Why Cincinnati can win the NL Central
Reds need better clutch hitting and division rivals' performance to regress
Before the 2011 season, it wasn't unreasonable to expect the 2010 NL Central champs, the Cincinnati Reds, to make a repeat trip to the playoffs. They had some tough competition in the division, with the St. Louis Cardinals a perpetual force and the Milwaukee Brewers going all-in for the season, but the Reds were still loaded with talent.
But, as happens every season, unexpected events have changed everything. In February no one knew that the Cardinals would lose Adam Wainwright for the season, nor that the Pittsburgh Pirates would go on a midseason streak and at one point grab the division lead. The Reds have also performed out of line with their expectations. They currently sit four games back in the Central, leaving people wondering where they've gone wrong.
One area where the Reds had big expectations was starting pitching. In 2010 they featured a very young staff that finished with a 4.05 ERA, which was right around the league average. In 2011, things figured to improve as a number of their younger pitchers matured. Travis Wood and Mike Leake were both rookies who showed potential, while Johnny Cueto, at age 24, had already established himself as an above-average starter. With the veteran leadership of Bronson Arroyo atop the rotation, and with Edinson Volquez further removed from Tommy John surgery, they figured to have one of the better rotations in the National League.
As so often happens with plans centered on young pitching, though, the Reds' starting staff has performed below expectations this season. It ranks 14th in the NL with a 4.51 ERA and last with a 4.45 FIP. While Cueto has shined brightly in his 14 starts -- his 1.98 ERA would rank first in the NL if he qualified -- the rest of the staff has faltered in 2011. Leake has recovered after a slow start, but both Wood and Volquez have ERAs above 5.00. Volquez has been so bad, particularly his 5.82 BB/9 and 1.59 HR/9, that the Reds have twice optioned him to Triple-A, where he is currently pitching. Things have gotten to the point where Dontrelle Willis has become one of their five best options.