Reds in trouble without healthy Joey Votto

Steve Mancuso of Redleg Nation wrote about Jay Bruce playing first base in Monday's game for the Reds:

First of all, if you think Joey Votto isn’t going on the DL, I’ve got some World Series tickets from 2013 to sell you. Face value.

Second, this is a huge, gigantic, enormous hit defensively in the OF and likely at 1B, as Jay Bruce *plays the infield* for the first time in his career.

Third, in the short run, all this means is that we get double the crappy left-field platoon. This was always the problem with the plan to play Devin Mesoraco at 1B; it just meant we got a light-hitting catcher in the lineup. The "Hey, we can play so-and-so for Joey Votto" works best when the new player in the lineup isn’t a terrible hitter.

The most important issue is the first one. It doesn't matter how the Reds ultimately patchwork the lineup once Votto lands on the DL as expected. The Reds need Votto if they are going to make the playoffs; better yet, they need a healthy Votto. He has essentially been playing on one leg, and it's showed in his numbers. Since returning from a DL stint earlier this year, he has hit .250 with zero home runs and a .699 OPS, as opposed to .859 before the DL.

"It's becoming apparent in the quality of his play that it's not just something that's an inconvenience," Reds manager Bryan Price said. "It's getting to the point where it's very difficult for him to compete."

Justin Havens of ESPN Stats & Information and "Baseball Tonight" host Jon Sciambi also pointed out that Votto hasn't been the same hitter since he injured his knee sliding into third base in a game against the Giants on June 29, 2012. Before that, he had a career slugging percentage of .559, including .600 in his 2010 MVP season, .531 in 2011 and .639 in 2012 before that slide. Since then, he owns a .459 slugging percentage, and the numbers show he's especially been less effective on outside pitches.

Critics have suggested Votto is too passive at the plate. As Justin points out, however, Votto has actually swung more often at outside pitches; he's just not getting the ball in the air and driving it with power as often. This could be because of the knee and hamstring injuries.

The immediate problem for the Reds is that, without Votto, this is a lineup with OBP issues. Entering Monday's game, Billy Hamilton had a .301 OBP, Brandon Phillips .308 and Zack Cozart .274. Bruce has yet to get on track with a .312 OBP and eight home runs, but he's never been a big OBP guy anyway (.329 career). Mesoraco and Todd Frazier made the All-Star Game with big first halves, but can they repeat those performances?

The long-term problem for the Reds is that this is the first season of the 10-year extension Votto signed in April 2012, and the Reds will owe him $213 million after this season. A first baseman without much power and a bad knee isn't going to be worth that kind of money, even if Votto can continue to post OBPs around .400.

That's in the future. For now, I'm not sure the Reds can score enough runs to stay in the tough National League Central race. The rotation has kept the Reds over .500 with the second-best ERA in the majors, but what are the odds Johnny Cueto runs a 1.99 ERA in the second half and Alfredo Simon goes 11-3 with a 2.78 ERA?

Hey, it could happen. Bruce could swat 20 home runs in the second half, Mesoraco and Frazier could stay hot, and the Reds could pick up an outfielder who provides value for two months. Maybe Votto just needs to rest his hamstring for a couple weeks.

The NL Central is a four-team race right now. But if Votto's injury issues limit him the rest of the way, I see it turning into a three-team race.