Sunday, April 8, 2007

Reds Opening Week + Thoughts on the NL Central

This past Thursday and Sunday, I attended my first of hopefully many Reds games this season -- unfortunately I have school and do not work for the Reds as Erik does the Twins, so I do not get to frequent the park as much as I would like. Two cold, windy, and cloudy afternoons did not deter the Cincinnati faithful, as the crowds were around 26000 and 14000 respectively. I really enjoyed some of the new features of the park/team this year upon my arrival:

1. uniforms
The Reds, much like our other two favorite teams from the Midwest have done in the few years, have gone back to an older cap/jersey design. The Reds no longer have the black cap brim, nor the sleeveless pinstriped uniforms. The new uniforms reference the Big Red Machine of the 70s - all white with red accents, the "C" on one breast, number on the other, and the old school Mr. Redlegs logo on the sleeve. Although these were $225 in the gift shop, I did manage to muster up enough courage to purchase the $100 replica, which is basically the same, minus the sleeve logo.

2. new deck in center field
The new architectural addition to Great American Ballpark, the first since its opening in 2003, is a deck above the batter's eye black box in CF, which references Cincinnati's history with a river steamboat vernacular - in fact, it pretty much just looks like a steamboat docked in the stadium. Most stadiums built or to be built since 2000 have some sort of picnic/party area, and this area is certainly a welcome addition, and it really doesn't look that bad nor distracting. It provides a nice view to both the Ohio River, downtown Cincinnati, and of course a panorama of the entire ballpark.

3. Pete Rose exhibit
Much like Mark McGwire in St. Louis and Barry Bonds in San Francisco, legendary hitter and 24-year league veteran Pete Rose is adored and venerated in Cincinnati despite his woes and general dislike elsewhere. Cincinnati is where he played most of his career, aside from a brief stopover in Philadelphia, and got his managerial debut, and although he has a street named after him and his merchandise is still amongst the top grossing players in the team shop, he is pretty much shunned by Major League Baseball for betting on baseball. His number is not allowed to be retired at the stadium (although it is by the ECHL Cyclones!), but MLB has allowed for a one-year display of Rose's career at the adjacent Reds Hall of Fame, which is entitled "Pete: The Exhibit." I have not yet visited this, nor the Reds HOF as a matter of fact, which is pretty lousy of me since it's right next to the team shop which I go to at least every third game. I hear it's great though, and I will definitely be sharing photos of it on this blog as soon as possible. Most notably, it's supposed to showcase the #4192 ball and bat, and have a baseball from all of the Hit King's hits stacked up in a glass case for 3 1/2 stories. As Charlie Hustle puts it himself, "that's a lot of God damn hits."

And well, as for the team, after watching 18 innings of ball, I must say that I was impressed, but I do still think that they need pitching consistency to contend in the Central. However, I would say that all 6 teams in the central lack pitching consistency right now, particularly the Cardinals. Freel has taken over for Griffey in CF this year, giving a hard working utility player a much deserved chance, while also allowing the 37-year old Griffey to finally accept his age. The man can still swing a bat and throw a ball as good as any outfielder in the game, but let's just say I wasnt surprised when I saw him hit a rocket off the left-center field wall and barely make it to first. Hey, at least he knocked two runs in on the play. Harang and Arroyo have to each get about 18 wins and pitch 7 innings per start for the Reds to have any chance. The lineup is stacked as usual, especially with the additions of Alex Sanchez and Jeff Conine. There's actually so much pop in the starting 8 that the Big Donkey, Adam Dunn, has been hitting primarily out of the 2-hole. The bullpen is a hodgepodge of free agents and players that are passing their prime(s). And Uncle Milty and Kyle Lohse are definitely not the ideal 3-4 pitchers you want in the rotation - never trust any pitchers that Terry Ryan deems to be expendable. These were the two pitchers I saw this week. Lohse actually faired pretty well; I think he gave up something like 2 runs over 7? Milton, however, continued his torrid streak of never pitching well when I am there. He gave up 4 runs on 10 hits over 5, and I will most certainly never forget the time I saw him give up 10 runs to the Dodgers in a 2005 game before even recording an out in the first inning.

Overall, based on what I've seen over the past week, my predictions would have to be:
1. Cubs
2. Brewers
3. Reds
4. Pirates
5. Cardinals
6. Astros

I'm gonna stick by these, come hell or high water, even though of course I hope the Crew takes the division and the Reds take the Wild Card. I do think those first three spots will be very contested and this will be the best race in the NL, as I see the Mets and Dodgers everntually running away with their divisions and the Braves easily taking the wild card. The Cubs have like 3 1/2 solid starters, a solid pen, and a tremendous lineup. They will only get better when Prior, Wood, and Floyd return to full health, and when Soriano starts earning his check. The Brewers have the most capable 1-5 rotation with the most depth, and I worry more about their hitting than their pitching this year than I have in a while. Weeks, Hardy, and Hart all need breakout seasons. Fielder and Hall need to continue carrying the team. Jenkins and Mench should both be good since they're out to prove they can win an all-out spot in the lineup without having to platoon. The Reds will get 6 runs a game, but their pitching will be the death of them in the end. I don't see Arroyo having another year like he did last year. The Pirates have shown much improvement under Jim Tracy, and it will be a nice story if they can keep it together. They have lots of young talent and LaRoche was a good pick up at 1st base. I'm not sure if Sanchez'z season was a fluke last year, but I do see Bay continuing to improve and to contend for the MVP this year, if not at least a Silver Slugger. I see the Cards and Astros being the only two teams below .500 in the central. LaRussa and Garner are both excellent coaches, and they both have a staff ace and a couple 40-HR guys each, as well as spectacular leadoff hitters. However, those three things don't add up to a winning season in and of themselves.

Sunday Night Baseball is almost on, so I'm off to the bar. Happy Easter everyone!

Our teams' standings through 04.09:
Twins 4-1 (1st AL central)
Brewers 3-3 (T-2nd NL central)
Reds 4-2 (T-1st NL central)

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