The Cincinnati Reds are moving up in class.
After feasting for more than two weeks on teams with losing records, the Reds (31-19) now begin a 13-game stretch against clubs with records on the smiling side of the standings, starting with a unique four-game home/away series against Cleveland (27-22).
MLB has reduced the length of Interleague Rivalry Series™ from six games to four. For Cincinnati and Cleveland that means back-to-back two-game series this week, with the first played at Great American Ball Park, the latter at Progressive Field. The quartet of games will determine ownership of the Ohio Cup, a trophy no one will confuse with Lord Stanley’s. Cleveland leads the Buckeye State series 42-39.
ROCKIN’ AND ROLLIN’
Cincinnati and Cleveland share more than I-71, disappointing NFL teams and a spring training site. A trade that brought outfielder Shin-Soo Choo to the Queen City in exchange for centerfielder Drew Stubbs and shortstop Didi Gregorius now also links their professional baseball teams. The Reds also acquired third baseman Jack Hannahan and utility infielder Jason Donald in the deal. Cleveland quickly flipped Gregorius to Arizona for starting pitcher prospect Trevor Bauer.
The trade was part of a relatively aggressive off-season for Cleveland GM Chris Antonetti. Enabled by a new local media agreement and the expected growth of MLB’s shared revenues, Cleveland inked splashy free-agent contracts with former Yankee OF/1B, Nick Swisher ($56 million/4 years) and former Atlanta Braves CF, Michael Bourn ($48 million/4 years). Veterans Mark Reynolds and Jason Giambi have also taken their talents to the beaches of Lake Erie. Cleveland’s payroll jumped from $65 million in 2012 to $80 million in 2013.
Much of the credit for Cleveland’s rockin’ start (cue Drew Carey) has gone to new manager Terry Francona. As skipper in Boston for eight seasons, Francona oversaw the rebirth of the Red Sox and a .574 winning percentage. He also busted the nearly century-old curse by bringing two World Series championships to Beantown, in 2004 and 2007. Francona’s father Tito played six seasons for Cleveland in the 1960s. Terry himself played there in 1988 (and for the Reds in 1987). The impact of a manager can be exaggerated, but Francona’s credibility has reportedly helped land key free agents like Swisher, Bourn and Reynolds.
The three finest institutions in Cleveland used to be the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Cleveland Clinic and Grady Sizemore. But then one of them spent too much time as a patient of another. And alas, the epic Grady vs. Brady competitions that had many women and a few men hot and bothered are no more.
Yet even without Sizemore’s 30/30 production, Cleveland’s offense still features an explosive combination of speed and power. They rank first in the majors in OPS+ (which adjusts OPS for ballpark factors) while the Reds are 14th. Cleveland is fourth in runs scored (Reds are sixth). Already this season, Cleveland has impressively slugged their way to victories against past Cy Young winners R.A. Dickey, David Price, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Bartolo Colon, Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez.
Their deep lineup is full of switch-hitters, lefties and players in their prime ages. Holding down Cleveland’s offense will be a considerable challenge for the Reds’ pitching staff. Possible lineup (stats through Saturday):
Carlos Santana continues a glorious tradition of things in Cleveland catching fire, as the young catcher has begun to live up to his vast promise as a hitter. Memorial Day finds him in the smooth company of Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo among MLB’s top offensive players.
Mark Reynolds, who plays first base, third base and DH’s for Cleveland, is an “Adam Dunn three true outcomes” player. He often joins the league leaders in strikeouts, walks and home runs. Mega Mark currently ranks toward the top in both home runs (12) and RBI (40).
Former Reds centerfielder Drew Stubbs now plays right field and bats ninth most games, although occasionally he leads off. Earlier this year, he became the first MLB player batting ninth to have four hits and three doubles in a game since pitcher Micah Owings did it on Sept. 27, 2007. I’ll always remember watching Stubbs make the catch on September 28, 2010, that helped the Reds clinch the NL Central title.
CLEVELAND’S STARTING PITCHING
In contrast to its offense, Cleveland’s starting rotation hasn’t taken the same meaningful step forward. They rank tenth and eleventh in the American League in ERA and FIP respectively. The pitching match-ups for the two games at GABP:
|MON 1:10 pm||Ubaldo Jimenez||6.04||4.53||1.39||.289||1.4||9.5||-0.4|
|TUE 7:10 pm||Zach McAllister||2.89||4.30||1.21||.260||1.1||6.3||0.9|
If Gordon Lightfoot still wrote songs about wrecks on the Great Lakes, he’d be busy finding words that rhymed with Ubaldo. Ubaldo Jimenez (29, RH) has been an ongoing disaster since he left Colorado fully loaded for Cleveland at the 2011 trade deadline. The Reds haven’t faced Jimenez since 2010, when he was Cy Freakin’ Young for three months. Most trips to the mound now, Jimenez resembles Neil Young.
Zach McAllister’s (25, RH) impressive ERA is belied somewhat by the underlying stats. His FIP indicates just how much he’s benefitted from an unsustainable BABIP. While he certainly has excellent games, at age twenty-five, McAllister is more Mike Leake than Mat Latos. He has never faced the Reds.
The pitching match-ups for the two games at Progressive Field:
|WED 7:05 pm||Bronson Arroyo||3.39||3.86||1.13||.326||0.8||5.2||1.2|
|THU 7:05 pm||Homer Bailey||3.08||2.79||1.13||.293||0.6||8.8||1.3|
Justin Masterson (28, RH), from southwest Ohio’s Beavercreek High School, is the ace of Cleveland’s rotation. He’s been extremely fortunate with home runs so far this year. But if he can maintain his improved strikeout rate, he stands a good chance of keeping his ERA below 3.50. Masterson had a dominating complete-game start against the Reds last year, with nine strikeouts, zero walks and giving up no earned runs and three hits in an 8-1 win.
Scott Kazmir (29, LH) is attempting a recovery from injury and ineffectiveness that in 2012 landed him on the roster of the Sugar Land Skeeters of the independent leagues, where he compiled a 5.34 ERA in 14 starts against the likes of the Bridgeport Bluefish and Camden Riversharks. This season, he’s been inconsistent at best, pitching brilliantly in some starts and getting blasted in others. Homer Bailey (whose first major league start on June 8, 2007, was against Cleveland) is his counterpart on the mound, Thursday.
Cleveland’s bullpen ranks tenth in both FIP and ERA in the American League.
After two awful outings last week, Cleveland’s closer Chris Perez did what any struggling pitcher would do. He deleted his twitter account. Perez left yesterday’s game with shoulder pain and just a few minutes ago, Cleveland put him on the 15-day Disabled List.
Cleveland’s set-up reliever, Vinnie Pestano, who you may remember getting lit up for the American team in the World Baseball Classic, has been having his own difficulties after spending two weeks on the DL with elbow tendinitis. So it’s not obvious that Pestano will take over the closer’s duties this week. That responsibility may fall on Amelia High School and Wright State University graduate, Joe Smith or fresh-faced closer-0f-the-future, Cody Allen.
Cleveland has three meh left-handed relievers this weekend, Scott Barnes, Rich Hill and Nick Hagadone. Barnes spent most of April in AAA before being called up and Hill is a well-past-prime veteran. Hagadone was called up this morning to replace Perez on the roster and sports a career 6.02 ERA in the big leagues. Votto fodder, all three.