How the Reds made the playoffs

It’s been a magical season that hopefully will last well into the postseason.

Making it even more exhilarating is that not a single Reds fan expected this entering the year. Hell, I thought I was being optimistic predicting an 83-79 season after nine straight losing campaigns.

So, what led to the Reds winning the NL Central championship and crashing the playoff party? Let’s take a closer look:

M-V-P, M-V-P, M-V-P

First and foremost, Cincinnati made the playoffs because of the MVP season from first baseman Joey Votto. The last time a Reds player was MVP was also the same year they last made the playoffs: Barry Larkin in 1995. And with all due respect to one of my favorite players of all time, Votto’s season blows Lark’s out of the water.

In ’95, Larkin batted .319 with 15 home runs, 66 RBIs and 51 stolen bases. For the sabermetricians out there (and I’m one of them) Larkin also had a very-solid OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, simply the best stat in baseball) of .886.

However, there is just no beating the season that Votto has pieced together. With a few games still remaining, he is batting .325 with 37 HRs, 111 RBIs, 16 steals and a crazy-whack-funky OPS of 1.029.

Congrats on that MVP award you’re about to win, Mr. Votto. I’m certain you’ll find a nice place for the trophy.

Now let’s hope he wants to be a Red for a long time and Cincinnati’s front office finds a way to lock him up. He won’t be a free agent for several years, but why not sign him to a long-term contract after the season? His price isn’t going to go down – it will only rise the longer the Reds wait.

The leadership of Rolen

The leadership of Scott Rolen is another big reason the Reds are playoff bound. Rolen also provided superb offense in the first half of the season and has been steady defensively all year. (He had some shaky moments the last month as he’s clearly hurting and needs a rest, but overall he’s been great defensively.)

The good news about clinching the divisional title early is that Rolen can rest up for the playoffs. The Reds still want to win as many regular-season games as possible so they can have home-field advantage in the divisional round and avoid the Phillies – but getting the big guy ready for the postseason is paramount.

And even after a second-half slump (which he is now out of for the most part), Rolen still has good overall offensive stats for the season. He’s batting .290 with 20 homers, 84 RBIs and an OPS of .869. Interestingly, Rolen’s career OPS is nearly identical at .868.

And to think the Reds got him last year for the joke that is Edwin Encarnacion, as well as minor-league pitchers Zach Stewart and Josh Roenicke. Really, the deal was Rolen-for-Stewart straight-up as the Reds’ 2008 third-round draft pick actually has some promise. After a rough start to his 2010 season at double-A New Hampshire, Stewart finished 8-3 with a 3.63 ERA in 26 starts (136.1 IP, 131 H, 54 BB, 106 K).

But still, the Reds got Scott Rolen for a pretty good AA pitcher who might or might not ever make it in the Majors. Yeah, chalk one up for general manager Walt Jocketty.

The continual influx of quality young pitching

I’ve been far too long-winded so far, so I’ll try and keep the rest of these short. But this is a tough place to start because there was seemingly an endless list of quality young arms that kept popping up at the Reds’ disposal.

Frankly, it was amazing to watch.

It started with Mike Leake who became the first MLB pitcher in 16 years (Darren Dreifort with the Dodgers) to go straight from college to the Big Leagues. Leake made the Reds’ starting rotation out of spring training and performed like the team’s ace for the first two months.

Then it was Travis Wood. He was the one I picked to win the No. 5 starter job out of spring training, but it was well worth the wait to see him in a Reds uniform. Wood has even more upside than Leake in my opinion due to the extra juice on his fastball (not that he’s going to blow anyone away, but he’s sneaky fast and throws harder than Leake) and because he’s left-handed.

And finally Aroldis Chapman was called up just before September to give Reds fans one final treat. You know, just your typical lefty that can top his fastball out at 105 MPH. Cincinnati welcomed the Cuban Missile this year, but the only crisis was for their opponents who had to face him. Chapman still needs to work on command and that will take a while, but he’s still going to be a nice weapon in the playoffs.

Excellent catching tandem

The Reds’ catching duo of Ramon Hernandez and Ryan Hanigan was fantastic throughout the year and is yet another reason they captured the division title. I love the way Hanigan handles the pitching staff and how he has a good at-bat every time he steps in the box. Hernandez does everything well too and it’s great having a Spanish-speaking catcher with all the Latin American pitchers on the squad.

Add it all up and one would be hard-pressed to find a better receiving tandem than Hernandez/Hanigan.

Career years from players like Votto, Gomes, Arroyo, Cueto and Rhodes

You can’t make the playoffs unless several players perform above expectations and the Reds had plenty of guys turn in career years.

From Votto going from really good to MVP, to Jonny Gomes driving in nearly 90 runs, to Bronson Arroyo winning 16 games and keeping his ERA under 4, to Johnny Cueto going 12-6 with an ERA under 4, to Arthur Rhodes becoming an All-Star for the first time in his career at the age of 40, the Reds have had the pleasure of watching many players rise up and play the best baseball of their lives. When everything comes together, it usually results in a playoff season and that’s exactly what happened for the Redlegs this year. They also managed to stay injury-free for the most part which was crucial.

Stubbs hitting better than expected

I really thought centerfielder Drew Stubbs would bat .240 or under with a bunch of strikeouts and wouldn’t reach 20 home runs. Well, I was right about the strikeouts and nothing else.

Stubbs is batting .251 with 21 HRs, 73 RBIs and a team-high 27 stolen bases. That’s very solid production and he should only get better with age. Credit to him for proving his naysayers like me wrong — there is no question he’ll be the team’s CF for many years to come.

Good defense

Wow, talk about night-and-day from a few years ago when the Reds had defensive-allergic players like Encarnacion, Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr. (the washed-up version) as everyday starters. This year’s team is very good defensively and it’s yet another reason the Reds have been the surprise story of Major League Baseball.

Bench production from the likes of Cairo and Heisey (and Janish when Cabrera got hurt)

The Reds don’t have a great bench, but it’s certainly not the weakness many expected entering the season. Miguel Cairo was a secret weapon all year and could play any defensive position, rookie outfielder Chris Heisey provided nice pop and shortstop Paul Janish did a very solid job filling in when Orlando Cabrera was on the disabled list. In fact, I’ve never been a Janish fan, but he might be the better overall player compared to O-Cab.

Good back-end of the rotation

The major weakness the Reds have entering the postseason is they don’t have a true ace starting pitcher. Arroyo will almost-certainly be the game one starter for the Reds in the playoffs, but he’s more of a solid No. 3. And that’s the Reds’ staff in a nutshell. They have a ton of quality depth, but they have a lot of really good No. 3s and not a true top-of-the-line starter.

But during the regular season, that meant that the Reds’ opponents never had an easy night. It didn’t matter who was taking the mound, they were going to be pretty good (well, unless it was Aaron Harang). Homer Bailey had his moments, as did Edinson Volquez after returning from Tommy John surgery.

So, 1-5, the Reds had a good rotation throughout the year. And it usually wasn’t the same five guys.

Dusty Baker

No question manager Dusty Baker deserves a lot of credit for the Reds making the playoffs. He’s been a winner everywhere he’s been and he made sure the same was true in Cincinnati. My only complaint with Baker is his construction of lineups at times (for example: batting Stubbs leadoff and Janish second) but overall he’s a good manager and the Reds are fortunate to have him. He gets the most out of his players and they all genuinely like playing for him. We can make fun of the “players coach” moniker all we want, but it works for Dusty. And it’s not like he takes any crap.

Remember all those Reds fans who wanted to run Dusty out of town the last two years – glossing over the fact that he didn’t have a good-enough roster to work with? Well, they can’t be found any longer. Look for Baker to sign a multi-year contract with the Reds following the playoffs. He’s only been offered a one-year deal thus far to my knowledge, but I fully expect that to change. And at his age, Baker isn’t going anywhere else. He’ll be here next season and beyond.

Walt Jocketty

Thank you St. Louis for getting rid of one of the best general managers in baseball. Hell, all he did was build a World Series champion and make the Cardinals into one of the best teams in the NL for a decade. Kudos also go out to owner Bob Castellini for being wise enough to snatch Jocketty up as soon as he became available.

As a Bengals fan, I could only dream of a front office combination as competent as Castellini/Jocketty.

Because a great baseball town deserves it and it had been far too long

The Bengals are relevant and we’re all excited about it. But let’s be honest: Cincinnati is the birthplace of professional baseball and will always be a baseball town at heart. Reds fans are some of the most-dedicated and knowledgeable in the sport, and a 15-year playoff drought was far too long.

But, alas, thanks to the 2010 Reds that is no longer a problem. Now we can just sit back, relax, see who the first-round opponent will be and enjoy playoff baseball for the first time since 1995.