Anthony Castrovince

Votto's injury shakes up NL Central race

Castrovince: Votto's injury shakes up division

Votto's injury shakes up NL Central race
The harsh reality is that the Cincinnati Reds' offense wasn't elite with the best hitter in the National League filling the No. 3 spot, so it only stands to reason that it's going to be all but impossible to put together playoff-caliber production without him for the next three to four weeks.

That's the meat of the matter, now that Joey Votto's left knee is about to undergo arthroscopy, and this is an injury with the potential to reshape a tight NL Central race.

No, the loss of Votto, who should recover relatively quickly and be back in time for the stretch run, is not a deal breaker for the Reds. Not with the Cardinals struggling to string together an effective relief unit and the Pirates still unproven in the late-season success department.

But it is going to be awfully interesting to see how this development impacts the dealing leading up to the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. We might just see an increase in aggression on the part of any of the three aforementioned clubs, and we might even see the Brewers change course in trade territory.

Votto is simply irreplaceable, which is why the Reds have more than $200 million invested in him in the first place. And a Reds team that was already desperate for an injection of upside in either the leadoff or cleanup spot (Brandon Phillips can fill one or the other) is now really left scrambling.

This Reds club is a contender because of its pitching staff -- one that endured more than its share of unpleasant surprises in the bullpen injury department early on and has seen five men take the ball for each and every start of the 2012 season. How long the Reds can reliably lean on that staff remains to be seen. Of said five starters, only Johnny Cueto, with a 2.39 ERA and 174 adjusted ERA+ (74 points above league average) has performed at a truly elite level (not that Tony La Russa took notice).

And so the hope was to find a bat to improve on an offense that averages 4.2 runs per game -- a middle-of-the-road tally in the NL. But now that hope has become a necessity. And if the Reds were leaning toward leadoff help -- with Shane Victorino, Denard Span and David DeJesus among the realistic options -- one wonders if they might shift toward a run producer. Carlos Quentin and Josh Willingham have to look especially enticing at the moment.

But again, neither one is Votto.

Don't ask the Cardinals to cry for the Reds, for they've already endured the agony of losing their co-ace Chris Carpenter before the season started and then learning he will not be back to help them. But the Cards have the most productive offense in the league, and so it says here that they cannot be ruled out from making another second-half surge. But they'll miss Carpenter's innings-eating presence, and, as was the case in '11, a bullpen upgrade is in order. That was true both before and after the Votto development that shook the division.

What the Votto injury could impact is the Brewers' outlook. They entered the week eight back in the division, and, as the Cards demonstrated last year, that's not insurmountable. Rampant trade and/or extension speculation has surrounded Zack Greinke, but with Greinke pitching poorly this month and now taking a 10-day hiatus, he hardly seems top trade target material. Given the circumstances in Cincinnati, perhaps Doug Melvin's best bet is to hold on to his ace, after all.

But the Votto ramifications are perhaps most pertinent with the Pirates.

Forget the mere feat of finishing over .500 for the first time in two decades. What the Pirates have here is an opportunity to bring playoff baseball back to the Steel City, and the obviousness of that opportunity increased exponentially Monday.

It's unfair to assume, as some no doubt have, that the Pirates are due for a significant second-half regression just because that's what happened last year. But given the fact that a significant percentage of the Buccos' success has come in one-run games and the bullpen is bound to hit some bumps in the road, it would be understandable if Neal Huntington and Co. shied away from a major Deadline move. And by major, I mean dangling the likes of Gerrit Cole or Jameson Taillon (much in the same way the Indians dangled Drew Pomeranz and Alex White a year ago) to land an elite bat (Justin Upton, perhaps?) or arm (Cole Hamels, anyone?).

With Votto out for a significant stretch, perhaps the Pirates' killer instinct kicks in. Winning is difficult, as the Pirates have proven the last 20 years, and these competitive opportunities are guaranteed to no one -- especially small markets. Sometimes you sacrifice some of the future to augment the present, and the present just got a lot more interesting in the NL Central.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.