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Series Preview: Yankees @ Reds

Despite what this first-inning photo suggests, the recent flowering of such young players as former first-round draft pick Jay Bruce has pushed the Reds to their highest attendance ranking since their ballpark's opening season. (AP)

Coming into the 2010 season, the Reds had gone 14 seasons without a playoff appearance and nine seasons without a winning record, but a recent influx of young talent, both in the lineup and starting rotation, combined with the softening of the competition in their division, created an opportunity, and the Reds seized it. Powered by National League Most Valuable Player Joe Votto, the Red led the NL in scoring in 2010, were among the best-fielding teams in the game, were better than average in preventing runs, and surged to the NL Central title, effectively icing the division by the end of August and finishing the regular season with 91 wins. They were quickly dispatched by the Phillies three aces in the Division Series, but they had established themselves as one of the more compelling young teams in the game.

This off-season, the cash-strapped Reds didn't make any major upgrades, their biggest import was World Series MVP Edgar Renteria whom they signed to be their utility infielder, but they also kept their team largely intact. Veteran shortstop Orlando Cabrera, longtime starter Aaron Harang, and fortysomething lefty set-up man Arthur Rhodes all left as a free agents, but Cabrera was the team's worst regular in 2010, Harang had become a shell of his former self, and a fragile one at that, and Rhodes was to be easily upgraded upon by 23-year-old Cuban Missile Aroldis Champman. Beyond that, the lineup was built around the young core of Votto (27), right fielder Jay Bruce (24), center fielder Drew Stubbs (26), and second baseman Brandon Phillips (30), and the rotation had both youth and depth with Edinson Volquez (27), Johnny Cueto (25), Homer Bailey (25), Travis Wood (24), and Mike Leake (23). Those players, complimented by Chapman and veterans Scott Rolen at third base, innings eater Bronson Arroyo in the rotation, and closer Francisco Cordero gave the Reds the the look of a team that wasn't likely to fade back into oblivion.

Indeed, they haven't. Though the Brewers made a big push to win in Prince Fielder's final year with the team by trading their last remaining prospects for rotation upgrades Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke, and the Cardinals have managed to remain competitive despite the injuries to and struggles of ace Adam Wainwright and Mr. Universe Albert Pujols, the Reds are hanging tight, just two games between the tied Brewers and Cards coming into today's action. That despite injuries and poor performances of their own.

In the starting rotation, only Arroyo and Wood have taken each of their assigned turns, and neither has pitched particularly well. Intended ace Volquez, who returned from Tommy John surgery late last year, struggled with his control and was briefly demoted in late May. Cueto, last year's ace, started the year on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation. Bailey, who somewhat like Phil Hughes seems perpetually on the verge of realizing the potential he held as a top prospect, is currently on the shelf with a shoulder capsule strain (he's expected back in July, but don't hold your breath), and sophomore Leake has been bounced between the rotation, bullpen, major and minors as a replacement for his injured teammates Cueto and Bailey. The result of all that has been a poor performance from the starting rotation, though it was precisely the depth on display there (the Reds have six viable major league starters, five of whom are 27 or younger, before you even get into the true replacement pitchers such as Sam LeCure or Matt Maloney) that led me to pick them to repeat as division champions (that after being, to my knowledge, the only writer outside of the Cincinnati area other than Tyler Kepner to pick the Reds to win the Central going into last season).

The Reds have also been without Chapman officially since mid-May, but really since the end of April (his final four appearances saw him walk 12 men and surrender 12 runs, two inherited, while recording just four outs) due to shoulder inflammation.

Fortunately, the rest of the bullpen is acquitting itself nicely, the Reds remain one of the best-fielding teams in baseball, and the offense is again leading the league in scoring. However, if one looks past that run total, it's a bit of a mystery as to how the offense is scoring so often. Votto leading the charge again, and leading the league in on-base percentage, but he has shed 100 points of isolated power. Phillips has also seen a considerable drop in power (roughly 50 points of isolated slugging). Rolen, who had his finest season since 2006 last year, has largely gone missing at the plate at age 36 and once again looks finished. Paul Janish, the slick-fielding shortstop who replaced Cabrera, has been an almost total zero at the plate (.227/.257/.273 with a 46 OPS+), and the 34-year-old Renteria hasn't been much better as his occasional replacement.

What has gone right is that Bruce is continuing to develop into one of the better young hitters in the league, making up for some of the power lost elsewhere in the lineup. Veteran backstop Ramon Hernandez is raking at age 35 while sharing catching duties with strike-zone expert Ryan Hanigan, resulting in an aggregate .286/.367/.413 line by the Reds' catchers, well above average for the position, and leadoff man Stubbs, while giving back a smidge of the power he showed last year, is stealing bases as a breakneck pace, on pace to swipe 44 on the season at a 92 percent success rate. That doesn't quite seem like it would translate to the league's best offense, and on the road, it doesn't (just 4.29 runs scored per game compared to 5.24 R/G in the run-friendly Great American Ballpark), but with some of the team's better players either hurt or underperforming, there remains plenty of potential for a big second-half push, and with Pujols now out for more than a month with a broken arm, the Reds once again have an opportunity they can seize.

Ivan Nova (6-4, 4.46) vs. Travis Wood (5-4, 5.11), Monday, June 20, 7:10, YES/ESPN

Johnny Cueto was originally slated to start this game, but was scratched due to a sore neck and is currently penciled in for Tuesday's game. Wood, a 24-year-old sophomore southpaw, has been hit hard by a BABIP correction this year. As a rookie last year, he impressed in part due to a .261 BABIP. This year, that number has over-corrected to .328, which has been a key factor in the more than run-and-a-half increase in his ERA. Also contributing: fewer strikeouts, more walks, more line drives, more home runs, and the sudden inability to retire lefties, who hit .136/.219/.227 against him last year but are pounding him to a .339/.411/.452 tune this year (with the BABIP monster rearing his ugly head yet again). Wood pitches off a 90-mile-per-hour four-seam fastball with a cutter, high-70s changeup, and two-seamer, but only the changeup has been missing bats this year, thus the drop in strikeouts and the reverse split. He does have an effective slider, but seems to have backed off using it, which again could explain the reduced effectiveness against lefties.

Speaking of pitch selection, Ivan Nova continues to lean heavily on his curve and four-seamer, but there have been some signs of progress. Per Texas Leaguers, in his last start (5 2/3 IP, 4 R against the Rangers), Nova threw four changeups, one cutter, and eight two-seamers. In his strong outing against the Indians the turn before, he threw six changeups, two cutters, and four two-seamers. That's something. He threw just one cutter in all of May. Nova is 5-2 with a 3.61 ERA over his last ten starts (thanks in part to some hearty run support, the Yankees scored 23 runs in the last two games he started), and his opponents' batting line in their third at-bat of a game is down to a less-than-alarming .270/.365/.419. He's also finally getting the ground balls that were key to his success in the minors. Over his last five starts, he has a 1.55 groundball-to-fly ball ratio compared to just 1.06 in the five starts before that.

Brian Gordon (0-0, 3.38) vs. Johnny Cueto (4-2, 1.68), Tuesday, June 21, 7:10, Ch. 9/MLBN

I'll have some more thoughts on Gordon tomorrow, but what I saw from him in his Yankee debut, and first major league start, reminded me a lot of early-season Ivan Nova: mostly fastball/curveball, unimpressive peripherals (just three strikeouts and as many walks in 5 1/3 frames, 13 of his 18 balls in play in the air), and the sense that the Rangers were able to figure him out rather quickly (.583 OPS first time through the order, .819 second time, 1.225 third time). His pitch selection seemed rather predictable to me: fastballs early, curveballs late, and I saw some of those Rangers hitter anticipate the curve in their later at-bats. I'll be curious to see if Gordon gives the Reds a different look in this game, or if the Reds, having had a chance to watch video of that first start, hit him like they know what's coming.

Cueto, whose sore neck could bounce him from this start as well, started the season on the disabled list due to inflammation in his pitching shoulder, but, as that ERA suggests, has been sharp ever since returning in early May. The 5-foot-10 righty enters this start having not allowed an earned run in 14 2/3 innings going back three starts to a Matt Kemp solo home run, one of just three home runs he has allowed in 53 2/3 innings on the season. Despite the slow erosion of his strikeout rate, Cueto, who is still just 25, has shown steady improvement over his four major league seasons. His walk and home run rates have also steadily decreased, bringing his ERA and WHIP down with them. Thus far this year, he's also been aided by considerable luck on balls in play (.238 BABIP), though some of that can be traced to the fact that he's suddenly inducing more groundballs than fly balls, dropping his line-drive rate and spiking his double-plays in the process.

Those groundballs, as well as the drop in strikeouts, which is less problematic if he can keep getting those grounders, seem to be the direct result of Cueto's increased reliance on his 93-mile-per-hour two-seam fastball and corresponding easing off his slider. Per TexasLeaguers.com, Cueto threw the slider more than any other pitch last year and threw both that pitch and two-seamer roughly 30 percent of the time. This year, he has thrown the two-seam fastball nearly 44 percent of the time, while going to the slider just 26 percent of the time. The rest of his pitches are four-seam fastballs and a few changeups.

Freddy Garcia (5-6, 3.63) vs. Mike Leake (6-3, 4.04), Wednesday, June 22, 12:35, YES

The eighth overall pick in the 2009 draft, Arizona State's Mike Leake threw 138 1/3 major league innings in 2010 before making his minor league debut on May 18 of this year. Leake went 8-4 with a 3.78 ERA in 22 starts as a 22-year-old rookie last year before being bounced to the bullpen and ultimately shut down due to an innings limit. This year, he went 3-1 with a 5.77 ERA while keeping Cueto's rotation spot warm in April, went to the bullpen for three appearances, Triple-A for two, then returned to the big league rotation at the end of May as a replacement for the injured Homer Bailey. In five starts since then, all quality, he has gone 3-1 with a 2.31 ERA while averaging seven innings per start, thanks in part to just five walks and two home runs allowed in 35 innings.

Leake isn't a stud. He throws a variety of high-80s stuff (cutter, sinker, a slightly slower slider) and spots a change and curve. Ideally, he's a groundballer, but while he does get most of his outs on the ground, he does not get the majority of his balls in play on the ground, which limits his ability to dominate given that with few walks and a sub-par strikeout rate, his opponents put a lot of balls in play. Still, he's just 23 and has already proven he can get by at the major league level. He's also a career .307/.358/.437 hitter, though most of that has been luck on balls in play (.451) in the form of groundballs finding holes.

Despite their injuries, the Yankees have only used seven different starting pitchers this year, and of those seven only Garcia and Phil Hughes (0-1) have losing records. Garcia has actually received the decision in each of his last ten starts, two of which, including Friday's start against the Cubs, were quality starts that he lost due to the Yankees scoring just one run in each game. Five of Garcia's last six starts have been quality, but the exception was a 1 2/3-inning disaster against the Red Sox.

Garcia has the second-lowest ERA in interleague history (minimum 100 innings), with a 2.92 mark (David Wells leads at 2.79), and has thus far turned in two quality seven-inning outings in his two interleague starts for the Yankees, against the Mets and Cubs. The homer-friendly Great American Ballpark may seem like a bad fit for him, but he pitched well in his two previous starts there, though the most recent came in 2007, and has allowed just two home runs in his last five starts this season.

Cincinnati Reds

2011 Record: 38-35 (.521)
2011 Third-Order Record: 37-36 (.503)

2010 Record: 91-71 (.562)
2010 Third-Order Record: 89-73 (.549)

Manager: Dusty Baker
General Manager: Walt Jocketty

Home Ballpark: Great American Ball Park

Bill James Park Indexes (2008-2010):
LH Avg-100; LH HR-111
RH Avg-102; RH HR-125

Who's replacing whom:

• Paul Janish takes over Orlando Cabrera's playing time
• Edgar Renteria replaces Janish on the bench
• Fred Lewis takes over some of Jonny Gomes' playing time
• Edinson Volquez takes over Aaron Harang's starts
• Travis Wood is filling in for Homer Bailey (DL)
• Jeremy Horst is filling in for Aroldis Chapman (DL), who replaces Arthur Rhodes
• Jose Arredondo (DL) replaces Jordan Smith (mL)
• Bill Bray takes over Danny Herrera's innings
• Carlos Fisher takes over Micah Owings's innings

25-man roster:

1B - Joey Votto (L)
2B - Brandon Phillips (R)
SS - Paul Janish (R)
3B - Scott Rolen (R)
C - Ryan Hanigan (R)
RF - Jay Bruce (L)
CF - Drew Stubbs (R)
LF - Fred Lewis (L)

Bench:

R - Jonny Gomes (OF)
R - Edgar Renteria (IF)
R - Chris Heisey (OF)
R - Miguel Cairo (IF)
R - Ramon Hernandez (C)

Rotation:

R - Bronson Arroyo
R - Johnny Cueto
L - Travis Wood
R - Mike Leake
R - Edinson Volquez

Bullpen:

R - Francisco Cordero
R - Nick Masset
L - Bill Bray
R - Logan Ondrusek
R - Jose Arredondo
R - Carlos Fisher
L - Jeremy Horst

15-day DL:

RHP - Homer Bailey (posterior capsule strain in right shoulder)
LHP - Aroldis Chapman (left shoulder inflammation)
RHP - Sam LeCure (right forearm strain)

60-day DL:

LHP - Matt Maloney (fractured rib)
RHP - Jared Burton (right shoulder inflammation)

Typical Lineup:

R - Drew Stubbs (CF)
R - Brandon Phillips (2B)
L - Joey Votto (1B)
R - Scott Rolen (3B)
L - Jay Bruce (RF)
L - Fred Lewis (LF)
R - Ryan Hanigan (C)
R - Paul Janish (SS)