It's been a long, strange journey for the 2011 Cincinnati Reds. The team's first 92 games have seen injuries, lengthy slumps, poor starting pitching and more close losses than a team with such a good bullpen should statistically endure. Still, with 70 regular-season games remaining, the Reds sit 2 games below .500 and just 4 out of the division lead, which puts the organization's executives in a tough spot.
As odd as it might seem, the next two weeks could determine whether or not the Reds are buyers come the July 31 trade deadline. It's rare to boil down a 162-game season to 12-14 games right in the middle, but it's likely that by the end of the month the NL Central will have begun taking shape for the stretch run. If the Reds find themselves in fourth place in two weeks, as they are now, there will be little hope that a single deadline deal will put the team over the top.
Walt Jocketty has proven that's he's willing to make a big trade to improve a ballclub — last year's near-Cliff Lee deal would have given the Reds' first playoff appearance since 1995 that much more potential. Recent rumors have suggested that he spoke to Colorado about trading for their ace, Ubaldo Jimenez. The guess here is that if the Reds were 4 games up rather than 4 back the deal would have been more likely (though still relatively unlikely, but that's not the point).
Considering the circumstances, Jocketty has to seriously consider whether any addition can improve the team enough to catch Milwaukee — which added yet another pitcher this week in Francisco Rodriguez — and St. Louis, which is rumored to be looking for additional pieces for its stretch run. Barry Larkin, now an ESPN analyst, recently said the following regarding the Reds' trade-deadline options: "You talk about the one thing they might need, and I don't know what that is. Because of inconsistent play in different phases of the game, there isn't one identifiable trait that would make this team that much better.”
Larkin is perfectly on-point. Pedro Martinez circa 1999 couldn't get the Reds to the postseason if Bronson Arroyo's second-half ERA is 5.58, as it was over his 18 first-half starts. Then again, should Broyo return to form and the person who takes Volquez's spot performs like a normal MLB starter instead of offering a 5.93 ERA over the course of 16 starts, you have to assume the Reds are going to play above .500 ball during the next 70 games. It's frustrating to think about where this team could be without all the terrible starts, tough one-run losses and seemingly statistical aberrations keeping it down (the team hasn't won two games in a row since mid-June).
We know Jocketty has the minor league players to land anyone he thinks will help. We'll know in about two weeks wether anyone actually can.
IMAGE: Walt Jocketty staring into the soul of an underperforming player.