SweetSpot: Mike Leake

Reds' Leake, Frazier have big parts to play

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
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When you look at the Reds and Pirates, it’s easy to get caught up in the big stars: Andrew McCutchen and Joey Votto, both National League MVPs, both leading candidates for the face of the game, both of them engines to power the possible in two NL Central cities with postseason expectations. But after completing Monday’s slugfest and then seeing Mike Leake outpitch Pirates ace apparent Gerrit Cole on Tuesday night, it’s important to remember that there’s a lot more to both ballclubs.

If either team is going to make it to October, they’ll need more than just Votto or McCutchen doing their thing, so perhaps the most interesting things to take from two bruising boxscores were the performances of some of the other guys. A big part of any Reds’ bid to contend is going to be their getting big years from that young, sturdy rotation, and whether Leake can repeat last year’s breakout season is a big part of that.

So far, the indications are strong that he’s going to be able to continue beating people with that big sinker-change combo that started coming together for him last season after he worked hard to add a changeup to his repertoire in the spring. Beyond eight strikeouts Leake got nine ground-ball outs on Tuesday against just three in the air, a nice encore after a 17-5 grounder/fly split in his eight shutout innings against the Cardinals last time out. Short right-handers without a big fastball may never be reliably popular, but if Leake keeps inducing ground-ball outs at this rate, the Gap’s fences will end up seeming that much farther away. Add in his outshining Cole, and it had to be an especially satisfying game for Reds fans.

Another nice development for Cincinnati? Seeing Jonathan Broxton nail down his first save of the season. Not that we should get too worked up about it -- the Broxton bandwagon might only come in a subcompact after several disappointing seasons since his Dodgers heyday -- but with so many teams struggling to find a serviceable guy to finish games, if Broxton can be adequate for a couple months, or even split the gig with Sean Marshall until Aroldis Chapman comes back, they could be better off than many teams with bigger names blowing ballgames in the ninth.
[+] EnlargeTodd Frazier
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesTodd Frazier celebrates mashing his fifth home run of the season.

The other guys worth following closely in the early going were part of the reason why there so many crooked numbers in both boxscores. That’s because they both might have some breakout potential in them: Reds third baseman Todd Frazier and Pirates second baseman Neil Walker.

Frazier's happy news was his clouting the sixth-inning two-run homer to right field off Cole that gave the Reds the lead (cemented by Leake's two-run blast). It was his fourth homer of the year, a great start for a guy looking to forget his 2013, not to mention his epic collapse in September 2012. Not that it took much, but Frazier is already one of the most reliable righty power sources in the brief history of the Great American Ballpark since it opened for business in 2003. Among right-handed hitters with 500 or more career at-bats in the Gap, he’s fifth all-time in slugging percentage (.467) and Isolated Power (.210), trailing Rich Aurilia, Scott Rolen, Jonny Gomes and Edwin Encarnacion -- none of them still with the Reds. (Heck, Aurilia and Rolen are both out of baseball.) And while Brandon Phillips has lost sixty points of slugging when he’s hitting anywhere but in his home park (.463 home, .402 everywhere else), Frazier’s career .186 ISO on the road reflects a power stroke that should play anywhere.

Thanks to his hot start, if Frazier can put up something more like the .500 SLG he almost delivered as a rookie, he’s going to be a more important part of the Reds’ offense batting behind Votto and Phillips and Jay Bruce than headline hog Billy Hamilton will ever be starting in front of them. Indeed, as Mark Simon noted earlier today, Bruce is fighting a war of adjustments he isn’t winning early as infields shift heavily against him, while Phillips is being Phillips. The guy who might be able to step up for the Reds is Frazier.

As for the Pirates' Walker, they know something about anticipation too. In the broad strokes, you might wonder what happened to him after his rookie season in 2010, when he put up an .811 OPS. In the three years since, he’s bounced around on a slightly lower level, from .742 to .768 to .757, all good seasons, all reflecting a good player, but all that notch below his big rookie season and the expectations you might have spun from it. It’s the difference between a good player and the second star player the Pirates don’t really seem to have in their lineup beyond McCutchen. It’s the kind of seeming stability that encouraged a projected .748 OPS for him from Dan Szymborski before the season.

However, not that Walker is on a tear after ripping three home runs in his last two game, it’s worth identifying trends in his performance record that can make you think that maybe he’s just now putting it all together. Last year, his walk rate went past nine percent for the first time. His .167 Isolated Power in 2013 matched that of his career high from his rookie season. If not for a 50-point tumble in BABIP that same season, we might have been talking about a guy coming off a classic age-27 peak season last year. Instead, we got those aggregate numbers over the past three years that make it seem as if he’s been standing in place.

Which is a long way of saying we’re little more than two weeks into what should be an exciting season in the NL Central, and there’s a lot to look forward to.


Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.

Reds' Leake coming into his own

August, 16, 2013
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As we head into the stretch run, the Reds may be in third place in the NL Central, but they are among the heavy favorites to return to the postseason. And while an offense that features former MVP Joey Votto draws a lot of the attention, this year it has been their pitching that has been the key component to their success, not least because of the breakthrough season being delivered by Mike Leake.

A 2009 first-round pick out of Arizona State, Leake skipped the minors altogether by making the major league rotation in spring training in 2010. He was never going to wow people with overpowering stuff as much as he was going to outfox hitters with a five-pitch assortment he could throw for strikes. His subsequent three seasons of workmanlike results (28-22, 4.23 ERA) might have reflected both the positive and negative results of picking a polished college pitcher: close enough to be ready to contribute almost immediately, but a guy with limited upside despite his relative youth.

That held true until this year, Leake's age-25 season, because Leake is putting up his best season yet, with a career-best 2.86 ERA and a 10-5 record. Switch to Fielding-Independent Pitching and its substantially more modest expectations because of Leake's low strikeout rate, and he's still putting up a career-best 4.00 FIP. Not shabby for the guy slotted fifth in the rotation at the start of the season, and someone many analysts wanted swapped out of the rotation for Aroldis Chapman.

[+] EnlargeMike Leake
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesMike Leake has 10 wins, a 2.86 ERA and a 3.3 WAR in 23 starts.
From the Reds' perspective, the timing could not have been better. With staff ace Johnny Cueto repeatedly bouncing back to the DL, they needed better results from their other horses, and Leake has helped them overcome Cueto's absence to produce one of the strongest top-to-bottom rotations in the league, making the Reds a pitching-dependent contender despite playing in a hitters' park. Heading into Friday night's action, the Reds rank second in the NL (behind the Braves) and third in the majors in quality starts with 73 (the Tigers hold the overall lead with 82), and third overall in runs allowed per game.

It's a quality to his ballclub that manager Dusty Baker clearly enjoys having. "Guys start dealing, and they start dealing in back-to-back starts, they're going to push each other. Our guys feed off that," Baker said.

What's especially remarkable is that with strikeout rates sitting at a modern all-time high just shy of 20 percent of all plate appearances, Leake is the rare command/control guy who is thriving even as his strikeout rates have dropped to a career-low 14.8 percent.

Baker is a confirmed fan, not just as a matter of results, but because of Leake's commitment to his craft. "He started out throwing well, and then he had a little down period, a period of adjustment. Last year he started out 0-5, but I had faith in him and our pitching coach had faith in him. But there were those who thought we should take him out of the rotation and replacing him with Aroldis Chapman. But we knew that he could pitch," Baker said.

"He worked hard this winter, really worked on his changeup. He's one of the better athletes that we have, and he's fearless. You would think that he thinks he's 6-5 and 235 [and not 5-10 and 185]. Velocity with no location isn't going to get you very far. Mike changes speeds, he has a pretty good idea of what he wants to do, and he's studied a lot. And he really, really looks up to Bronson. He pays attention," Baker added

That would be Bronson Arroyo, staff elder statesman and another pitcher who makes his living with a deep assortment as opposed to impressing the speed gun. Reviewing how Leake has come this far this season, Arroyo doesn't think that much has changed in terms of what he brings to bear, so much as Leake has learned how to use what he has going for him to best effect.

"There's nothing glaring that Mike's doing differently this year as opposed to previously in terms of his stuff," Arroyo noted. "He's always had a good cutter, a sinker and he's had good command the slider; I saw him work a lot on his changeup in spring training, which has been a little bit of a factor. But I really think for him it was a gradual process of watching what was going on at the big league level."

The notoriously hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park doesn't make adjusting to the majors any easier, especially for a pitcher who, like Leake, is more dependent on outcomes on balls in play. "It's tough to be a control pitcher in our ballpark, with our park's dimensions," Baker observes.

More philosophically, Arroyo figures, "If you keep guys off the barrel of the bat, it really doesn't matter which ballpark you're in -- most of the time it's going to work out in your favor. There are probably seven to 10 times a year when any one of us is going to get burned in our ballpark, when a ball to right-center field off a right-hander's bat goes into the first two rows and you feel like that would have been caught anywhere else in the game. But for the most part, between home plate and the pitcher's mound is what matters. If you get it done there, it doesn't matter what's behind you."

Big fans of either Voros McCracken's Defense-Independent Pitching Statistics and Don Miguel Ruiz's Four Agreements can equally rejoice over that mindset, of a pitcher trying to control only that which you have some control over.

Arroyo believes universal off-the-field and personal experiences have come into play in Leake's success. "I just think for Mike, it's very difficult at this level, no matter how much experience you've had anywhere else, to really be who you were at those other places. It's taken Mike some time and it takes all of us some time; it took me three and a half years," Arroyo said. "Now he's finally showing what he can do in an environment where he's comfortable enough to deal with the pressure. Pressure on the field is a different thing, and the only way you can deal with it is if you're comfortable everywhere else.

"He didn't have any minor league experience, so he was very green when he came here," Arroyo observed. "I don't think he realized how long the season was and how much of a toll that was going to take from a pitcher's body over a long period of time. It took a little while for him to build a program, and that's where I think I've helped: His watching me on a day-to-day basis and realizing that you have to be a little bit OCD in this game if you want to be successful. He had to figure out a program of what to do, year after year after year. That's the biggest difference I've seen with him. Once he started having some success, having that trust in that regime that you've built is working. Once he got that confidence, he's been unstoppable since."

Baker adds, "When you're young like that, you're going to go through periods of adjustment. I don't think some people understand that it's not that easy, not just to get to the top but to stay at the top, especially when you haven't gone to the minor leagues."

But now that Leake is cruising, Baker is clearly ready for more of the same as Leake gets older. "He's going to get stronger. He's kind of a Greg Maddux-type of pitcher -- not to put that kind of pressure on him, but he's a Maddux type. He studies, he has an idea of what he has to do, he adapts to the situation. A lot of strikeout pitchers, they just strike out guys, but after they get that first guy out, they haven't thought about the next guy. Mike pitches for the double play when he can, gets a strikeout when he needs it, and he just knows what he wants to do out there."

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

Overstocked rotations worth watching

December, 31, 2012
12/31/12
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Aaron HarangDenis Poroy/Getty ImagesThe Dodgers should wait to see how their starters work out before looking to move a pitcher like Aaron Harang.
This time of year, it's easy to look at 40-man rosters around the game and wonder how teams are going to fit everybody into their regular-season rotation. The overstocked starting staffs of the Dodgers and Cardinals might seem to demand action, for example, but not so fast. Credit their general managers and a few other decision-makers with sitting tight.

Consider the Dodgers. It might seem that their cup runneth over after adding Zack Greinke and Korea's Hyun-Jin Ryu. On paper, they have eight plausible options in their rotation, including Clayton Kershaw, Josh Beckett, Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang, Chad Billingsley and Ted Lilly.

That number gives you a sense of mass that's far more certain than the identity of the Dodgers' final five. Billingsley was hitting the mid-90s during rehab work in November, but there's ongoing concern over his elbow. Lilly is supposed to be all the way back from shoulder surgery in spring training, but we'll see how he looks once he reports. Capuano's second-half fade in 2012 on top of a long list of surgeries (including two Tommy John procedures) don't add up to a sure thing.

So they have to make a deal, right? Staff-filling No. 4 pitchers like Harang and Capuano aren't liable to bring much in return. The Dodgers might be asked to eat considerable cash given the back-loaded deals Ned Colletti gave the two pitchers.

If you're Colletti, why hurry or worry until you see what shape everyone is in, and who's ready to go in the latter half of March?

Similarly, the Cardinals' situation looks good on paper, but perhaps not so much when you ponder their past. Getting Chris Carpenter back to round out a rotation featuring Adam Wainwright, Jaime Garcia, Jake Westbrook and either Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly or top prospect Shelby Miller might allow GM John Mozeliak deal from a position of strength.

But would the Cardinals, after getting by without Carpenter and Wainwright at the same time for most of the past two seasons, trade either in their final seasons before free agency? That would hamper the Cardinals' bid to win one more title armed with both, and absent somebody coughing up a top-shelf middle infielder, they're not a team with many needs.

Sticking with the NL Central, the Reds' decision to move Aroldis Chapman back into the rotation might make it seem like Mike Leake is extraneous. But why should Walt Jocketty deal Leake before seeing how well the Cuban Missile takes off while pitching every fifth day? And where would dealing Leake leave the Reds should anyone get hurt in the early going?

You don't even have to be a contender to want to join the ranks of hoarders. The Cubs' decision to sign veterans Edwin Jackson, Scott Feldman, Scott Baker and Carlos Villanueva during a busy winter doesn't mean that both Travis Wood and Jeff Samardzija are out of their jobs. But it could mean that Matt Garza is now a bargaining chip who would become available after he shows that he's healthy this spring.

Baker is also working his way back from injury, so there will be plenty for the Cubs' brass to monitor. The freedom to deal a pitcher as good as Garza can be in his last year before free agency -- and the possible draft compensation he'd create on departure -- could bring in some sorely needed talent to their rebuilding effort.

Which all goes toward saying that right now it's sensible to carry six or seven or more starters and let events and availability dictate your actions if you're a GM. Wait and see who breaks down, on your team or everyone else's, because inevitably somebody will.

Sensible as this may all be, some people are hurt by it. Kyle Lohse is the most obvious example. If a club wants to add a veteran starter, why go two years on a likely one-year wonder like Lohse, when you might wait and see if Garza is healthy and if the Cubs like one of your prospects?

On the other hand, if you're one of those teams that really could use Harang or the like to round out your rotation and complete your offseason plans, it's easier to wait out the next two months until the Dodgers may have to make a move than it is to sign him on the market.

If you're worried about a seemingly incomplete rotation on your hometown nine, don't sweat it -- the talent pool isn't just made up of who's left on the market, it also includes everybody on the other 29 teams. And if you're wondering about who's going to round out your starting quintet, don't worry -- it might just be a Dodger TBNL.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
You never want a series to turn on the health of a team’s ace, but here we are: The Cincinnati Reds, up 2 games to 0 and going home for three games, will need a Game 5 victory to advance to the NLCS.

With Johnny Cueto unavailable after his first-inning injury in Game 1, the Reds activated fifth starter Mike Leake to start on Wednesday. Leake was ineffective, Tim Lincecum delivered a huge performance in relief for the Giants, the Reds missed some early scoring opportunities, the Cincy bullpen was unable to hold the score close and we get one more game of baseball as the Giants won 8-3.

Quick thoughts:

  • [+] EnlargeSan Francisco's Tim Lincecum
    Andrew Weber/US PRESSWIRETim Lincecum pitched 4 1/3 innings of relief, striking out six and allowing just one run.
    Barry Zito started for the Giants, in part, according to Bochy, because the Giants had won the past 11 games he started. Zito’s ERA over those 11 games was 3.92, not much better than his season ERA of 4.15. He was better over his final five starts: 5-0, 2.35 ERA, 30.2 IP, 32 H, 9 BB, 23 SO, 1 HR. Zito had also allowed two just runs over two starts against the Reds, although he survived one of those despite six walks. That said, there were clear reasons why starting Zito over Lincecum was risky: The Reds hit left-handers much better and Zito had a huge platoon split this year: .823 OPS against right-handers (.281 average), .559 against left-handers (.209 average). Zito’s .468 slugging percentage allowed against right-handers was sixth-worst in the majors among pitchers with at least 100 innings. Anyway, when Zito predictably struggled, Brucy Bochy didn’t hesitate to go to the pen. When Dioner Navarro walked with two outs in the third, Bochy brought in George Kontos to face No. 8 hitter Drew Stubbs. Zito had only allowed two runs, but four hits and four walks, so he didn’t have anything working. Stubbs actually hit lefties OK but can’t hit righties at all, so good move to bring in Kontos, who got Stubbs to foul out. Keep in mind that Mike Leake is one of the best-hitting pitchers in the game, so it wouldn’t have made to walk Stubbs and have Zito face the pitcher.
  • More kudos to Bochy in the fourth inning when Kontos ran into trouble when Leake singled and Zack Cozart singled with one out. He brought in lefty Jose Mijares to face Joey Votto, who struck out, then brought in Lincecum. That move included a double-switch. When’s the last time we saw a LOOGY and a double-switch in the fourth inning? Lincecum faced Ryan Ludwick, fell behind 2-0, got a foul ball off a fastball, and then threw two vintage, nasty Lincecum changeups to strike him out.
  • Yes, Lincecum didn’t have a good year, but he came through when the Giants most needed him, pitching 4.1 innings, allowing one run with six strikeouts and no walks. When the Giants scored three in the top of the seventh, it gave Bochy an easy decision to extend Lincecum through the eighth and not be forced to burn through his entire bullpen.
  • Dusty Baker’s lineup choices ended up hurting him in this game. First, Ryan Hanigan should have started behind the plate. Hanigan had a .455 OBP against left-handers this season, and owns a career .405 OBP against lefties. How can he not be in this lineup? Sure enough, in the first inning, Navarro struck out with the bases loaded to end the threat after Zito had walked the bases full.
  • Angel Pagan had great at-bats all day for the Giants. He led the game off with a line shot home run on an 0-1 cutter. He walked in the second (although was caught stealing). He doubled in a run in the fifth. He lined out to deep right-center in the seventh, to move Joaquin Arias from second to third. One of the best trades of the offseason ended up being the Giants stealing Pagan from the Mets for Andres Torres and Ramon Ramirez.
  • Questions for Game 5: Will Brandon Belt be back at first base for the Giants? Considering Stubbs hit .186 against righties, with Matt Cain starting, does Baker play Chris Heisey in center field? Heisey hit .262 against righties, although much power or walks. Stubbs probably has a little better chance of accidentally running into a fastball. Presumably, Hanigan and Scott Rolen will be back for the Reds. Will Baker extend Aroldis Chapman past three outs? How aggressively will Bochy use his left-handers in the bullpen to face Votto and Jay Bruce? Mat Latos is a good pitcher, so it should be a low-scoring game. Managerial moves and bullpen usage will likely play a key role in this game. I can’t wait.
  • There is no momentum in baseball.
We haven't had too many controversial lineup decisions yet this postseason, but here's a big one: Bruce Bochy will sit Brandon Belt in Game 4, move Buster Posey to first base and play Hector Sanchez at catcher. Chris Quick of Bay City Ball does not like the move.

Some other links to check out:
That was one of the more entertaining games of the postseason, a classic pitching duel of sorts, with some interesting strategic decisions and some missed opportunities. The Cincinnati Reds will be kicking themselves for not taking advantage of one of the best-pitched games in Reds postseason history and the San Francisco Giants will be wondering how they’re still alive in a game where they got three hits in 10 innings and struck out 16 times. For the rest of us, we’ll get more baseball!

Some thoughts on the Giants’ 2-1 victory:

  • As dominant as Aroldis Chapman was in the ninth inning, getting two strikeouts while throwing just 15 pitches, I was a little surprised he didn’t come back out for the 10th inning. Chapman pitched more than one inning eight times this season, but only twice after becoming the closer, a 1.2-inning save May 27 and a four-out save Aug. 10. Factoring in the shoulder fatigue that sidelined Chapman for 11 days in September, maybe Reds manager Dusty Baker is wary about using Chapman for more than an inning. The trouble is it’s a big drop-off from Chapman to Jonathan Broxton. Of course, it’s a big drop from Chapman to just about any reliever not named Craig Kimbrel.
  • As is, despite giving up two singles to start the inning, Broxton would have escaped the 10th if not for shoddy Reds defense. After he struck out Brandon Belt and Xavier Nady, Ryan Hanigan's passed ball allowed the runners to move up and then Scott Rolen mishandled Joaquin Arias' chopper to third base. The sloppy defense in this postseason continues. Giants manager Bruce Bochy made a couple interesting choices that inning: He let Belt swing away with two on and no out. I would say most managers would have bunted there about 99 percent of the time. I didn’t mind the call. Belt has never had a sacrifice bunt in his brief career and he was the Giants' best chance to deliver a hit. Bochy then let pitcher Sergio Romo hit with runners at first and second. Again, I liked the call. Romo is the Giants’ best reliever; Bochy had used the other relievers you might want to use. Plus, Bochy had used up his bench; only backup catcher Hector Sanchez was left.
  • Xavier Nady and Xavier Paul. Discuss. Or not. Man, these two benches are horrible.
  • Keith Law and Eric Karabell talked about an interesting point on the Baseball Today podcast today, wondering if the Yankees aren’t better off moving up Robinson Cano in the order. He hit cleanup on Monday, and was left in the on-deck circle as Alex Rodriguez made the final out. Keith’s point is that batting lineups don’t matter all that much, but one obvious benefit of stacking your best hitters at the top is you may get them one more plate appearance. That’s the problem with the Reds batting Zack Cozart and his .288 OBP second. He made the final out, leaving Joey Votto on deck.
  • Not to bury Homer Bailey's awesome start. You can see why he pitched a no-hitter two starts ago as he took a no-hitter to two outs in the sixth (although the Giants had scored on a hit-by-pitch, walk and two sacrifices). The walk to No. 8 Brandon Crawford proved especially painful and kudos to pitcher Ryan Vogelsong for a good bunt and Angel Pagan for delivering the sac fly. Considering Bailey had thrown just 88 pitches, you can argue that Baker took him out too early. I can't fault Baker for handing the game to the best bullpen in baseball, but the Giants couldn't touch Bailey on this night.
  • Bailey’s game score of 80 was the fourth highest in Reds postseason history, behind Hod Eller’s 89 in Game 5 of the 1919 World Series against a team that wasn’t trying to win (9 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 9 SO) and Ross Grimsley’s 84 in Game 4 of the 1972 NLCS (9 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 5 SO). Jose Rijo’s win to clinch the sweep of the A’s in the 1990 World Series (8.1 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 9 SO) scores a 91. And, yes, this was just an excuse to mention Hod Eller.
  • Brandon Phillips' hustle effort in the first inning when he got thrown out at third base is one of those plays described as a “baserunning error” if you don’t make it but “heads-up baseball” if you do. The argument against trying to get the extra base is that with zero outs there is a little reward if you do make it (you’re already in scoring position) but a huge penalty if you get caught. As it turned out, Vogelsong labored through a 30-pitch inning and Phillips’ hustle cost the Reds a potential big inning.
  • Vogelsong did a nice job of settling down after that inning. He walked Votto and Ryan Ludwick in the third, but got Jay Bruce on a fly to left. Bruce swung at the first pitch, which isn’t necessarily the worst idea if he thinks a pitcher is going to groove something after two walks. Bochy hit for Vogelsong leading off the sixth, again not a bad idea considering the circumstances. Vogelsong had thrown 95 pitches, the Reds had Votto and Bruce due up the next inning and the Giants were still hitless at the time. It was the one opportunity Bochy knew he could use Aubrey Huff against a right-hander, without the possibility of the Reds bringing in Sean Marshall or Chapman. Huff just isn’t a big weapon right now.
  • As I write this, the Reds haven’t announced their Game 4 starter. It could be Johnny Cueto, but that seems unlikely. It could be Mat Latos, three days after throwing 57 pitches in Game 1. It could be Mike Leake, but to activate him they’d have to replace Cueto, which would make him ineligible for the National League Championship Series, should the Reds advance. If they go with Latos, that would likely mean starting Bronson Arroyo on three days’ rest in a potential Game 5. No easy calls here, but I’d probably go Latos and Arroyo, and rely on the deepest bullpen in the league. The Giants counter with Barry Zito -- and you know Bochy will have a quick hook. The Reds had a .770 OPS against left-handers compared to .710 versus righties, so if Zito struggles early don’t be surprised to see Tim Lincecum again in relief. Should be a good chess match yet again.

 
First base: Now that's a bad week. Closer John Axford was an important cog in Milwaukee's trek to the NLCS a year ago. After blowing two save chances in early April, he converted his final 43 opportunities. It's been a different story in 2012. On Tuesday, he gave up back-to-back homers to Colby Rasmus and Jose Bautista as the Blue Jays rallied for a 10-9 victory in a good old-fashioned slugfest. By old-fashioned, we mean 2002. (Sometimes we miss those high-scoring games.) Anyway, Axford blew saves last Wednesday and Thursday in 4-3 losses to the Royals, giving him three blown saves in a seven-day span. He's allowed runs in five of his past eight appearances. Big win for the Blue Jays, who slammed six home runs (two each from Rasmus and Bautista) as Brewers rookie Tyler Thornburg surrendered four bombs in his major league debut.

Second base: Streak over. The Braves ended the Yankees' win streak at 10 games, preventing the Yanks' first 11-game streak since 1985. Three keys plays: After two errors got Tim Hudson into a jam in the fourth inning, he struck out Curtis Granderson with two outs on the bases loaded on a nifty 77-mph changeup; the go-ahead run came in the sixth on Jason Heyward's two-out smash off Mark Teixeira's heel -- a tough play but one the Gold Glove first baseman usually makes; Chipper Jones, who made an ugly error in that fourth inning, atoned when he backhanded Teixeira's grounder in the seventh and threw out Granderson at home plate.

Third base: Umm, about that greatest relief season ever ... Speaking of relievers, Aroldis Chapman gave up a two-run bomb to Asdrubal Cabrera in the bottom of the 10th inning as the Reds lost 3-2 to the Indians. Chapman has now picked up losses in three of his past six appearances and been scored upon in four of those appearances. That's two straight one-run wins for the Indians in the battle of Ohio. Maybe the best sign for the Reds was Mike Leake throwing seven strong innings; he's now gone at least seven in four of his past six starts and is perhaps finally settling into a little run of consistency.

Home plate: Tweet of the day. Rays reliever Joel Peralta was ejected for having a foreign substance on his glove. Apparently, as manager Joe Maddon tweeted, the Nationals violated some sort of baseball code.

Kernels of Wisdom: Week in review

May, 26, 2012
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  • Nelson Cruz's seventh-inning grand slam on Friday night capped off an eight-RBI performance as the Rangers downed Toronto 14-3. Or should we say, another eight-RBI performance. Cruz had one last season (July 22, also against Toronto). Combined with Josh Hamilton's four-homer game earlier in the month, the last three eight-RBI performances have all been posted by Rangers.
  • Oakland got one-hit again on Tuesday, this time by the Angels and C.J. Wilson. Last Saturday they had already joined Minnesota and Pittsburgh as the only teams to get no-hit or one-hit twice this season. Not a single team had it happen three times in 2011. The Athletics have done it three times before Memorial Day.
  • [+] EnlargeShin-Soo Choo
    Jason Miller/US PresswireShin-Soo Choo hopes to keep getting the Indians off to soaring starts.
  • The Indians' Shin-Soo Choo led off Thursday night's game against Detroit with a solo home run. It was not just Cleveland's first leadoff homer this season, it was its first home run in the first inning this season. The Indians were the last team to not have a first-inning home run yet in 2012.
  • The focus is always on Stephen Strasburg when he pitches. Last Sunday, however, it was on his hitting. Strasburg not only hit the second home run by a pitcher this season, he also singled and scored another run before being replaced. It had been more than five years since a pitcher had a perfect, multi-hit day at the plate, scored at least twice and chipped in a home run. Kip Wells did it for the Cardinals on April 19, 2007. It was a first in Nationals/Expos franchise history. Mike Leake of the Reds, by the way, hit the third pitcher home run of the year on Monday.
  • Dan Haren threw a complete-game shutout Thursday against the Mariners. It was the latest in a series of impressive strikeout games as Haren racked up 14 of them (including Alex Liddi four times). But perhaps the most impressive part? Haren didn't walk a single batter.
    It's the most strikeouts to be recorded in a zero-walk shutout since Erik Bedard racked up 15 against the Rangers on July 7, 2007. And it's a first (shutout with 14-plus strikeouts and no walks) in Angels franchise history.
  • Giancarlo Stanton’s grand slam on Monday, off Jamie Moyer, left the bat at 133 mph (courtesy ESPN's Home Run Tracker team) and knocked out part of the video board beyond the left-field seats. Stanton joins Brandon Inge as the only players this season with multiple slams.
    It was Stanton's fourth career slam. In 24 seasons in the majors, Moyer has allowed only eight. The last on Aug. 26, 2004, to Abraham Nunez of the Royals.
  • Since the start of 2010, the Marlins now lead the National League in grand slams hit; Monday’s was their 12th (one more than the Cardinals, Reds, and Braves).
  • The Cubs, already having enough trouble scoring runs (28th out of 30 teams), posted 10 hits on Friday against the Pirates. They failed to score a single run. All the hits were singles, and they went 0-for-12 with runners in scoring position.
    They're the only team this year to reach double digits in hits and still get shut out. It happened just once in 2011 (June 18, by the Dodgers). The Cubs have had one other such game in the past 20 years (June 22, 2009, at Atlanta).

Reds getting production from all over

May, 24, 2012
5/24/12
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The Reds received a game-changing grand slam in the sixth inning to take a 5-2 lead against the Braves on Thursday night, leading to their sixth consecutive victory and their first sweep of the Braves since 1980. It wasn’t superstar Joey Votto who provided the knockout punch, nor was it mainstays Brandon Phillips or Jay Bruce. The home run came off the bat of one of the Reds’ many unheralded young players: 23-year-old rookie catcher Devin Mesoraco.

The blast also marked Cincinnati’s 10th home run of the series, leading to 14 of its 16 runs in the series. Winning with home runs is nothing new for this Reds squad, not at Great American Ball Park and certainly not in the Joey Votto era. But Votto didn’t hit a single homer in the series. Neither did Bruce. Phillips hit two. Instead of the three stalwarts on this Reds squad, it was the supporting cast leading the way: Mesoraco (1), Drew Stubbs (3), Zack Cozart (2), Todd Frazier (1) and Mike Leake (1).

[+] EnlargeCincinnati Reds
AP Photo/Al BehrmanDevin Mesoraco's grand slam in the sixth inning on Thursday put the Reds ahead for good.
Leake’s homer backed up a quality start on Monday, and the other home runs backed up quality starts from Mat Latos (Tuesday), Bronson Arroyo (Wednesday) and Homer Bailey (Thursday). The Reds saw scoreless outings from five different relievers and saves converted by three. To accomplish this in any series is excellent; to do so against the second-highest-scoring team in the league in one of the best hitters’ parks in all of baseball is another.

Depth and pitching have set this year’s Reds squad apart from last year’s version, a preseason favorite for the National League Central crown that was eventually lapped by both the Brewers and Cardinals. The 2011 season saw a 156 OPS+ from Votto and 119 OPS+ marks from both Phillips and Bruce. No other full-time starters came close; only part-time players Chris Heisey (113), Ramon Hernandez (113) and Miguel Cairo (101) even mustered an above average mark.

This season has seen the likes of Paul Janish, Edgar Renteria and Jonny Gomes excised in favor of Cozart (.727 OPS) and Frazier (.887). It has seen Stubbs come to life after three horrible series to open the year -- he owns a .266/.324/.430 line since April 17 to go with his typical fantastic defense. It’s seen Ryan Hanigan pick up his game as well, with a .794 OPS in 27 games as the starting catcher.

Johnny Cueto owns a phenomenal 2.22 ERA over 33 starts dating back to May 2011, but it was the other four Cincinnati starters who held down the Braves this week. Latos started out cold, but has a 2.35 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 23 innings in May. Arroyo has a 121 ERA+ after allowing a near-record 46 home runs last season, owning an absurd 44-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his first 58.2 innings. Bailey and Leake have had their rough spots, but they fit well in the back of the Reds’ rotation -- a tough job with half of their starts coming in the bandbox in Cincinnati.

The bullpen has established itself as one of the league’s best. Regardless of what one thinks Aroldis Chapman’s role should be, it is undeniable that he is the league’s best reliever. In the four-game sweep of the Braves, he pitched two more scoreless innings. Chapman fronts a bullpen full of talented pitchers: Jose Arredondo, Logan Ondrusek and Alfredo Simon all own ERA+ marks of 137 or higher. Sean Marshall shouldn’t be counted out either despite a rough start -- he was one of the best relievers in baseball over the past two seasons.

The Reds currently sit atop the NL Central, with a half-game lead over the Cardinals. As usual, Votto, Phillips, Cueto and Bruce lead the way. But if the Reds maintain their current success and carry it through to a playoff run, it will be because this year they didn’t have to do it all themselves.
For a few brief moments on Monday night, it appeared the Cincinnati Reds would slide past the St. Louis Cardinals into first place in the NL Central. The Reds had defeated the Braves 4-1 behind a brilliant effort from Mike Leake and four solo home runs. The Padres were leading the Cardinals late in their game, until Tyler Greene's two-run homer in the eighth lifted the Cards to a 4-3 victory.

Still ... half a game. Half a game. Cardinals fans have to be wondering how this happened.

Considering the hot starts many of the Cardinals jumped out to -- Rafael Furcal, Jon Jay, Carlos Beltran and three-fifths of the rotation in Kyle Lohse, Lance Lynn and Jake Westbrook -- the Cardinals can only look back and wonder why they're not five or six games in front of the Reds. After all, St. Louis' run differential is +58; Cincinnati's is only +3.

I'd call it an opportunity squandered, because now the Reds are breathing down their necks and they're probably here to stay. Hey, there has to be at least two good teams in the NL Central, right?

With all the talk about who should be closing in Cincinnati, the biggest issue with the pitching staff has been Leake. He entered winless in seven starts -- at 0-5, he joined Chris Volstad and Francisco Liriano as the only pitchers without a win and at least five decisions -- but wasn't just reeling from a lack of run support. He'd allowed at least three runs each start, had a 6.21 ERA, a .309 batting average allowed and just 21 strikeouts in 37.2 innings.

Leake walked Martin Prado with one out in the first but struck out Freddie Freeman and Dan Uggla. In the second, Juan Francisco homered, but Leake then retired 14 in a row before Uggla doubled in the seventh. He finished with eight innings, just those two hits and six K's. For Leake, his biggest issue before Monday night had been an ineffective changeup, usually a good pitch for him. In 2010-2011, opponents hit .252 off his changeup but they were hitting .529 in at-bats ending with a changeup in 2012.

He appeared to compensate by throwing more cutters against the Braves -- 28 out of 98, the second-most he's thrown in a start this season. Of course, it helped that he was ahead of hitters much of the night, throwing just two pitches on three-ball counts; in his previous three starts, he'd thrown 31 pitches with three balls. Pitching is easier when you don't have to groove a pitch to avoid a walk.

Leake also sparked the Cincinnati offense in the fourth inning, when he homered off his friend Mike Minor (Minor was the seventh pick in the 2009 draft, Leake the eighth, and the two were teammates on Team USA). Zack Cozart and Drew Stubbs followed with home runs to give the Reds back-to-back-to-back blasts. While it was Leake's first career blast, he's a legitimate threat at the plate with a .271 career average.

The four solo shots do highlight a big problem with the Reds' offense, however. Outside of Joey Votto this lineup is completely hacktastic -- working the count is not exactly a disease that has spread from Votto to everyone else. Even with Votto's MLB-leading 40 walks, the Reds rank just 11th in the NL in free passes, and despite playing in a hitter-friendly home park, their .697 team OPS is tied for 10th in the league. After Votto, Jay Bruce is second on the team with 12 walks -- quadruple that total and you have a guy on pace for 48. Home run boys Cozart and Stubbs can flip the occasional long ball, but they've combined for just 22 walks and 86 strikeouts. Brandon Phillips has just eight walks. Votto gets walked a lot because he often comes up with nobody on base. (Memo to Dusty Baker: Try moving Bruce in front of Votto. Just consider it, please.)

Somewhere, Joe Morgan cringes.

When the Reds won the NL Central in 2010, they led the NL in runs scored. That team led the NL with 188 home runs and a .272 average while ranking ninth in walks. This offense doesn't show signs of matching the firepower of that lineup, not with Votto, Bruce and catcher Ryan Hanigan the only three sporting an OBP over .300.

That means the Reds are going to be in a lot of low-scoring games, which means the bullpen will prove key, especially since Leake's outing was only the 12th in 41 games where the Reds' starter has gone at least seven innings.

Which, inevitably, gets us back to Baker and how he handles the relief crew. It's certainly interesting that in the two days since Aroldis Chapman was "named" the team's closer that exiled closer Sean Marshall picked up the two most important outs.

On Sunday, with the Reds leading the Yankees 3-2 and a runner on with no outs in the eighth, Marshall retired Robinson Cano. Chapman came on for the easy save and faced the bottom of the Yankees lineup after the Reds had extended their lead to 5-2.

On Monday, with Chapman unavailable after pitching four times in five days, Marshall again delivered after Jose Arredondo walked Uggla and Brian McCann with two outs in the ninth. Brought on to face Jason Heyward, Marshall fell behind with a slider, threw two of his big-breaking curveballs for a called strike and a swinging strike, saw Heyward foul off another curve, threw a fastball down low, and then got Heyward to fly to right on another curve.

For all the consternation over who gets the capital C designation, it shouldn't really matter. Marshall is a very good reliever. Chapman has been a great one. Arredondo and Logan Ondrusek are solid right-handers and rookie J.J. Hoover has looked impressive. What Baker should avoid doing is getting trapped into saving Chapman for the ninth inning only -- which means fewer innings and fewer moments with the game on the line. Chapman is the guy you want in there when you need a big strikeout with runners on base in the eighth inning. Marshall, Arrendodo and Ondrusek can close out the three-run leads. Use Chapman and his bullpen mates wisely, and the Reds can stay in this race even with a mediocre offense.

As for the Cardinals, that hot start is a thing of the past. The injuries are mounting and that run differential has gone to waste. We're a quarter of the way into the season and we have a race.

Considering these two teams have some strong dislike for each other going back a couple years, it should be a fun summer in Central Land.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Neil WalkerJustin K. Aller/Getty ImagesSometimes things just pass you by... like Neil Walker leaving Mike Nickeas in the dust.
Homer BaileyRonald C. Modra /Getty ImagesAfter going 9-7 with a 4.43 ERA in 2011, Homer Bailey is battling for a rotation spot.
To put it delicately, Dusty Baker has a conflicted history with starting pitchers. There was that decision on the final day of the 1993 pennant race to give the ball to a rookie named Salomon Torres. Or handing the game ball to Russ Ortiz when he removed him with a lead in Game 6 of the 2002 World Series. Or letting Mark Prior rack up some astronomical pitch counts back in 2003.

Now Dusty has another tough decision to make: Who starts for his Cincinnati Reds? As I said on Thursday's Baseball Today podcast, it could be the most crucial decision any manager makes in 2012.

You see, Baker has options. Most managers are forced to make a decision only by a certain string of events -- one player gets hurt, you go with your next-best option or whomever management calls up from Triple-A. You rarely even see position battles in spring training anymore. But for Baker and the Reds, it's not that simple. Once you get past Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos and Mike Leake, the Reds have four options for the rotation: Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey, Aroldis Chapman and Jeff Francis. Having options is a good thing, of course. But what makes those four players so intriguing is that any of the four could work out; any of the four could blow up.

Here's a review of the four:

Bronson Arroyo: After winning 17 games with a 3.88 ERA in 2010, the Reds' inexplicably gave him a two-year extension through 2013 at $23.5 million. Bronson did have a good year in 2010, but he was still a home run-prone pitcher with a declining strikeout rate. Among 92 qualified starters that year, he ranked 82nd in K's per nine. In 2011, he ranked 86 of 93 ... and his home runs allowed skyrocketed to 46, the third-highest single-season total ever. So while there's a very good chance he's done, he's also owed a lot of money. And he's a veteran. Dusty loves those veterans. He hasn't pitched well this spring -- nine innings, two home runs, three walks, three strikeouts.

Homer Bailey: The seventh pick in the 2004 draft, we've been hearing about Bailey ever since, first as a prospect and then as perennial disappointment. His ERA didn't reflect it, but he did make some progress in 2011, cutting his walks to 2.3 per nine while maintaining an acceptable strikeout rate (7.2 per nine). I penciled him as a good breakout candidate. He hasn't pitched well: 11.1 innings, three home runs, six walks, three strikeouts -- although he did pitch four scoreless innings in his last outing.

Aroldis Chapman: The big Cuban with the 100-mph fastball is being given a chance to start again after spending 2011 in the Reds' bullpen, where he was unhittable (.147 average allowed) but Ricky Vaughn-esque (41 walks in 50 innings). Does he have the stamina to last as a starter? In seven innings in big league spring games he's allowed just one walk with seven K's.

Jeff Francis: Signed to a minor league deal, the veteran left-hander has looked good this spring with no walks and eight strikeouts in 13 innings.

What does Baker do? Bailey is out of options so has to remain on the roster. He could go to the bullpen but the Reds are already seven deep there. Chapman could be sent down to Triple-A to get more starts under his belt, although that would deprive Baker of a big bullpen weapon. Francis has said he'll report to Triple-A if required.

The easiest solution is probably to send Chapman down and let him make at least a few starts in Triple-A. The issue there: What if he's better than Bailey? What if Arroyo can't curb his gopherball issues? How long do you stick with either guy? The Reds don't project as a powerhouse, so every game could be crucial to making the playoffs or just missing the playoffs.

The spotlight is intense on Baker. I can't wait to see what he and GM Walt Jocketty decide to do.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.

Reds' rotation demands tough choices

November, 18, 2011
11/18/11
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Johnny CuetoJoe Robbins/Getty ImagesJohnny Cueto heads a promising Reds rotation ... assuming he can stay healthy.

One of the reliable tropes about both general managers and managers is that everybody’s good at something. Some managers might be exceptionally good with getting the most out of a veteran roster, and some GMs might be especially effective in adding that talent. Certainly, in Cincinnati a win-now hook was part of the rationale behind enabling Walt Jocketty’s palace coup when he took over the Reds from Wayne Krivsky at the start of the 2008 season. That was certainly part of the reason why they’d already put Dusty Baker in the dugout as well.

And to some extent, you can call the last four seasons in Cincinnati a modest success. Through 2011, payroll had only grown 17 percent (before inflation). The Reds have significantly raised their performance margins within the old Bill James “Plexiglass Principle”: Instead of ping-ponging between 70 and 80 wins as they had during the Aughties, they’ve won 78, 91 and 79 games the past three years, a much happier range to be bouncing around.

And for all that, they’re about as exasperating a team as you could imagine, because Jocketty and Baker are supposed to deliver. Last season’s climb back down below 80 wins from their 2010 Central Division title was all the more disappointing because so many questions remain unanswered. Perhaps first and foremost among those questions is their rotation -- deep, talented and immensely frustrating.

Before the 2010 season, you could be understandably excited about the Reds’ rotation depth. In the abstract, a list with Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Homer Bailey, Edinson Volquez, Travis Wood and Aroldis Chapman on it is supposed to make you excited about a team’s near-term future.

Unfortunately, that was before so many things went wrong. For all that talent, the Reds rotation averaged a Game Score of 50 on the season, better than just four teams in the league. Cueto’s shot at winning the National League ERA title was squelched by shoulder woes early and neck problems late in the year. Chapman was sent to the pen, struggled with his command, and shipped to the minors, remaining in relief role after his return. Bailey landed on the disabled list twice, and it was his right shoulder both times, making it three times in two years that’s happened. Wood gave them 10 quality starts in his first 16, but the Reds were frustrated and shipped him to Triple-A for two months anyway. A couple of weeks later, Volquez followed him to Louisville, sporting an unintentional walk rate of 5.6 BB/9 while allowing 15 homers in 85 innings pitches.

That is not to say the picture’s entirely bleak. Bailey managed to notch quality starts in more than half his turns (13 out of 22), a career first for him. When healthy, Cueto is the ace they need to contend again. Leake turned in a fine sophomore season.

However, the FIPs for Bailey (4.02) and Leake (4.19) don’t suggest they’ll join Cueto at the front of the rotation. That’s also not any better than Wood (4.03 FIP), if the Reds are willing to give him a second chance. Volquez might not get even that; his name shows up in trade rumors, and despite the poor performance arbitration is only going to make him more expensive to employ the next two seasons.

Sorting out the Reds’ rotation to pick their best five guys is going to require judgment. But you could have said that about them last year too, only to see them wind up resurrecting Dontrelle Willis. Whatever the basis on which those choices are made -- scouting, stats or both -- the challenge for Jocketty this winter will be picking his ponies and then having Dusty watch them run. That sounds easy enough, but the problem is whether or not you can reasonably hope for the Reds to pick the right guys.

Take the Reds’ recent big-picture decisions, and the most recent developments. Last winter, Jocketty gave Bronson Arroyo a three-year, $35 million extension to be the rotation’s veteran workhorse. They were rewarded with a 46-homer season, the second-highest single-season tally in National League history. Sure, it’s clever to defer payments to lower the contract’s annual average value below $10 million per year, but it’s still a massive multi-year commitment to Bronson Arroyo, a nice mid-rotation innings-eater at the best of times. Unfortunately, the deal was to keep him around for his age-34 through age-36 seasons, which weren’t likely to be the best of times, and haven’t been.

Any hopes that the Reds might move Chapman back to the rotation any time soon are on hold after he came up with a sore shoulder in the Arizona Fall League. As a result, they scrapped plans to let him start in winter ball.

Cueto, Bailey and Chapman, all top young pitchers, all coming up sore-armed on Dusty Baker’s watch? Even if Baker is being more careful with young pitchers than he was with another talented trio in Chicago, we’ve certainly been here before.

And then there’s the Reds’ rumored interest in Jair Jurrjens of the Atlanta Braves. Jurrjens is also someone most statheads expect to see take a tumble in 2012, by as much as a full run given a 3.95 FIP to his 2.96 ERA. That’s assuming that the right knee that has shelved him three times in two years holds up, and that’s without getting to an additional pair of DL stints in the last two years for injuries to an oblique and a thigh.

On paper, adding another body to their rotation depth would seem like the last thing the Reds should be worrying about -- they already have seven guys for five slots, and they’re struggling to identify which ones are their real keepers. It certainly doesn't reflect well on their current crew, although teams willing to trade for any of the non-Arroyos wouldn't be hard to find. If Jurrjens is the solution, maybe it's the decision-making process that tells the Reds to go after him that is the problem.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
The weekend is over and it's time to get back to interesting baseball discussion ... so it was that Mark Simon and I recorded Monday's Baseball Today podcast , with myriad interesting subplots, which I will attempt to summarize here ...

1. It's Power Rankings day! Woohoo! Of course, Mark and I do not agree on which team should hold the top spot, or which surprise team comes in at No. 10, but it’s always interesting.

2. It's Davey Johnson day! The Washington Nationals have a new manager debuting, and while we might not be necessarily rooting for him, it's fun watching a struggling franchise compete.

3. It's Jose Reyes day! OK, enough of this theme. But hey, this is one of the most exciting players in baseball, and of course we disagree on whether the New York Mets should trade the guy.

4. What do you like to do at baseball games? I don't expect a wave of support for a certain act, but then again, someone should produce a rulebook of ballpark dos and don'ts. Perhaps our own Ebenezer Scrooge will do so!

5. Two emerging right-handers face off on ESPN2 Monday night, but there's a later game on the West Coast between "contenders" I've really got my eyes on.

Plus, excellent emails, infield hits for bad teams, David Clyde's day in history, the annoying Los Angeles Dodgers can’t pay the bills and really, so much more on Monday's Baseball Today podcast!
The Cincinnati Reds have one of the deepest starting rotations in the National League -- seven-deep, in fact -- and of the seven, six of them are ages 23-27.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Cueto
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesJohnny Cueto, who'd been on the disabled list with muscle irritation in his arm, pitched six shutout innings in his season debut May 8.
Edinson Volquez has shown flashes of being a potential No. 1 starter; Johnny Cueto already is a solid No. 2; Bronson Arroyo just wins 15 games and pitches 200 innings every year; Travis Wood has pinpoint control; Homer Bailey has the raw stuff to potentially become a No. 1; and Mike Leake and Sam LeCure are solid back-of-the-rotation arms. With one of baseball's best defensive teams behind this young, strong rotation, the Reds are built to be a World Series-contending team over the next several seasons.

Rotation depth should give them an advantage over the 162-game schedule. But the question remains: Can they compete in the playoffs? While the Phillies, Giants, Marlins, Rockies, Dodgers, Braves and Cardinals all have proven No. 1 starters, the Reds are hoping that either Volquez, Cueto or Bailey will develop into one. The hope is that they can compete with the likes of Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum and Josh Johnson come October in Games 1 and 7 of important playoff matchups. The potential is there.

Here is a breakdown of their starting rotation:

Volquez, 27, has an overpowering fastball at times (90-96 mph) with an excellent changeup, an effective curveball and a hard slider. He has quick arm speed out front with whip-like action. When he’s healthy, he’s shown he can be a strike thrower who goes right at hitters and pounds the zone. In fact, if you want to take a snapshot of his best pitching, it was the first half of 2008, when he went 12-3 with a 2.29 ERA and a WHIP of just 1.24. Some even nicknamed him "Mini-Pedro" for that short period of success. Since then, he’s had Tommy John surgery and a positive test for PEDs. The reality is he can’t control the baseball like he used to. In his past start, he walked five of the first 12 batters he faced. His WHIP is 1.6, he’s averaging seven walks per nine innings, and leads the league in walks with 33. Although he has the potential to be a No. 1, he looks more like a No. 3 starter, and the Reds are hoping the command and control come back sooner rather than later. The raw stuff is top-of-the-rotation talent.

Former Reds scout Johnny Almaraz recruited Cueto as an international signee . Cueto, 24, has a smaller frame with a powerful fastball in the 90-95 mph range. He’s aggressive and commands the fastball well. This has allowed him to realize getting outs on the ground can be as effective as strikeouts. He has a hard, tight slider that is deceptive enough to get him punch-outs out of the zone against even some of the league's better hitters. He has a plus changeup at times, and the cutter is also effective, especially against left-handed hitters. The Reds signed Cueto to a four-year, $27 million deal before spring training. Imagine the alarm when his shoulder started barking. But thanks to one of the best medical teams in baseball, led by Dr. Timothy Kremchek, they quickly put him on a strengthening program that has him healthy again and back on track to being a solid No. 2 starter.

Arroyo, 34, is one of the best No. 3 starters in baseball. He has won at least 15 games three years in a row and has pitched at least 200 innings every season since 2005. He’ll throw between 85-90 mph, with a big, slow curveball, an average slider with tilt, and an effective cutter. He varies speeds, plains, zones and really knows how to pitch. He’ll try to get you to chase, and he’ll try to fool you. He wins. He pitches innings. He has tremendous make-up and character and is the leader of this rotation. He is a straight shooter and a rock 'n' roller, with the hairdo, swagger and charm. Every fifth day the Reds can count on him keeping them in the game with a chance to win.

Wood, 24, is the lone lefty in the rotation. He is a competitor and a good athlete. His sinking fastball is mostly 88-91 mph with pinpoint control. He has an excellent changeup, a quality cutter, and his breaking balls -- a slider and a curveball -- have developed enough to be effective. His balls have late movement, and he keeps them out of the middle of the plate. He spent time in the offseason with Cliff Lee, working out and talking about pitching. Both Arroyo and catcher Ryan Hanigan rave about Wood and his ability to get outs with less stuff. Wood is a solid lefty who will always be referred to as a real estate pitcher, meaning location, location, location ... and late life.

Bailey, 25, has the highest ceiling of any of the Reds' starting pitchers. Like Cueto, Wood and Lecure, he was cross-checked and recommended by former Reds scout Jimmy Gonzales, who felt strongly Bailey would be a 15-18 game winner someday. Bailey had some minor injuries early in his career and used to be just a thrower. His stubbornness and inability to make adjustments due to immaturity frustrated the Reds' brass for years. However, last September, the maturity came, the light bulb went on, and Bailey is now ready to take off. His fastball is 90-96 mph with hard, arm-side sink. The pitch is so overpowering that at times he can throw it down the middle of the plate, tell the hitter it’s coming, and they still can’t catch up. When he was drafted, he had a big curveball that was his primary breaking pitch, but now his first breaking ball is a tight slider or cutter that is a lot more effective. His secondary offspeed pitch has improved dramatically; everything moves. He is a fierce competitor who is really coming into his own as he has learned how to pitch.

Leake, 23, the right-hander out of Arizona State, became the first player in a decade in the past season to make the major leagues without spending time in the minors. He rewarded the Reds in the first half by going 6-1 with a 3.53 ERA in 17 starts with a WHIP of 1.3 and was a ground-ball machine. Leake is not overpowering, but he used both sides of the plate and kept the ball down. The second half, however, was a different story once the innings racked up. Leake is now throwing out of the bullpen, but if there is an injury, he’ll be ready to step back into the rotation. At the back end of the rotation, he is certainly capable of winning 10-12 games.

LeCure, 27, went to school at the University of Texas and was academically ineligible to pitch in 2005. That didn’t stop the Reds from evaluating and drafting him after watching his bullpen sessions. His fastball can get up to 88-91 mph, and he commands his slider and changeup. LeCure is a tough kid with exceptional make-up, an over-achiever who can win at the back end of any rotation. He provides more valuable depth for the Reds.

The bottom line is that this is a really talented and deep rotation. If Volquez, Cueto and/or Bailey arrive at their fullest potential, the Reds may be celebrating at the White House and not just at Fountain Square in the Queen City or at one of Jeff Ruby’s famous downtown restaurants.

Thanks for reading, and I appreciate your comments, recommendations and retweets. You can follow me on Twitter: @JimBowdenESPNxm.
I picked the Reds to win the NL Central for several reasons, including:

1. Joey Votto. Canada’s hero gives the lineup a true superstar hitter.
2. Adam Wainwright's injury.
3. Concerns about Milwaukee’s defense and bullpen.
4. The Reds’ depth.

I’m going to focus on reason No. 4. The various projection systems all predict the National League as a complicated playoff struggle, with as many as 10 teams having a legitimate shot at the playoffs if things break right. Maybe 12 if you’re so inclined to include the Mets and Padres in that mix.

That means a key component becomes who avoids injuries, who doesn’t, and who has the depth to fill in.

Leake
AP Photo/David KohlMike Leake started 22 games as a 22-year-old rookie last season.
The Reds are already being tested, with Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey landing on the DL out of spring training, opening up rotation slots for Mike Leake and Sam LeCure. Here are Baseball Prospectus’ projections for those two:

Leake: 140 IP, 155 H, 50 BB, 92 SO, 4.88 ERA, 1.9 WARP (wins above replacement)
LeCure: 135 IP, 147 H, 53 BB, 100 SO, 4.86 ERA, 2.0 WARP

Those numbers may not blow you away, but they are very serviceable for sixth and seventh starters. Leake, who makes his 2011 debut Tuesday against Houston, in particular has some upside as a former No. 1 pick who jumped straight to the majors last season. The point isn’t that these two are necessarily stars, but that they’re solid replacements for Cueto and Bailey. Those two are projected for a combined 5.9 WARP, meaning the drop to Leake and LeCure is about two wins over a full season.

But it’s not just the rotation where the Reds have solid reserves.

Ryan Hanigan, who hit two home runs and reached base five times on Sunday, is the best backup catcher in the majors. He posted a .361 OBP in 2009 and .405 OBP in 2010. He can particularly destroy left-handed pitchers, a nice complement to Joey Votto and Jay Bruce if the opposition tries to stack its rotation with lefties. Power isn’t his forte, but he’s worked hard on his stroke, saying, “I want to be a dangerous guy.”

Ramon Hernandez remains the starter, with Hanigan serving as Bronson Arroyo’s personal caddy and playing regularly against lefties. Hanigan has tired in the second half in previous systems, thus Dusty Baker’s reluctance to increase his playing time beyond two or three times a week.

In the outfield, Chris Heisey is a nice fourth outfielder, a good glove at all three positions who can hit some. He had a 103 OPS+ as a rookie last year, a fair representation of his minor league numbers. Factoring in his defense, he may actually be an upgrade over regular left fielder Jonny Gomes. Paul Janish is the team’s starting shortstop and if he falters, Edgar Renteria is around. He’s past his prime, of course, but there are worse fallback options. Waiting in the minor leagues are top prospects like first baseman Yonder Alonso, a former first-round pick, catcher Devin Mesoraco, who hit 26 homers in the minors in 2010, and outfielder Dave Sappelt, who hit .361 in Double-A.

Finally, I’m more bullish on Travis Wood than most. Wood is a small, skinny lefty without overpowering stuff who nonetheless had excellent strikeout rates throughout the minors. He averaged 7.5 K’s per nine innings as a rookie and posted a 3.51 ERA. The caveat is that he’s an extreme flyball pitcher (32 percent groundball rate) but allowed just nine home runs in 102 2/3 innings, an impressive total considering his bandbox home park, and a .259 BABIP (batting average on balls in play). The analysts would say he’s unlikely to be so well-served by the baseball gods in 2011. ZiPS, however, projected him to a 3.64 ERA and if he can match or exceed that figure, the Reds have a solid No. 2 or 3 starter for their rotation.

Plus, they still have Joey Votto. Did I mention that?

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter at @dschoenfield. Follow the SweetSpot blog at @espn_sweet_spot.

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