clubs. A baseball club left out of the playoffs might have been good enough to win the World Series. In any other sport, going to the playoffs just means you're not terrible.

Come October, someone will be heartbroken. Someone's going to say that if they could have just keep it together for a couple more months they would have won it all.

The Reds might have been saying that last October, or the Chicago White Sox. Now one thinks the real Reds and White Sox are the clubs that tanked the second half of last year rather than the clubs with winning records at last year's All-Star break.

The National League is so wide open right now that virtually nothing can be ruled out or predicted. The New York Mets, the National League's best club by many assessments, haven't created meaningful distance between themselves and the Atlanta Braves or the Phillies in the National League East. The San Diego Padres went to the break with the National League's best record (49-38), and they could finish third in their division without slumping.

And how much of what's happening in the NL Central right now is real? A .500 club is a title contender, yet clubs that ought to be .500 clubs aren't cutting it.

The Reds and Houston Astros both are really .500 clubs brought down by freakishly bad relief pitching. In Houston's case, perhaps, it seems the answers can be found in the pitchers on hand, but the Reds would have to add pieces.

One might expect the defending World Champions to be at least a .500 club, but the Cardinals are a little shy, especially in the starting rotation.

The Milwaukee Brewers lead the division with an extremely young club. Obviously, the NL Central isn't the most challenging competition, but that can change quickly, especially for the Brewers. The Chicago Cubs, once nine games under .500, are 22-12 from June 3 to the break, climbing to within 4 1/2 games.

The Brewers are what every small market club wants to be, an aspiring group of young, homegrown players who will improve through time while the club controls their contracts for the next four years. First baseman Prince Fielder leads the NL with 29 homers at the All-Star break with a salary of $415,000. J.J. Hardy plays a good enough shortstop, entered break with 18 homers, demolishes left handers and plays well before the home fans. All for just $400,000.

Among NL clubs, only Philadelphia scored more runs than the Brewers at the break and only the Reds hit more home runs, but no one slugs like the Brewers at .457. Fielder is a 262-pound flywheel, a left-handed hitter who can kill a high fastball, and, when he takes the outside pitch the other way, he can still hit it over the fence. The third baseman, rookie Ryan Braun, looks like he could become Fielder's right-handed complement.

The Brewers win in the NL Central because no other club in the division has a good bullpen. That could be the difference in the end, though the Brewers are vulnerable. They're young and questionable defensively at every position except left field. One injury to a key pitcher could send them reeling.

As the Cubs finally crawled up to .500 on July 1, it almost seemed the worst was over for them. The "breaking in" period with Lou Piniella often put the manager in a foul mood as his bullpen consistently failed, and the Cubs lost 12 of their first 15 one-run games. But the bullpen seems to have stabilized, perhaps Piniella has cleared the air, as he perceives clarity, and the Cubs won 10 of 11 through July 3, including three one-run victories.

Piniella will depend on starting pitchers to steer the ship, because every day's lineup is like a snowflake. The only three certainties in the Cubs order are left fielder Alfonso Soriano leading off, first baseman Derrek Lee batting third and third baseman Aramis Ramirez batting fourth. Otherwise, Piniella mixes and matches every day for a shortstop, a second baseman, a center fielder, a right fielder and, recently, a catcher.

While Piniella has tried to make the pieces fit, the Cubs have struggled at times to score runs. Despite batting .269 at the break, tied for third in the league, the Cubs were ninth in runs, and their under-performance shows in the standings. But they're finally winning some close games and they've given only three starts this year to any pitcher with an ERA higher than 4.03.

It often seems at this time of year like the Cubs are positioned to win. When one sees such strong starting pitching and an offense moving up to its own level, better days are clearly ahead. But it's the Cubs, so you never know what's next.

As usual, the first half of a baseball season doesn't even tell half of the story. Not even as it concerns the Reds. ©