Published October 01, 2013
On Sept. 8, after winning three of four from the Cardinals and sweeping the Dodgers, the Reds looked like they might be poised for a World Series run.
As they enter Tuesday night's wild-card game in Pittsburgh, losers of five straight games, they look ready for a quick elimination.
What happened? And if these Reds can't get past the Pirates and Cardinals, what happens in 2014 if, as expected, they lose free-agent outfielder Shin-Soo Choo?
The Reds, despite making their third postseason appearance in four years, are full of such questions. A loss on Tuesday night, and the questions will grow even more uncomfortable.
Questions about manager Dusty Baker's leadership. Questions about first baseman Joey Votto's offensive approach. Questions about just what the future holds for the Reds in a division that will grow even more competitive as the Cubs continue building and the Brewers seek to bounce back.
On Sept. 8, the Reds were tied with the Pirates for second in the NL Central, 1½ games behind the Cardinals. They proceeded to lose consecutive series to a pair of non-contenders, the Cubs and Brewers.
A three-game sweep in Houston and series victory in Pittsburgh seemed to put the Reds back on track. But after a victory over the Mets, they dropped their final five games at home, including three to the Pirates with home-field advantage in the wild-card game at stake.
So now they get Pirates left-hander Francisco Liriano, who had a 1.47 ERA in 11 starts at home as opposed to a 4.33 ERA in 15 starts on the road. As if that's not daunting enough, Liriano held left-handed hitters to a .131/.175/.146 batting/on-base/slugging line - a .321 opponents' OPS that was the lowest in the majors.
Not good news for a Reds lineup that relies heavily on three left-handed hitters - leadoff man Shin-Soo Choo, No. 3 hitter Votto and No. 5 hitter Jay Bruce.
The Reds' splits do not reflect a terrible imbalance - their .722 OPS against righties wasn't much higher than their .709 OPS against lefties.
Liriano creates an imbalance himself.
"(Clayton) Kershaw is the best left-hander, if not the best pitcher," Votto said. "(Liriano) is neck-and-neck with him as far as being really challenging. He's a difficult guy to face, a tough guy to compete against."
Well, the Reds left themselves with no choice, in part due to an offense that was maddeningly inconsistent despite ranking third in the NL in runs, behind only the Cardinals and Rockies.
The Reds averaged 4.37 runs per game through Aug. 31, then 4.00 in September. Left fielder Ryan Ludwick, one of the team's top right-handed hitters, rejoined the team on Aug. 12 after dislocating his shoulder on Opening Day. His return, however, did not provide the anticipated boost.
Ludwick said his comeback from surgery was "the most challenging thing I've ever had to do in the sport." He still is unable to bench press or perform curls, and his lack of strength contributed to his lack of power - he batted .224 in September with no homers in 84 plate appearances.
The debate about the Reds' offense, though, goes beyond Ludwick.
Inside and outside the organization, some wonder if Votto is too passive, too willing to settle for walks when he could be expanding his zone and driving in runs.
True, Votto had only 73 RBIs in 581 at-bats. But he also reached base a major-league leading 316 times, breaking Pete Rose's club record. The players who most often hit behind him, Brandon Phillips and Bruce, both ranked in the top four in the NL in RBIs.
Votto is justifiably proud that he played in all 162 games after twice undergoing knee surgery last season. But he, too, is frustrated with his offense, only not for the reasons that you might think.
The numbers that bothered Votto were his 30 doubles, 24 homers and .491 slugging percentage. The doubles total and slugging percentage were career-lows, and the home-run total matched his career-low for a full season.
Votto said his career-high 135 walks were a product of getting "pitched around in some ways." The decline in his power numbers is attributable, at least in part, to the same problem.
"That stands out," Votto said of the dropoffs. "I notice it. I haven't had a lot of results.
"I've compensated for it by getting on base and by playing every day, but it's been frustrating, no doubt about it, frustrating not driving the ball.
"The RBIs, I'm sorry, it doesn't bother me. It really doesn't. It just doesn't."
The question is one of semantics, not something to get all hot and bothered about. If Votto's power numbers rise, his RBI total will rise, satisfying both the old and new schools.
A better No. 2 hitter in front of Votto also would help. Baker used Zack Cozart in that spot for much of the first half, and Cozart started hitting only after moving down in the order. The Reds finished with the third-lowest OPS in the majors out of the No. 2 spot.
The sabermetrically inclined pillory Baker on a regular basis, and some of their criticisms are valid. Where Baker always has excelled, however, is in communication, motivation, all of the intangible qualities that no one can measure in a manager.
As lifeless as the Reds have looked of late, it's fair to wonder if Baker is losing his touch, or if perhaps the Reds need an edgier mix. ("We don't have that kind of swag over here," Phillips told FOX Sports' Jon Paul Morosi. "We only have just me.")
The qualifier, of course, is that teams always look lifeless when they're not hitting. And Baker, coming off his third 90-win season in four years, can rightly point to his record and say, "What's the problem?"
It's highly unlikely that the Reds will fire Baker, who has one year left on his contract, worth about $4 million. But what if the Reds' season ends with a sixth straight loss Tuesday night? What if their pitching coach, Bryan Price, becomes a leading candidate for the Mariners' managerial opening? The Reds like Price. Might they anoint him their manager in waiting? Or consider other potential replacements?
A big run in October, and such questions will fade from relevance. A quick exit, and the landscape might change.