They were in fifth place a week and a half ago. They were being outscored by their opponents for the season until Monday. They're hitting .233 with men in scoring position. They've won just half their one-run games (7-7). And their entire starting rotation makes less money than Jose Contreras.
So no wonder the hottest question in baseball is: Are the Reds for real?
People we've surveyed sure have lots of reservations. But as long as Junior Griffey, Sean Casey, Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns can make it out onto the field (and the Reds were 16-4, through Tuesday, with all those guys in the lineup), this team is legitimately dangerous.
As one NL scout put it, "How can you say they're not for real until they show you they're not? Casey, Dunn, Kearns and Griffey are as good as any four guys you could find anyplace."
But a high-ranking official of one club that played the Reds recently has his doubts.
"There's no fooling the game," he said. "It's too long a season. By the time Cinderella gets to September, it's going home as Cinderella or it's Miss America, because it's proved it's the real thing."
And there are many skeptics who still need to be sold on a Reds rotation that includes nobody with a chance to blow a fuse on any radar guns.
"On a staff like the Cubs, with all those 'stuff guys' like (Carlos) Zambrano and (Kerry) Wood, guys can get away with not having good command," the same NL scout said. "But with guys like this, what happens if they start to make mistakes? ...
"What happens after clubs have seen guys like (Aaron) Harang and (Cory) Lidle more than once, and they've got some innings on their arms? It will be interesting to see how they hold up, if they get a little more vulnerable as the year goes on."
Really Rumbling & Grumbling
Aaron Boone has found himself in more rumors lately than J-Lo. But despite everything you may have heard, this guy doesn't figure to sign anywhere before July -- and may not be ready to play until late August or September.
The consensus of clubs that have kicked the tires on this front is that Boone is likely to wind up with the Angels, Dodgers or Indians. But half the teams in baseball have interest.
You can never count out the Yankees or Red Sox, even though neither has an opening at Boone's preferred position, third base. And anything is possible, depending on how many years clubs are willing to offer him beyond this season.
Boone has told former teammates his "slight" preference is to play on the west coast and spend spring training in Arizona. So that has "Angels" written all over it. But there has been no firm indication from the Angels that they have even called to express interest, despite their obvious need for a third baseman in the post-Glausian era.
Royals GM Allard Baird hasn't told the entrants in the Carlos Beltran derby to move into the starter's gate quite yet. But get back to us in two weeks.
Clubs that have spoken with the Royals say Baird has told them that if his team doesn't make some kind of move up in the standings in its current run of division games against Detroit and Minnesota, he'll be ready to listen. And not just on Beltran.
Virtually any veteran player would be available, but it's impossible to believe Mike Sweeney is going anywhere. Sweeney has a limited no-trade. His contract would inflate from $11 million to $12.5 million a year (through 2007) if he's dealt. And, as one baseball man put it, "Allard doesn't trade people he loves. And he loves Mike."
The Yankees' next major acquisition? It could be the next Yankee Stadium. A source in New York City reports that the city is quietly moving ahead on plans to build new parks for both the Yankees (in the Bronx) and the Mets (in Queens) -- and could announce both before the end of this season.
One team that's not ready to trade everybody and pack it in yet is the Giants. In a division in which the Dodgers and Padres just spent two weeks heading backwards, clubs that have spoken with the Giants say they won't even consider going into "sell" mode until mid-July. But don't be shocked if Tony Torcato and Brian Dallimore get an extended opportunity to play over the Jeffrey Hammonds of the planet.
It will set a beautiful precedent for unhappy players everywhere if Raul Mondesi can void his contract in Pittsburgh, then wind up with a two-year deal with a club more to his liking. But there are rumblings that could well happen sometime in the next month -- with St. Louis, Seattle and Anaheim all believed to be knocking on his door. Let's just say plenty of people in the game will be appalled if that's how it works out.
"From what I can tell, this never had anything to do with the safety of his family," says an executive of one team that had mild interest in Mondesi in the past. "He never wanted any parts of being in Pittsburgh. He wasn't happy with his contract from the minute he signed it."
It now appears that unless Richie Sexson can somehow avoid shoulder surgery, he'll be done for the year. Which will mean, essentially, that the Diamondbacks traded six players for the joy of watching Sexson do his thing for a month.
"To me," says an official of one NL team, "that puts a lot of pressure on the club to sign this guy long-term, and it really puts the player in the driver's seat. How can you justify getting rid of all those players and then have this guy for a month? Can you let him get away for a draft pick?"
Good point. But Arizona GM Joe Garagiola Jr.'s response is: "Our intention was always to re-sign him. I think he's very happy here. He likes everything about our situation. So I don't know that this increases the pressure. What it most certainly will do is accelerate the timetable. Our normal concern in negotiating contracts like this during the season is that it becomes a distraction. But if the player is out, that's no longer an issue."
As the potential July sellers begin to separate themselves from the buyers, there appears little question that the two starting pitchers who figure to attract the most attention before the trading deadline are Kris Benson and Freddy Garcia.
Opinions are mixed on the reliability of both of those guys. But one scout who saw Benson recently puts him at the top of his team's list.
"All this guy needs is a better pitching plan," the scout said. "He's throwing 93-96 mph with a good slider. I just think he throws too much to one side of the plate (outer half). He doesn't use both sides effectively, because he rushes out on his delivery. But this guy has good enough stuff to win."
One team that has already checked in on Benson says the Pirates are looking for young, impact position players back.
First off, teams that have talked to the Yankees say they're still sitting back, trying to assess their needs, and aren't ready to make any kind of major trade.
Second, Polanco has been battling the same deep quad strain since late last season and has reinjured it several times.
Third, the Phillies aren't interested in trading him even once he gets healthy, no matter how good Utley has been. So ... next rumor.
Derek Lowe is no threat to get traded this year. But with his free agency looming, he's being watched by a lot of eyeballs -- and most of them are puzzled by what they see.
"Whatever his problem is, it's all in his head," said one scout. "His stuff is no different."
"If I was just going to sign one pitcher this winter, I'd be a little hesitant on him," said another AL scout. "I'd be interested if I got a horse to slot in ahead of him. But I wouldn't make him my No. 1. That's not what he is."
One baseball man who is in on the World Cup negotiations says he'd put the odds of pulling off this extravaganza for next March are still about 50-50. But that's actually a lot higher than they once seemed.
"Three months ago, I probably would have said the chances were 20 percent, and now they're 50 percent," he said. "There are still a lot of details to be worked out."
The Phillies continue to scratch their heads trying to figure out why the home run rate at Citizens Bank Park (3.00 per game) has been essentially identical so far to the rate at Coors Field (3.04 per game). The new park has similar dimensions to Veterans Stadium and identical weather. And wind studies never predicted this kind of hitter's paradise.
Instead, what they've found is that the wind has had very little effect, making the fences eminently reachable in both gaps. But they've also noticed that the Phillies have outhomered their opponents at home, 38-22. So it might not all be the park.
"I'll acknowledge the ball is flying out of our ballpark," Wade said. "But I'd also like to think the guys in our lineup are partly to blame for that happening."
Mike Lieberthal, who spent more years hitting at the Vet than anyone on the roster, says the new park is more a mini-Camden Yards than a mini-Coors. But the effect is that "the more comfortable guys get, the more confident they get hitting here, because of the way the ball carries."
The Padres' new park, on the other hand, may have had the opposite effect.
"We've definitely had some guys overswinging," said Jay Payton, "trying to hit the ball out of the park."
But Brian Giles sees that changing, the more his team plays in Petco.
"I think the park really suits our team," Giles told Rumblings. "We're not the kind of team that's going to win a bunch of games by sitting back waiting to hit three-run homers, anyway. We're going to be aggressive on the basepaths and aggressive in making things happen. And it's good for our pitchers, to challenge and use the defense."
"His delivery is way better," one scout said of Perez. "He's way more in control than he used to be in San Diego."
"With him," said another scout, "it was always about command, because you have to love his stuff. He has lightning stuff."
Stat of the Week
Starting pitchers hooked most in mid-inning:
Russ Ortiz, Braves 7
John Lackey, Angels 7
Elmer Dessens, Diamondbacks 6
Casey Daigle, Diamondbacks 6
Brett Tomko, Giants 6
Brian Anderson, Royals 6
Jimmy Gobble, Royals 6
Chan Ho Park, Rangers 6
R.A. Dickey, Rangers 6
Injuries of the Week
Third prize: Pirates shortstop Jack Wilson twists his knee, bending over to pick up his son's toy.
Second prize: David Wells needs right-wrist surgery and stitches in his left palm after a bar-stool mishap in his house.
First prize: Sammy Sosa winds up on the disabled list after throwing out his back sneezing -- and can't even lie about it because he did it while speaking with reporters.
All of which has inspired us to round up our five favorite Things That Never Happened To Cal Ripken Over The Last 20 Years:
1. The all-time anti-Ripken, Chris Brown, once missed a game with a "strained eyelid."
2. Reds pitcher Steve Foster blew out his shoulder knocking down milk bottles on the Tonight Show.
3. Steve Sparks dislocated his shoulder trying to rip a phone book in half after watching it done during a spring-training motivational speech.
4. David Cone missed a start after getting bitten by his mother's dog.
5. Vince Coleman missed an entire postseason after getting swallowed by the tarp machine in St. Louis.