Reds Rapid Fire: Things suddenly looking up

There have been some shaky moments to say the least over the last few weeks, but the bottom line is things are beginning to fall in place for the Cincinnati Reds.

After their 5-4 victory over the Chicago Cubs Friday afternoon, the Reds have won three in a row and now stand at 17-15 on the season. That puts them in second place in the National League Central, one game behind the St. Louis Cardinals (18-14).

Let’s take a look at why things are suddenly on the upswing for the Redlegs:

* Homer Bailey looks great: Bailey put up impressive numbers in the minor leagues during his rehab stint from shoulder impingement and he was able to more than back it up with his excellent season debut on Thursday with the Reds. If Bailey can become a reliable member of the rotation, it will pay huge dividends for this team the way he looked against the Houston Astros (6 IP, 4 H, 1 BB, 7 K). He has better command than ever and still has a fastball that consistently reaches 94 MPH. Could this finally be the season when he puts it all together? If so, that’s bad news for the Cardinals and everyone else in the Central.

* Jay Bruce is heating up and then some: If Bailey isn’t the biggest reason for optimism, it’s definitely the way Bruce has been hitting the ball lately. He’s one of the streakier batters in Major League Baseball and Cincinnati fans were concerned about him early in the season. However, after his huge three-run shot on Friday against Matt Garza, he now leads the team with seven home runs and there’s no question he’s kicked it into gear. The Reds need Bruce to reach 30 HR’s this season and he’ll well on his way. He plays a great defensive right field as well.

* Joey Votto is a model of consistency: Fresh off his NL MVP season, Votto has picked up right where he left off. He’s batting .351 with five homers and 18 RBIs. The two players that proved to be Votto’s main competition for MVP honors last year – Carlos Gonzalez of the Rockies and Albert Pujols of the Cardinals – are both off to poor starts, especially Gonzalez. However, Votto just goes out there and hits the shit out of the ball every day. With him batting in the three hole, the Reds always have a chance to be dangerous. He’s one of the purest hitters in the game today. And unlike a lot of guys that consistently hit for a high average, Votto has tremendous natural power to go with it.

* Brandon Phillips is playing well in all areas: Phillips has been the second-best hitter on the team and continues to show why he’s the premier defensive second baseman in all of baseball. He’s already made some incredible plays in the field this season and it’s only May. Phillips is also batting .324 with four homers and 17 RBIs.

* Coco is actually having a good year: Closer Francisco Cordero has taken a lot of heat from Reds fans ever since signing a 4-year, $46 million contract in 2008. However, Cordero has been earning his robust paycheck this season (the final year of the deal). He has five saves and a 1.29 ERA (0.86 WHIP) and is 2-0 to boot.

* Bullpen overall is solid with Chapman, Masset, Bray, Ondrusek and now LeCure: Cordero hasn’t been the only success story out of the bullpen this season for Dusty Baker’s crew. Until his last outing, Aroldis Chapman was lights-out good. And he’s still going to be a nightmare for every hitter he faces this season. Control will always be an issue, but if he can harness it just a bit, it will be a huge boost to this team. Nick Masset has rebounded from a rough beginning and looks like an excellent set-up man from the right side. Bill Bray has been unbelievable thus far – and not just against lefties. Logan Ondrusek has also been ultra-effective. And I love seeing Sam LeCure where he belongs: as the long man (or a middle man) out of the pen. It’s also nice to see guys like Matt Maloney and Jordan Smith where they belong: pitching in triple-A with the Louisville Bats.

* Fred Lewis is finally up to help the LF situation: Left fielder Jonny Gomes started the season on fire, but has been an eskimo ever since. When Fred Lewis was signed in the offseason, many (myself included) thought he would platoon with Gomes in left. Well, we’re about to see it materialize in my opinion. Gomes will get all the starts against lefties, but get ready to see Lewis in there against right-handers. And that’s definitely a good thing for this team. Can’t have Gomes out there hitting on the interstate but still starting almost every game. Especially when he doesn’t add any positive defensively.

* Cueto will make his season debut on Sunday at Wrigley: Johnny Cueto’s numbers in the minors during his rehab stint weren’t exactly on Bailey’s level, so I’m not exactly sure what to think about Cueto making his debut Sunday. But the bottom line is that it’s finally good to see the pitching staff entirely healthy so the Reds can put all their cards on the table and see exactly what they’ve got. And look out if Cueto pitches up to his potential. I’m skeptical based on some of his struggles in the minors (like when he got rocked pitching against the AAA Columbus Clippers) but there’s no question he can be an asset for this team when he’s on.

THE PROBLEMS

Alright, we’ve waxed eloquent about all the good things regarding the Reds at the present time. But what are some problems facing the five-time world champions? Well, let’s take a gander at the glaring issues regarding this club.

* Edinson Volquez continues to be shaky each time he takes the mound: One of these days Volquez is going to settle down and not be such a schizophrenic pitcher. At least we can hope. He’s got great stuff, but his command is atrocious and just doesn’t have a good feel for pitching. I would say “million dollar arm, 10-cent brain” but that would just be mean. (Whoops.) If Volquez can get his act together, look out. But if he doesn’t, the Reds will always have a circus on their hands every fifth game.

* Third base is a mess: With Scott Rolen on the disabled list and with his backup, Juan Francisco, also on the DL, it’s a fire drill at third base for the Reds right now. And the idea that Edgar Renteria isn’t willing to play at the hot corner is a complete joke. If you can play short, you can play third. Give me a freakin’ break. The team has found a way around it by playing Paul Janish at third and Renteria (who has a good bat even at his age) at short, but Renteria should be able to play third. The other option at third is Miguel Cairo, who is dealing with minor bumps and bruises right now. I like the idea of having Renteria’s bat in there over Cairo’s, though. This team needs Rolen back and hopefully he will be soon. However, his history of shoulder injuries concern me. And what bad timing on Francisco’s part – this would be the perfect him for him to show what he can do at the MLB level.

* Travis Wood not pitching up to capabilities: Although he did have a quality start last time out, Wood has not been the pitcher anyone expected so far this season. However, I’m still holding out hope that he’s going to be a key cog in the pitching rotation this year. I like that Baker and pitching coach Bryan Price have stuck with him even after the returns of Bailey and Cueto (they sent LeCure and Mike Leake to the ‘pen). We’ll see if Wood can reward their faith by pitching well these next few weeks.

* Gomes has been an automatic out lately: As mentioned earlier, Gomes has been a disaster at the plate since his blazing start. He needs to get it together or Lewis might take his job full time. But who even knows if Lewis is going to be a consistent contributor? If both Gomes and Lewis fail, the team could look to Chris Heisey as the everyday left fielder, although he seems best in a reserve role. If all else fails, look for the Reds to trade for a LF sometime in June or July. They have plenty of talent in the minors – especially at catcher – to pull off a deal.

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