This time, Reds might be for real

Their ERA is the fourth-worst in the National League. Their run differential suggests that they should be 17-19 rather than 20-16.

Say hello to your new NL Central leaders, the Cincinnati Reds!

I'm always suspicious of the Reds, who often are viewed as a potential surprise coming out of spring training, only to prove a disappointment.

This time may -- repeat, may -- be different.

Two general managers from the NL Central told me last week that they indeed viewed the Reds as a legitimate threat.

One liked the Reds' potential to improve due to their young talent; the lineup, featuring first baseman Joey Votto, 26, and right fielder Jay Bruce, 23, ranks sixth in the NL in runs per game.

The other GM said, "You're going to laugh," then cited the defensive play of shortstop Orlando Cabrera, 35, and third baseman Scott Rolen, 35, as a stabilizing force.

The GM knows that Cabrera and Rolen no longer rate well under advanced defensive metrics, due in part to their declining range. But both generally handle the balls they field cleanly.

The Reds, as a team, have made only 15 errors, the fewest in the NL. The advanced metrics -- defensive efficiency, ultimate zone rating -- again tell a different tale. But at least the Reds are not giving away outs.

Still, the most intriguing thing about the Reds is the potential of their starting rotation, which has produced a 2.12 ERA in the last eight games, dropping its overall mark from 5.63 to 4.72.

Three of the Reds' starters -- right-handers Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake -- are 24-and-under. Lefty Aroldis Chapman, 22, eventually could join them, though he is struggling to attain consistency at Triple-A.

One scout, noting manager Dusty Baker's past tendencies, cracks, "Dusty hasn't had a chance to kill the bullpen yet." But so far, so good: now that righty Nick Masset appears back on track, the pen is looking like a strength.

Are the Reds better than the Cardinals? Probably not.

But for once, they might not be a mirage.


The Cardinals' offense started to disturb me during their 20-inning loss to the Mets on April 17. After manager Tony La Russa removed an ailing Matt Holliday in a double switch in the 12th, leaving Albert Pujols to bat in front of the pitcher's spot, I kept thinking, How the heck are the Cardinals going to score a run?

That game -- a 2-1 loss -- proved an omen, not an aberration. When Pujols and/or Holliday are not hot, the Cardinals struggle to score.

Holliday's .816 OPS, while hardly an embarrassment, is more than 100 points below his career mark. Pujols' .977 OPS, though sixth in the NL, also is well below his norm. Reds right-hander Bronson Arroyo told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Pujols "right now looks a little bit more uncomfortable at the plate than you're used to seeing."

Still, it's odd that the Cardinals, in Mark McGwire's first year as hitting coach, rank 13th in the NL in runs per game.

Center fielder Colby Rasmus, right fielder Ryan Ludwick and third baseman David Freese all are hitting well. Second baseman Skip Schumaker and shortstop Brendan Ryan are the only Cardinals truly struggling. And La Russa plans to play Ryan less frequently with the return of infielder Felipe Lopez from the disabled list.

This offense should get better. Soon.


Where to begin with the Red Sox?

They've averaging 5.3 runs allowed per game, tied with the Royals for the most in the American League.

They're fourth in their own division in defensive efficiency, the percentage of balls in play that are converted into outs.

The rotation ranks 12th in the AL in ERA. Opponents have stolen 46 bases in 52 attempts. And the middle of the bullpen isn't so hot, either.

Take away right-handers Jonathan Papelbon, Daniel Bard and Manny Delcarmen, and Sox relievers have pitched to a 6.67 ERA in 59 1/3 innings, allowing a whopping 14 home runs.


Left-hander Jason Vargas meant little to the Mets when they sent him to the Mariners in the three-team, 12-player J.J. Putz blockbuster in Dec. 2008.

Vargas, 27, had missed all of '08 after undergoing surgery on his left hip. But Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik, the Brewers' former scouting director, recalled Vargas from Long Beach State, where he had developed into a second-round pick for the Marlins in '04.

Zduriencik says he asked for Vargas when he was "going through names to finish up the deal."


Vargas, after a rocky '09 season -- his first coming off surgery -- is 3-2 with a 2.93 ERA in seven starts.

The Mets' rotation?

Don't ask.


The Giants' Mark DeRosa has always maintained a super-utility man's mindset, constantly trying to prove himself.

His renewed wrist problems, then, are particularly frustrating, considering that he signed a two-year, $12 million free-agent contract last off-season.

DeRosa, who appears headed for the disabled list, wants to fulfill his contract. But he also does not want to hurt the team by hitting .194 all season.

Meanwhile, the idea of the Giants moving Aubrey Huff to left field to clear first base for Buster Posey is akin to forcing a square peg into a round hole.

Posey is a catcher, not a first baseman. Huff last played the outfield in 2006. And as it stands, once second baseman Freddy Sanchez and shortstop Edgar Renteria are healthy, there will be no spot for Juan Uribe.

Pablo Sandoval can move to first base to clear third for Uribe against certain left-handers. That scenario would become more complicated if Posey was at first; once he arrives, he will need to play every day.


Mariners left fielder Michael Saunders had all of 140 at-bats in the majors when those wacky Rays deployed an infield shift on him Friday night.

"I could see it in his face when he walked up to the plate," Rays manager Joe Maddon said, chuckling. He said, 'What is going on? Am I that good?'"

Maddon was not far off; Saunders, 23, said no team at any level had ever shifted on him before, and acknowledged that the maneuver "got in my head a little bit."

With the Rays, who frequently employ shifts, that seems to be part of the idea.


The Curtis Granderson blockbuster is working out just like everyone predicted, right?

The Yankees' Granderson is out with a groin injury. Tigers right-hander Max Scherzer just got sent to the minors with a 7.29 ERA. Diamondbacks righty Edwin Jackson is sporting a 7.43 ERA.

The stars of the deal, to this point, are the three players the Yankees traded: Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson, who is second in the majors to Ichiro in hits; Tigers lefty Phil Coke, who is throwing 95 mph in relief; and D-backs righty Ian Kennedy, who owns a 3.58 ERA in eight starts.


One official with an NL club raises an interesting point: How can the Diamondbacks go without a left-handed reliever in a division that features numerous left-handed threats?

The D-Backs, as presently constituted, cannot counter the Padres' Adrian Gonzalez, Giants' Aubrey Huff, Dodgers' Andre Ethier and James Loney, Rockies' Carlos Gonzalez, Brad Hawpe and Ian Stewart.

The team's problems, though, extend beyond their major-league worst 'pen.

The D-Backs, scouts say, lack prospects at Double A and Triple A; their top young pitcher, right-hander Jarrod Parker, is coming off Tommy John surgery.


An NL executive poses this question:

As quickly as the Nats reversed their losing culture under GM Mike Rizzo and manager Jim Riggleman, why can't perennial losers such as the Pirates, Royals and Orioles do the same?

Rizzo is operating with a $61.4 million payroll, the game's eighth lowest. Yet, he never conceded that the team was rebuilding, and acted aggressively to upgrade the major-league roster.

The Nats have some excellent pieces in place -- third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, first baseman Adam Dunn -- and more are on the way. But maybe it helps that failure was never an acceptable option.


Opponents continue to rave about the power arms in the Tigers' bullpen, and not without reason -- the team leads the AL in bullpen ERA by a wide margin.

Surprisingly, though, the Tigers' relievers are next-to-last in strikeout rate. Righties Eddie Bonine and Brad Thomas do not record many strikeouts, and even closer Jose Valverde has only 12 Ks in 17 2/3 innings.

Valverde's batting average on balls in play, meanwhile, is only .136 -- a strong indication that he has been lucky as well as good.


* Ryan Zimmerman had three hits off Rockies right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez on Saturday, but two came off broken bats.

"He throws a hundred (mph), and it's not straight," Zimmerman told reporters afterward. "He's developed his off-speed stuff, obviously.

"A couple of years ago he threw hard, but I think he's learned how to pitch a little more and he's got unbelievable stuff."

* Ken Griffey Jr., a licensed pilot of single-engine planes, actually flew home to Orlando with an instructor after the first two games of the Mariners' series in St. Petersburg.

On Saturday morning, he watched his daughter, Taryn 14, compete in a high-school track meet before departing at 12:30 p.m. and arriving in time for the team stretch before a 4:10 p.m. start.

* Mariners left-hander Erik Bedard expressed shock Saturday after learning that Phillies lefty Jamie Moyer had allowed his 499th, 500th and 501st career homers.

"Hey, he's 47," teammate Felix Hernandez responded, smiling.

* The Royals might be a mess, but several of their top prospects are off to good starts.

Double A left-hander Mike Montgomery is a combined 4-1 with a 1.60 ERA at Single A and Double A, while Double A third baseman Mike Moustakas (1.153 OPS) and Single A first baseman Eric Hosmer (1.050) seem poised to rebound from disappointing 2009 seasons.

Speaking of the Royals, former manager Trey Hillman will not be out of work long if he declines to accept the team's offer of a job within the organization.

"He is still well-thought of in the industry," one GM said.

* Something to watch in the coming weeks: Whether another player tries to disrupt A's left-hander Dallas Braden by running across the mound during one of his starts.

One A.L. veteran says that Braden reacted so vehemently to Alex Rodriguez's action, another player might pull the same stunt if Braden is pitching well, trying to elicit a response.

* Don't be surprised if outfielder Rocco Baldelli makes a comeback with the Rays later this season.

Baldelli, a special assistant in the team's front office, is hitting every day, working in batting cages and taking early batting practice when the Rays are at home and taking actual BP when he visits the team's minor-league affiliates.