Reds: Breaking the Mold or Déjà vu?

Is the Cincinnati Reds' hot start a tease or the real thing?

I realize that the timing of this story might cause some to suggest this is just sour grapes, especially if you're a Cincinnati Reds fan. However, the facts presented are what they are.

Whether the future performance of a major league squad can be predicted by the past can surely be debated. Yet, when a body of evidence exists that supports a particular view, I tend to stick with it until proven otherwise.

What am I talking about? Well, it is that time of year again. Or, more accurately, that bi-annual event that occurs when the Cincinnati Reds break out of the gate fast, causing a slew of fawning stories to appear in the media.

From Dayn Perry of Fox Sports, here is one of today's examples. Perry closes a positive story by asserting that the Reds "have a lineup core that's capable of carrying them to the postseason for the first time in more than a decade." "Can the Reds keep it up? If they're healthy ... ".

Put aside the fact that it was just a two game series against the Cardinals in which the Reds barely beat a short-handed Cardinals team without their three top offensive players and with a Triple-A pitcher on the mound with the game hanging in the balance in the ninth (due to no fault of the Reds).

Let's give credit where credit is due. The Cincinnati Reds' record is currently 19-8, eleven games over .500. The Reds lead baseball's winningest division, the National League Central. In fact, their record is best in the entire League - tops even in all of Major League Baseball.

But, when and where have we heard this tune before?

In both 2002 and 2004, the Reds broke out early, leading this same division, with basically the same core players as today. Perhaps not coincidentally, their high-water line those years was a mark very similar to today's - 11 and 12 games over .500, respectively.

Yet, while we often equate the term "June swoon" to the Cubbies, the fact is that mid-June is the time when the Reds have lost their edge in recent years.

In 2002, Cincinnati led the division from April 26 through June 18, a period of seven weeks. They reached their 32-21 peak on May 30. Alas, they went 46-63 the rest of the way, ending in third place at 78-84.

Two years later, the Reds were on top of the NL Central from May 24 to June 11, 2004. Their largest lead was 2-1/2 games and their peak record was on June 6, as they hit 34 wins and 22 losses. Reality set in from there on out as they went 42-64 on the way to a 76-86, fourth-place finish.

(For the record, the 2003 and 2005 campaigns were ones to forget in the Queen City, as the Reds did not sniff first place after the first week of either season, finishing a distant fifth each year while averaging 20 games below .500.)

On the positive side perhaps, the Reds have gotten out of the gate here in 2006 more quickly than in recent history. On May 2, the 2002 club was 17-10, while the 2004 team was just 12-12 on that date.

While it would be refreshing to see this 2006 Reds squad compete the entire way, I have to say that I still don't think their pitching is deep enough to accomplish that. But, maybe my fifth-place forecast for them was too harsh. Perhaps third place or fourth is a possible destination as in 2002 and 2004, but the playoffs? Really?

Simply put, the Reds offense is world-class, but I am not convinced that the pitching is playoff-caliber, despite what Perry and others suggest.

Just as the Cardinals offense without Albert Pujols would be nothing special to-date, so would be the Reds pitching staff without Bronson Arroyo. The rotation is carrying these ERAs: Arroyo – 2.06, Brandon Claussen – 6.04, Aaron Harang – 4.35, Eric Milton (injured) – 6.50 and Dave Williams – 7.61, even after his good showing against the Cards on Tuesday.

Cincinnati's relief staff's ERA is 4.64, fifth from the bottom in the NL. In comparison, the Cardinals are second from the top at 2.66. A prorated share of two runs per nine innings would be a lot to overcome, even with a high-powered offense like the Reds feature.

Another interesting set of numbers to watch over the upcoming weeks are the Reds' widely-divergent home-road splits.

While Cincinnati's record away from the Great American Ballpark is a most respectable 9-4, they've done it with pitching, posting a 3.98 ERA. Their .229 road batting average is alarmingly poor in this still small sample size.

At the offensively-friendly GABP, the tables turn – a .311 hitting mark and a 5.38 ERA. Yet, Cincinnati's home record to-date is an equally sharp 10-4. Does that diversity represent opportunistic play or wild inconsistency? Time will tell.

All things considered, you'll have to excuse me if I wait for another month or six weeks to get excited about the 2006 Cincinnati Reds. Recent history seems to clearly reinforce that skepticism.

But, don't tell those first-place Reds that. They deserve to enjoy it as long as it lasts.

Besides, Cardinals watchers have enough to do worrying about their St. Louis squad.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at

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