Tueday night, the Pirates begin a series against a weakened Reds team that will be without Johnny Cueto and, at least for part of the series, Aroldis Chapman. Here's what to expect.
POSITION PLAYERS: .245/.313/.406. 10.8 fWAR, fourth in the National League. Devin Mesoraco has finally opted to have season-ending hip surgery, and the Reds are entrusting the bulk of their catching duties to Brayan Pena, who's a passable backup but little more (although he's posted an uncharacteristically high .365 OBP so far this year). Shortstop Zack Cozart is out for the rest of the season with a knee injury, and Eugenio Suarez has mostly started in his place.
Despite all that, this is a strong group. Or, to be specific, Joey Votto is having a good rebound season and Todd Frazier has become a monster. In retrospect, we needn't feel bad about the four home runs Frazier hit in six games earlier this season against the Pirates, because he's doing that to everybody. He has 23 homers so far this year, more than the Pirates' top two home-run hitters (Starling Marte and Pedro Alvarez) combined. Also, he's batting .292, and he remains a plus defensive player. Add it up, and he has 3.9 fWAR for the season, seventh in the majors.
PITCHING: 4.00 ERA, 4.14 FIP, 4.01 xFIP. 4.8 fWAR, eighth in the National League. That the Reds rank this highly is due in large part to Cueto and Chapman. Cueto was scheduled to start Tuesday against the Pirates, but the team has pushed back his start until Friday against the Mets, ostensibly to get him extra rest.
Cueto is eligible for free agency after the season and is a good bet to be traded next month. After this series, the Bucs only play one more game against the Reds before the trade deadline, a series-opening matchup on July 30. So unless Cueto starts that game, he's probably started his last game against the Pirates as a Red.
Let's appreciate what a relief that is. Cueto has a career 2.13 ERA with 169 and 48 walks in 186 career innings against the Bucs. The 2013 Wild Card game aside, he's destroyed them for years. And soon, he'll be gone.
In his place, the Reds will promote Josh Smith to make his big-league debut. The 27-year-old Smith was in the midst of a good season for Triple-A Louisville, striking out 35 batters and walking 11 over 48 innings, but he's never been highly regarded and doesn't appear in the Reds' top 30 prospects list.
The Bucs will also face Mike Leake and Anthony DeSclafani in this series. Leake is fresh off a good start against the Marlins and is having a perfectly Mike Leake-y season so far. DeSclafani's first season since the Reds acquired him in the Mat Latos trade has gone reasonably well -- his peripheral numbers suggest he's more like a fifth starter than a guy who ought to be producing a 3.48 ERA, but even a fifth starter has value, especially to a team in the Reds' position.
The Reds' bullpen has a different look since the Pirates last faced them in May, with Manny Parra, Pedro Villarreal, Ryan Mattheus, and former Pirates minor leaguer Nate Adcock in, and at least Kevin Gregg, Jumbo Diaz, and Tony Cingrani (who's hurt) out. Parra is having a good season, but the fact that the Reds are leaning on players like Mattheus and Adcock shows that they don't have much bullpen depth beyond Aroldis Chapman and J.J. Hoover. Which is great for the Pirates, because Chapman will also miss at least some of this series, as he'll be on the paternity list.
OUTLOOK: The Reds didn't look like one of the NL's better teams heading into the season, but I thought they had an outside shot at contending, given the star talent they still had on hand -- Votto, Frazier, Cueto, Chapman, Billy Hamilton (who remains an impact player even when he doesn't hit, as is the case this season) and so on. That they aren't doing so despite Votto's resurgence and Frazier's ridiculous season reflects how much they've struggled with injuries, and how poorly prepared they've been to deal with them. Mesoraco was a big loss, and they didn't have enough starting pitching even before losing Homer Bailey. As a result, they gave nine starts to Jason Marquis and three to an unripe Jon Moscot, and now Smith is about to join the fray. Another rookie, Michael Lorenzen, has fared reasonably well in nine starts this year, but he's walked nearly as many batters as he's struck out. A lot had to go right for the Reds to contend this year, and so far, it hasn't.
The Reds haven't played badly lately, going 9-5 since June 7 (although that includes three wins against the Phillies), but their roster doesn't look like one capable of climbing back into the race. Next time the Bucs face the Reds late next month, they'll likely be making headlines as the trade deadline approaches. In retrospect, it might have been wise for them to trade Cueto earlier, but at least this summer they'll be dealing him in the midst of a seller's market.