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Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Votto's injury clutters NL Central even more

By David Schoenfield


OK, let's state the obvious: You don't replace Joey Votto.

You plug the hole with Silly Putty, Scotch tape, carpenter's glue and Dusty Baker's toothpick.

Votto had been the best hitter in baseball until slowed recently by a knee injury that finally required surgery. He'll miss three to four weeks, and the Cincinnati Reds will have to figure out how to keep their one-game lead in the National League Central .

The problem with the Reds' lineup is two-fold:

1. They don't get on base enough.

Even with Votto's best-in-the-majors .465 on-base percentage, the Reds rank just 10th in the National League in OBP at .315. Catcher Ryan Hanigan is the only other player with an OBP higher than .350 and that's with the help of seven intentional walks thanks to his eighth spot in the lineup.

Replacing Votto with Scott Rolen -- with rookie Todd Frazier moving to first base -- means you're playing Rolen and his .199 average and .260 OBP every day. What does this mean in terms of runs scored? Let's do a little rough back-of-the-napkin calculations. In 370 plate appearances, Votto created about 86 runs. In 154 plate appearances, Rolen has created about 12 runs. Say Votto misses 25 games -- about 115 plate appearances. Votto would have been expected to create about 27 runs over that many PAs; Rolen about nine. That rough estimate of 18 runs is worth nearly two losses for the Reds. Rolen may have a defensive advantage at third over Frazier, but that edge is probably negated by Votto's defensive advantage over Frazier at first base.

2. The Reds are too right-handed.

Jay Bruce is currently the only left-handed hitter on the Reds' roster. Entering Monday's game, the Reds were hitting .246/.311/.407 against right-handed pitching and .260/.328/.448 versus left-handed pitching. But to make matters worse, Reds right-handed batters were hitting just .236/.290/.370 against right-handed pitchers.

This obviously leaves the Reds vulnerable to right-handed pitching. If you're in a daily head-to-head fantasy league, you would want to consider picking up any right-handed starter facing the Reds. Managers don't really adjust their rotations because of this, however, so this doesn't necessarily mean the Reds will face more right-handed starters. But it certainly will give opposing skippers an easy edge in creating bullpen matchups. You saw this on Monday. After lefty Wade Miley departed in the sixth inning, Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson ran out three straight righty relievers without having to worry about that crucial Votto at-bat.

Anyway, this will put enormous pressure on Bruce to produce and while the right fielder made the All-Star team, his production leaves a little bit to be desired considering his All-Star status. He's hitting .246/.321/.495. Bruce's .348 wOBA ranks just 59th among MLB regulars, another indication of how much the Reds' offense relied on Votto. You're going to have trouble scoring runs when your best hitter is roughly the 59th-best hitter in the majors. And remember, Bruce was hitting .300 on May 15. Since then he's hit .208.

The Reds were rumored to be looking for some offensive help even before Votto's injury -- maybe Shane Victorino, maybe Juan Pierre. While center fielder Drew Stubbs is the obvious position to upgrade with his .217/.287/.361 line, Victorino isn't hitting much better and Pierre would be a big defensive liability in center at this point in his career.

The good news for the Reds is that 23 of their next 26 games are against teams currently with losing records. Actually, let me rephrase that: The Reds have only 21 more games the rest of the season against teams with winning records (nine against the Pirates, six against the Cardinals, three each against the Mets and Dodgers). It's good to be in the Central.

If anything, the same holds true for the Pirates and Cardinals. Those two clubs were already good bets to be active in the trade market, but Votto's injury should only serve to make them even more proactive. The Pirates are in a similar soft spot in their schedule; 22 of their next 25 games are against teams currently below .500. The Cardinals have what appear to be the toughest remaining schedule of the three teams, with 34 games against winning teams.

The Cardinals picked up a game on the Reds with a dramatic ninth-inning rally off Brewers closer John Axford, scoring three runs to win 3-2. With two outs and a runner on, Rafael Furcal reached on an infield single, Skip Schumaker walked to load the bases, Matt Holliday singled in two runs to tie it and Allen Craig drove in the go-ahead run. Jason Motte, after giving up and RBI double to Ryan Braun in the eighth, breezed through the bottom of the ninth with two strikeouts. The Pirates rallied with three runs of their in their ninth to tie the Rockies (on a Pedro Alvarez home run), only to lose in the bottom of the inning.

So the Cardinals leave Monday with a huge win. The Reds leave concerned. The Pirates leave it wondering if they really want to pull the trigger on a Justin Upton trade, if such a possibility actually exists.

Call it another wild, unpredictable night in the NL Central. I suspect there are plenty more of these left.

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Rickie Weeks
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