RED WEDDINGby Steven GoldmanAt the stalemated Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, General Ulysses Grant, who was born just outside of Cincinnati, said, "I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer." That’s what the closely matched Reds and the Cardinals will be doing -- fighting it out on this line all summer.
Last year’s NL Central winners had an offense that was, especially with Joey Votto out, just okay, but the pitching staff was, by at least one measure, one of the best in baseball history. It wasn’t instantly apparent, because the Great American Ball Park does so much to disguise their greatness, but consider ERA+, which accounts for league and park factors:
Last year’s staff has returned largely intact. Four of the five members of the starting rotation are 27 or younger (Bronson Arroyo is the elder statesman at 36). The bullpen is, if anything, deeper, with full seasons of Jonathan Broxton and J.J. Hoover on tap in support of Aroldis Chapman.
That’s a problem for the Cardinals, who retain the deep lineup of last year, but with veteran starter Chris Carpenter on the DL, possibly for good, and closer Jason Motte hurt as well, the pitching staff is looking a bit careworn. Young pitchers Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal may provide enough quality innings (the latter in the bullpen for now, but a move to the rotation is a possibility) that the team can survive lackluster performances from the established starters, none of whom covered themselves in glory last year -- though the newly-extended Adam Wainwright did finish strong as he put Tommy John surgery behind him and added a four-seam fastball to his repertoire. The Cardinals will need him to continue in that vein, and someone -- anyone -- else to step up and provide the other half of the one-two punch that he and Carpenter used to provide.
As for the Reds, they’ll have to hope that Ryan Ludwick’s dislocated shoulder doesn’t exacerbate Dusty Baker’s self-defeating offensive tendencies: Baker is a great motivator but miserable with the fundamentals, and the last thing the Reds need is the manager to find a reason to drop Shin-Soo Choo down the lineup and fall for another of his low-OBP cuties -- though even if he does, it is to be hoped that prospect Billy "Mr. Lightning" Hamilton will soon be ready to rescue him from his worst instincts. "Remember .208/.254/.327 from the leadoff spot!" should be up there with "Remember the Maine!" With luck, Sliding Billy is the cure for all that.
Bailey, drafted out of high school, had to mature before succeeding, a process which could have been derailed by shoulder problems in both 2010 and 2011. Instead, he took off in the second half last year, climaxing his season with a no-hitter against the Pirates on September 28. Bailey’s post-break opposition included a disproportionate number of patsies; discount those games and the transformation is not quite as positive and raises the possibility of regression. As Guided by Voices sang, "As we go up, we go down" -- though given Bailey’s six shutout innings against the Nationals in his first start of the season, maybe we don’t.
Walt Jocketty’s approach to being a general manager has long been like a Pete Townshend outtake on the way to "Tommy:" "See need, fill need" (we will assume that "touch need" does not follow). The Reds needed OBP in the leadoff spot, and Baker wasn’t going to figure out how to get it from his in-house options (the answer wasn’t obvious, but that doesn’t forgive not choosing). When Choo became available, Jocketty hit his manager over the head with a solution. Baker is probably still experiencing some cognitive dissonance over the whole thing -- this is the guy who made Corey Patterson his leadoff man, after all -- but Joey Votto will enjoy the novelty of having runners on when he hits.
Aroldis ChapmanLeft-handed pitcher
The annual Chapman controversy, which had the Reds singing along to the Louis Jordan hit, "Is You or Is You Ain’t My Starter?" saw Chapman answer in the negative. Normally that would be the wrong choice, but Chapman was right. According to Nate Silver, for a closer to provide as much value as a value as a starter pitching 200 innings of a 3.69 ERA, he’d need to be about as good as closers get, throwing 75 high-leverage innings with a 2.00 ERA. While we wouldn’t expect anyone not named Mariano Rivera to be consistent at that level, Chapman is a unique specimen and just might do it.
After last season’s ups and downs you could film "The Lance Lynn Story" as a cross between "Citizen Kane" and "Rashomon," with conflicting estimates of his abilities depending on when the witness saw him. In June and August Citizen Lynn was more Jerry Lewis than Orson Welles, and if you were a left-handed hitter, he was more Paul Schofield than either. That’s right: "A Man for All Seasons:" southpaw hitters averaged .272/.384/.456 against him. He was almost as hard on right-handed hitters as he was easy on the lefties, but until he finds a way to neutralize the latter, Lynn will remain consistently inconsistent.
In the old days, it was possible to just stumble across an unknown prospect in the wild in the same way you might lift up an old tire in a wet patch of woods and discover a brightly-colored salamander. That happens less often today, when players are scouted practically from the moment of conception, but Craig is a throwback in that sense. He always hit, but until last year there were always reasons not to believe in him. At 28, he’s not a kid anymore, and flying under the radar is no longer an option. The Cardinals were average team in power production last year, and this year’s cast is much the same. If they’re going to excel in spite of legitimate questions about their pitching, Craig needs to stay in the lineup and produce.
A 27-year-old major-league sophomore, Carpenter went through the minors without playing a single game at the keystone and started just two games there in ‘12, but his bat is lively enough that he gives hopes of providing what Skip Schumaker never quite could: a productive second baseman who can outhit his defensive shortcomings. Last year, Cards’ second basemen hit just .240/.309/.363, so they have nowhere to go but up -- and if Carpenter doesn’t work out, top prospect Kolten Wong is just about ready for his close-up.
"The Reds are basically an Earth-Prime version of the Cardinals, diverging from Walt Jocketty's firing in 2007: Their payroll is dominated by a world-class first baseman, their top pitching prospect can't be extricated from the bullpen, Miguel Cairo keeps landing jobs, and they're really successful in spite of/because of their veteran manager and all those weird, reflexive Jocketty-isms. Which has made these teams' rivalry-of-convenience--I don't think the rancor will outlast their 1-2 finishes--more fun than it's had any right to be.
Of course, it helps that Yadier Molina and Brandon Phillips are each fanbase's perfect cartoon-character-villains. There are a lot of pro wrestling flourishes in this rivalry. Phillips's taunting on Twitter and elsewhere is pitched permanently at Randy Savage levels, Molina has a neck tattoo and carries some of the old La Russian permanent-indignation, and former Red and Cardinal Jason LaRue's career was ended in 2010 when Johnny Cueto jump-kicked him in the middle of a bench-clearer. (Like all wrestling injuries, of course, it came in a fight in which nobody expected to throw a real punch.)" -- Dan Moore, Viva El Birdos
It's real to us!
"This rivalry doesn't get very much recognition nationally, but in Redsland, it's as heated as it gets for us. It really has been since August 10, 2010, when tempers boiled over and a bench clearing brawl happened at Great American Ball Park, resulting in injuries and suspensions abound. Since then, these two teams do not like each other.
I think the best way to describe the dynamic between these two teams is a big brother/little brother complex. The Cards were a force in the division for most of the early 2000's, and the upstart Reds finally proved they could hold their own in 2010 when they won the NL Central for the first time since in over a decade.
It's certainly cooled off since the departures of Chris Carpenter and Albert Pujols from St. Louis, as the remaining notable player from the brawl is Yadier Molina. We still don't like Yadi and his neck tattoo, but right now this series signifies the Reds' biggest challenge in defending their division title from a year ago." -- Brandon Kraeling, Red Reporter