Red Hot For Now

Memorial Day is the first benchmark of the Major League Baseball season. Although only about 50 games of the 162 game season have been played, at this point you start to have an idea of what teams are going to do. The early season surprises, such as the Kansas City Royals start coming back down to earth, and questions about rosters and pitching staffs start to settle into place. The Cincinnati Reds end this Memorial Day with a record of 25-26 and three games behind the Chicago Cubs in the National League Central. The Reds started out the season terribly, but had a hot month of May to reach the .500 mark, and for a few brief days, to climb over it and move within 1 game of the top spot. However, the same old problems that have existed for this team the past couple of seasons continue to hold them back.
The Reds have one major strength. They can hit home runs. They, actually, hit a lot of home runs, leading the National League with 78. Adam Dunn leads the league with 18, Lexington native Austin Kearns has 13, Aaron Boone has 13, and surprise addition from Louisville, Jose Guillen has 10. Of course, the fact they play in one of the smaller ballparks in America, the newly opened Great American Ballpark, helps. The other major positive in the Reds this season is that theywelltheynope that's it. They can hit home runs. That's it, that's your list. What they do not do well, that's a lot longer of a list.
You can start in the dugout, where manager Bob Boone has never been a favorite. Boone has the reputation of a micro-manager; someone who feels he knows so much about baseball that he likes to make moves simply to make moves. This is in contrast to former Reds manager Jack McKeon, who was basically a hands-off guy, but who won. Coincidently, McKeon is now the interim coach of the Florida Marlins, who completed a three game sweep of the Reds over the weekend with a 6-2 victory. This game featured the kind of managerial moves that leave many fans scratching their heads. Ken Griffey Jr., coming off a big injury, and probably at least another 4-6 weeks before his next one, had his best game of the season on Saturday going 4-for-4 with two home runs. So, obviously, Boone sat him on Sunday. He also took out first baseman Sean Casey, he of the .307 batting average, because the Marlins were pitching a tough left-handed pitcher. But he played the human wind machine Dunn, aka Dave Kingman 2003, who hung up an 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, and prospect emeritus Wily Mo Pena, whose 0-for-4 Sunday made him 2-for-24 for the year.
If it was not know that Boone was the manager for the Reds, you could make a pretty good argument that former Kentucky football coach Hal Mumme was heading the club. Their defense is not just bad, it is "Mike Major/Hal Mumme" bad. Most people will tell you that winning in the majors requires good pitching and defense. This is what the Atlanta Braves have been doing for the past decade, but someone forgot to give the Reds the memo. Cincinnati has the lowest fielding percentage in the Major Leagues and a league high 54 errors. The next-worst team, the Cubs, have 40 errors. You can combine their shoddy defense with their inability to pitch. If not for the San Diego Padres, the Reds would be the worst pitching staff in the National League. They have the second-worst earned run average at 5.70 and opponents are batting .284 against the Reds. This team for so long has placed a premium on acquiring hitters such as Dunn and Kearns, and others such as Ruben Mateo and Wily Mo Pena that never panned out, over quality young pitching. When so much of your pitching hopes and dreams are tied up in oft-injured Pete Harnisch, who is not healthy and struggling in the minors, you are going to be in trouble.
The strikeouts round out the problems with the Reds. They are the leaders in this category at 437, with Mr. K himself Dunn leading the way at 62 in 158 at bats. In contrast, their pitching staff only has 278 strikeouts. You are not going to win a lot of games when you do not put the ball in play. The home runs are nice, but you have too many games such as Sunday's 6-2 loss where the Marlins starter had a career-high nine strikeouts and not enough of Monday's 7-6 victory over the Atlanta Braves, which featured a grand slam from Dunn and a home run from Guillen.
For the past several years in Cincinnati, the fans have had to listen to General Manager Jim Bowden preach over and over that 2003 was the year they were shooting to be competitive. That was the year with a new stadium and the Reds would put a team on the field that would compete for a division title. Apparently, the idea was to turn the team into the Colorado Rockies; home runs or nothing at all with little to no pitching. The Reds may get hot again and creep towards the top of the division, but they will never be a real threat until they are willing to address their deficiencies on the mound and in their defense. Perhaps it is time to trade Griffey, who has never lived up to the hype that preceded him into the Queen City and who has exhibited a paper thin skin when it comes to any criticism, no matter how small. Trading Griffey, for pitching mind you, not another bat, could bring the young pitching talent the Red so desperately need. Casey is another possibility, since Dunn is somewhat capable of playing first base and does not make as much money, yet, as Casey. The Reds can be exciting. Walk off home runs have come pretty frequently for them this season and sending a ball into the upper decks always draws a crowd. But, until they put an emphasis on winning, and not being entertaining, they will never be consistently competitive. They are a .500 team now, chances are, when the July 4th checkpoint rolls around, they will still be there.