Now 11 games over .500 after beating the Cardinals on Saturday night, the Cincinnati Reds might seem like they’re in a good spot with the fifth-best record in the league. As long as they continue to be just that wee bit better than mediocre, they can probably count on making it as far as the one-game wild card play-in. The Phillies have already excused themselves in the last week, while the Diamondbacks and Nationals don’t seem likely to achieve escape velocity from their orbits around .500.
While a third trip to the postseason on Dusty Baker’s watch seems likely, though, this isn’t as strong a team as it looks like at first glance. The lineup that ranks fourth in the league in runs scored with 4.3 per game might appear to be humming along with Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto getting on base and Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce driving them in.
But it’s far from a perfect offense. Despite gaudy RBI totals generated by getting to bat behind Choo and Votto, Phillips isn’t a perfect cleanup man. The Reds are getting below-average offense from five different positions, including second base, the others being catcher, short, left (absent Ryan Ludwick) and third base.
Third? Didn’t the Reds just get a top prospect break through there? Sadly, not so much. Todd Frazier has struggled badly as a sophomore, with a .718 OPS that represents a 100-point tumble from his rookie season; add in last season’s September fade and that Frazier is producing a woeful .581 OPS on the road, and you might wonder if he’s really a long-term answer.
One of the especially crippling problems the lineup has is the woeful performance of its right-handed hitting regulars against right-handed pitching, or almost half of the Reds’ plate appearances. Even with the advantage of getting to hit in a bash-boosting ballpark like the Gap when they’re home, the Reds’ righty bats are hitting a pathetic .219/.274/.330. Big culprits include everyday players such as second baseman Phillips (.673 OPS vs. RHPs) and shortstop Zack Cozart (.634). Chris Heisey was supposed to help improve the offense when he came back from the DL to man left field; instead, he has chipped in a .558 OPS versus righties.
How bad is the issue? The team’s collective .604 OPS from righties against righties through Friday night’s action ranks 14th in the National League, bettering only the Marlins. Using Baseball-Reference.com’s OPS indices for league-relative splits, if 100 would be normal, the Reds’ 74 for righty-on-righty performance barely betters the Marlins’ 71. When you’re better at something than one of the worst offenses in the era of divisional play, you don’t really get to brag, you merely hope that nobody else notices.
Unfortunately, the Reds won’t have that luxury, especially not if they’re matched up against the Cardinals -- and either one of the Birds’ top-tier right-handers, Adam Wainwright or Shelby Miller. While anything can happen in sudden death, that sounds more like one-and-done than something won as postseasons go.
One source of improvement is supposed to be left fielder Ryan Ludwick, out since Opening Day and working hard to get back in action to prove that his surgically repaired shoulder is sound while also trying to get his bat back up to speed. Ludwick is the rare righty whose career line is stronger against right-handed pitching (.811 career OPS, versus .774 against lefties). If Baker’s preference for Ludwick to get another week-plus of minor-league playing time is any guide, Ludwick will be back in action mid-month.
Maybe Ludwick helps fix the problem, but that leaves the Reds with just two weeks to evaluate him and make a decision on whether they need to add a bat before the waiver trade deadline, compressing an already tough decision into an impossibly small timeframe. Kvetching about sample size will be pointless -- there won’t be enough results to say much of anything either way. They’ll simply have to make a tough call.
Happily enough for the Reds, Saturday’s game provided more than just a win against the Cardinals, it also gave them a reason to believe things might be getting better where Devin Mesoraco is concerned. Ripping a pair of home runs on Saturday gave him four since the break. If Mesoraco is finally settling into a groove at the plate, it can’t come a moment too soon for a Reds organization that had expected him to have long since blossomed into a top-tier hitter at catcher, going all the way back to when they made him the 15th overall selection in the draft in 2007. The well-worn bromide that catchers develop later doesn’t have a lot of statistical support for it, but if Mesoraco finally breaks out in his age-25 season, it couldn’t come a moment too soon.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.