— A: As I write, the Reds are five games behind St. Louis in the NL Central, and a couple of games off the pace in the wild-card race, so they're certainly close enough at this point. But I can understand the frustrations of Reds fans this season.
After reaching 25-17 on May 17, the Reds skidded to a 3-11 finish to the month — including a seven-game losing streak — and have been bouncing around the .500 mark in June.
They do have a positive run differential (+18 through Wednesday), as their offense has been very productive: 1st in the majors in runs, eighth in batting average, 4th in on-base percentage, 10th in slugging percentage — with left field being the only obvious drag.
But the rotation depth that appeared to be there this spring has evaporated. Homer Bailey is back on the disabled list, Bronson Arroyo has battled through mononucleosis and has a five-plus ERA, Edinson Volquez briefly went back to the minors to work out of his funk, and Mike Leake and Travis Wood are experiencing second-year growing pains.
That in turn has strained a bullpen in which only Francisco Cordero, Bill Bray, Logan Ondrusek and lately, Jose Arredondo, have been reliable options. Aroldis Chapman is trying to rediscover his command at Double-A, but otherwise the system isn't going to help out the staff much this season.
So the Reds have to hope the rotation stabilizes — which is possible — and Chapman comes back to be a force as a setup man, as he was in April. That should be enough to keep them in the race without making a misguided win-now deal in which an elite prospect or two is sacrificed.
Not that I think general manager Walt Jocketty will do something along those lines, but there are a couple of ways he could go for some veteran help, either in left field or the rotation.
The Reds have two solid catching prospects in Devin Mesoraco and Yasmani Grandal, and Yonder Alonso is stuck behind Joey Votto at first base, with left field apparently not being an option.
But before they pull the trigger on a Ryan Ludwick-type to play left field, I'd like to see them give Chris Heisey a chance on a nearly every-day basis.
The Reds' farm system is one of the best in the game, and with their young core of big-league position players already established, there's no urgent need for them to make a veteran-for-prospect deal they would regret a couple years from now.
Q: I wish umpires would call the real strike zone. Nothing at or slightly above the belt ever is called a strike. Conversely, many wide strikes are called, so maybe it evens out. What do you think?
— Rob, Wyckoff, N.J.
A: With the help of the same technology you see on game telecasts, umpires constantly are graded by MLB evaluators on their balls and strikes calls. But as you say, things can be slow to change.
I do think you're seeing more pitches around the belt being called strikes than, say, four-five years ago — and that has been mandated by MLB. I also believe that has at least something to do with the reduction in offense, especially in the last two seasons.
Pitches off either side of the plate still are called strikes too often, in my opinion. But I think pitchers gain more benefit from having a higher strike called. What that allows them to do more often is change a batter's eye level — making them adjust to having to swing at a pitch at the belt or higher, as opposed to just having to look below the belt, as used to be the case.
You also see more pitchers who 'go up the ladder' with two strikes on a hitter — throwing a fastball maybe at the letters or higher in an attempt at getting a swinging strike three. The slightly-higher strike zone of today makes that more possible.
A: Rest assured scouts are watching Europe, Jim. But as you say, the game is nowhere near as far along in Europe — and the same goes for Australia, South Africa and China. But with the help of the World Baseball Classic, the quality of play slowly is improving in these countries.
A couple of players were signed off the Netherlands team that competed in the last WBC, one of them being Kenley Jansen, whom the Dodgers converted from catcher to hard-throwing reliever.
And just last week, the Royals acquired a 19-year-old right-hander named Andrea Pizziconi from the Diamondbacks in a minor-league deal for catcher Lucas May. Arizona signed Pizziconi as an undrafted free agent out of Italy in Sept. of 2009, and he is pitching at the A-ball level.
You'll see more and more Europeans trickle into big-league farm systems as quality of play improves there. The advantage to scouting there now is that not all big-league clubs are heavily invested, and it's a frontier-like system where if you see a player you like, you can sign him on the spot.
What it will take for teams to get more deeply involved will be a star prospect to emerge in Europe.