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Reds under the bed: previewing the Cincinnati series

After a disappointing series against the Washington Nationals, we get another out of division team coming to town, in the shape of the Cincinnati Reds. They've started the season 17-14, which has them tied for third with the Cubs in the tight NL Central, where only 2.5 games cover the top four sides.

The Reds have been reliant more on pitching than a lightly-hitting offense which has scored 4.26 runs per game thus far, compared to the NL average of 4.62 - an OPS+ of 87 also supports this. Only two of their regular lineup (50+ AB to date) are above-average, led by the startling performance of Joey Votto at 1B. I say 'startling' because, while he had a fine rookie season last year, batting .297 with 24 homers and finishing second in RotY voting to Geovanny Soto, he is completely raking in 2009. Votto's .376 batting average leads the National League, and he's also in the top ten for OBP, SLG and OPS. With an OPS+ of 174 to date, he is the archetypal "player you don't let beat you." Jay Bruce, in right field, is the only other hitting consistently well, leading the Reds with ten homers, twice as many as the next candidate.

At the other end of the spectrum, the left-side of the infield is posing big problems for manager Dusty Baker. Shortstop Alex Gonzalez is batting just .176, but that's a good deal better than Edwin Encarnacion at third-base, who is hitting only .127, with eight hits in 63 at-bats. That ranks him dead-last in the majors, among the 297 players with 50+ AB - and it's not even close, as 296th-ranked Brian Giles is batting more than thirty points better, at .158. Encarnacion went to the DL at the end of April with a chipped bone in his wrist - one wonders if this is perhaps like the "issue" [quotes used advisedly] that put Tony Clark on the DL. Adam Rosales has taken over since, and has been a significant improvement at the hot corner, in terms of offensive production.

On the mounds, they Reds have been doing a good deal better, the team ERA+ of 113 trailing only the Dodgers (114) and Giants (115) in the National League. Leading the charge is Johnny Cueto, whom Diamondbacks fans will no doubt remember from his major-league debut last season, when he threw seven-innings of one-hit ball against us, striking out ten batters. It took a little while for the rest of the league to appreciate Cueto in quite the same way, but this season his ERA is just 1.59 in six starts, with opponents batting .213 against him. We face him on Wednesday in an intriguing match-up against our pitching phenom, Bryan Augenstein, but do get to miss Aaron Harang, who has also been very good, with a sub-three ERA in his seven outings.

Arizona welcomes back a fan favorite to Chase, in the shape of Micah Owings. Traded to the Reds as part of the Adam Dunn deal, he's now part of their rotation, though has been a bit up and down, with an ERA of 5.08. He has, however, continued to do what he was best-known for here: hit. He's 6-for-18, and five of those hits have gone for extra-bases, including a pinch-hit, game-tying blast with two outs in the ninth-inning over the weekend (shown, above left). His OPS+ of 175 is actually fractionally higher than Votto's. The Reds bullpen is also very solid, with closer Fransciso Cordero, rookie Danny Herrera and veteran Arthur Rhodes combining to throw 36.2 innings and allow only seven earned runs, an ERA of 1.72.

Our offense showed distinct signs of some life over the weekend, particularly on Sunday when we pounded out five more hits than in any other game this season to date. That kind of approach will need to continue, though the Reds' pitching will be a considerably stiffer test than that of the Nationals. If we can take two of the three games, I'd be happy enough with that.