It has been my belief for some time that the Reds have turned a corner and are starting to become a fairly well run organization. They've got a lot of young talent in the minors, and they seem to be making smarter investments in the team. In my mind, the big thing holding them back now was Dusty Baker. As the season has progressed though, I'm finding myself wondering if Dusty's learned a few things himself.
I've have two main complaints about Baker over the years.
- He has been known to favor veterans over younger talent.
- He has a history of abusing his starting pitching.
I really thought there was no way that Leake, Wood, or Chapman would win the Spring Training battle for the fifth starter spot, so I was quite surprised when Leake got the nod. Of course, the more veteran options were terrible, and the Reds really had no choice but to select between the youngsters. Still, at the end of Spring Training, I was not so believing that anything had changed. The top young position prospects - Frazier, Heisey, and Francisco in particular - really didn't see much playing time in the spring and weren't sent down until just before the season got underway. In Francisco's case, he initially made the club - to pinch hit instead of play regularly - but that was just until Leake had to be placed on the active roster on his first day to pitch.
Since then though, Baker has really shown me something in his handling of the Drew Stubbs situation. Clearly, Stubbs is struggling at the plate. Between that and the atrocious handling of the Willy Tavares fiasco last year, I fully expected Baker to sour on Stubbs. To his credit, Baker has stood by Stubbs, and his effort to move Stubbs down in the lineup to help rebuild his confidence appears to be a good move even with no real viable options at the top of the order. In the six games since the move, Stubbs is 7 for 24 with two homers and 8 RBIs (according to baseball-reference.com). In addition to Stubbs, Baker has been giving more playing time to Ryan Hanigan as well, which I'm glad to see. I'd still like to see Heisey get more time, but with Gomes hitting well right now, it's understandable that Heisey's not getting more opportunities.
The other thing I've been pleased to see is that Baker has overworked his starting pitchers nearly as bad as in the past. I was particularly worried about Leake, given his lack of professional experience. Baker hasn't allowed him to throw more than 106 pitches in a game yet though. We'll have to see if Baker will be able to pull Leake when he finally labors through a start. Baker hasn't been so kind to Homer Bailey so far this year. Bailey has been allowed to throw more than 110 pitches twice so far this season, going as high as 121 pitches on May 1 against the Cardinals (when he REALLY shouldn't have been allowed to face Pujols in that final at bat). Still, that doesn't compare to the end of last season when Baker allowed Bailey to throw 112 or more pitches in 7 of his final 9 starts (including 6 in a row). Bronson Arroyo has not thrown more than 109 pitches in a game this year, but he threw more than that in ten different games last season. Aaron Harang already has five games this season where he's thrown fewer than 105 pitches after having only 10 such games all last year. On the other hand, Harang has thrown games of 116 and 121 pitches already this season. Johnny Cueto did go as high as 118 pitches on May 5, but other than that hasn't topped 110. (Of course, last year Cueto never topped 112.) Also encouraging is that after each of the five games where a Reds starter has exceeded 110 pitches (twice each by Bailey and Harang, once by Cueto), that pitcher was given an extra day of rest before his next start.
If Dusty can keep this pitching staff healthy and can take make use of some of the nearly-ready talent in the high minors down the stretch this year, the Reds may just have enough to make a run at the Wild Card (if not the Cardinals). That's still not likely to happen, but it is a whole lot likelier than I thought it was when the season began.