CINCINNATI -- Even for a team that's been on a roll like the Reds, the All-Star break could not have come soon enough. This is a team in need of rest, mainly to heal and regroup after an injury-filled first half saw even more key players go down in recent days.
Despite being at less than full strength much of the season, the Reds are still right in the middle of the fight for the National League Central. They survived falling to six games under .500 on May 29 and stayed with it after being 8 1/2 games behind the first-place Brewers on June 20. They are now 1 1/2 games out in third place with a 51-44 record under first-year manager Bryan Price, after winning eight of their last 11 games before the break.
Five key developments, so far
1. Billy Hamilton
The rookie has been a show like no other as he has literally "developed" some skills on the big league stage. We knew he could run really fast. But he's caught on quickly at the plate, can handle himself under pressure and is already one of the best defensive center fielders in the game.
2. The rotation sizzles
Ace Johnny Cueto bounced back from an injury-plagued 2013 and is an NL Cy Young Award contender. Homer Bailey survived a tough beginning and has been mostly strong, while Mike Leake has been pretty consistent. Mat Latos is finally off the disabled list and seems back to where he once was. And Alfredo Simon went from the bullpen to a fill-in starter to a 12-game winner ready for more success.
3.Young bats take over
Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco have emerged as the Reds' best two sources of power and production. Both were deservedly named as All-Stars. Frazier has been dependable throughout, even when the offense sagged early, and Mesoraco stayed on a tear despite two early trips to the disabled list.
4.Pain and suffering
The season started with eight players on the DL, including Mesoraco, Latos and closer Aroldis Chapman. The team finally reached full strength in June, but that proved to be short-lived. Votto, who was never 100 percent after returning from a strained left quadriceps, is back on the DL. Phillips is out for six weeks after he needed left thumb surgery to repair a torn tendon. Bailey (knee) and Latos (back) also exited their most recent starts early with injuries but weren't expected to miss more time.
|MVP: Todd Frazier
Has led the team offensively while playing excellent defensively.
|Top starter: Johnny Cueto
Having his best season yet, and one of the best in the NL.
|Top rookie: Billy Hamilton
Already one of the most exciting players in baseball and learning quickly.
|Top reliever: Aroldis Chapman
A 102-mph fastball and a 90-mph changeup? Hitters say "yikes."
5. Chapman stronger than ever
Chapman's season didn't begin until May 11, after he recovered from a horrific line drive to the face that fractured bones above his left eye in March. Since returning, he has pitched at his best yet by developing two plus secondary pitches -- a slider and a 90-mph changeup -- to go with his triple-digit fastball.
Five second-half storylines to keep an eye on
1. The offense
The Reds were ranked at or near the bottom in several offensive categories in April and May before climbing back up in June and July. Until recently, they haven't often shown they can come back from being down early. There will need to be even more resiliency from the team in the second half to stay with the other contenders.
2. The Votto situation
Votto did not produce a home run after returning from the DL on June 10 as he was often compromised at the plate by his balky left leg. Assuming he returns, how close to 100 percent would he be this time? If he remains out for an extended period, should the club trade for a first baseman? Or should the Reds stick with the hodgepodge of Brayan Pena, Frazier, Jay Bruce and perhaps Ryan Ludwick to get by?
Players to watch in second half
Has done just about everything -- but steal home or hit an inside-the-park home run. Both are due to happen.
Enduring his worst offensive season, but has heated up lately. His bat is needed to keep the team winning.
Missed most of the first half with injuries, but can be a second ace behind Johnny Cueto.
3. Bullpen issues
The back end of the bullpen, primarily Chapman and Jonathan Broxton, have been mostly airtight this season. Cincinnati has experienced more trouble on the front end with inconsistency from the likes of Logan Ondrusek and J.J. Hoover. The rotation's success in going deeper in games has lessened the need for relievers lately, but that need will come again sooner or later.
4. Deadline deal making
By rising back up in the standings, the Reds will not be sellers when the July 31 Trade Deadline comes. But will they be buyers? General manager Walt Jocketty has rarely made Deadline deals, save for Scott Rolen (2009) and Broxton (2012). The club could use another bat, some bench help and perhaps some front-of-the-bullpen stabilization.
5. Missing Phillips
The thumb surgery that has Phillips out means he won't be back until late August, at the earliest. While he wasn't having a robust season at the plate, his defense has remained sensational -- as has the team's. Skip Schumaker and Ramon Santiago will have the burden of filling the void at second base and keeping balls on the right side of the infield from getting to the outfield.