Latos' return restores Reds' rotation order

The Reds came into the season knowing they’d have some challenges if they wanted to secure their third straight 90-win season, a feat they most recently accomplished with a run of five years ending in 1976. Lineup catalyst Shin-Soo Choo took his .423 on-base percentage to Texas, leaving the leadoff spot to speedy but unproven Billy Hamilton. Hamilton had managed a paltry .308 on-base percentage in Triple-A before getting a cup of coffee with Cincinnati in September. A drop in RBI opportunities and overall run scoring was to be expected.

The Reds' pitching staff would have to be even better than it had been the previous season, when it yielded the fewest hits and third-fewest walks in the National League. Cincinnati let 36-year-old, 14-game winner Bronson Arroyo and his yearly workload of 200 innings go to free agency. They were counting on the continued growth of Mike Leake and Tony Cingrani, as well as a return to health by Johnny Cueto. Even bigger things were expected of Homer Bailey, who put together his best overall season in 2013 and was rewarded with a six-year deal. But Mat Latos was going to be the real wild card in the rotation.

Latos, 28-11 with a 3.32 ERA in his first two seasons with the Reds, had elbow surgery to remove bone chips in October and then needed meniscus surgery on his left knee in February. His status for Opening Day was already going to be “doubtful,” but he then suffered a flexor strain while rehabbing, thus pushing his 2014 debut back even further.

Fortunately for Cincy, reliever Alfredo Simon stepped into the rotation and racked up nine wins in 13 starts. However, injuries to Jonathan Broxton and Aroldis Chapman threw the bullpen into disarray early in the season, and coming into Saturday’s contest against Milwaukee, the Reds were tied for the fourth-highest bullpen OPS in the league. At 32-34, the Reds started the day 7.5 games behind their evening’s opposition -- but only 2.5 games out of the second wild card.

Latos, making his season debut, would be facing the surprise of the division, as the Brewers have used a torrid April to sit atop the division at 40-28. Entering Saturday's game, however, the Brew Crew was a mere .500 team since May 1 (20-20), and while they were a league-best 12-4 versus lefties, they were only 28-24 against righties.

Latos benefitted from the Brewers’ free-swinging ways (MLB-worst 3.64 pitches per plate appearance) and breezed through the first five innings in 63 pitches (42 strikes), with four strikeouts. His only blemish was a second-inning single by Aramis Ramirez. Latos got two quick outs in the sixth inning, but then a borderline 1-2 pitch to Scooter Gennett was called a ball and the at-bat ended up lasting 13 pitches, with Gennett doubling to end a streak of 13 straight batters retired.

Those extra pitches helped end Latos’ night a bit earlier than might have been otherwise and perhaps exposed the Reds' bullpen one inning early.

Coming into the game, the Reds had the fourth-highest defensive efficiency in baseball, but a couple of lapses led to the Brewers taking the lead on Cincinnati’s shaky bullpen. Logan Ondrusek allowed the first two batters he saw to reach in the seventh, then Hamilton’s too-high throw on a fly ball to medium center field allowed both runners to move up. After an RBI groundout, Brayan Pena allowed a passed ball, which gave the Brewers a 2-1 lead.

Although Hamilton atoned for his mistake by tying the game with a rare homer off lefty Will Smith in the eighth, J.J. Hoover couldn’t keep it tied and allowed a two-run opposite-field homer to Ryan Braun. Those were the deciding runs in the Brewers’ 4-2 win.

Going forward, Latos’ return is another piece toward restoring order to the Reds' rotation, with a possible trickle-down effect of less work for the beleaguered bullpen. It seems unlikely manager Bryan Price would move Simon back to the bullpen, given his terrific performance in the rotation thus far. However, Hoover and Manny Parra are pitching much worse than their stellar ledgers of 2013, and the seventh inning in particular has been a horror show (Cincinnati's .828 OPS in that inning is the worst in the league). With the offense struggling, it's no surprise the Reds have been involved in the second most one-run games in the league (26), despite the efforts of Cueto and Simon.

If (and it's a big if) the Reds can figure out their bullpen and get their offense in sync, the Cueto-Latos-Bailey troika could be lethal in October.

Diane Firstman runs the Value Over Replacement Grit blog. Follow here on Twitter @dianagram.