Over the break, I spoke with Jason Linden of Redleg Nation, a Cincinnati Reds’ blog, about the upcoming playoff race, the Reds’ rash of injuries, and the emergence of Johnny Cueto. Here’s what Jason had to say:
Wesley Jenkins: Over the past two weeks, the Reds have easily been one of the best teams in the National League, going 8-3 against the Brewers, Cubs, and Pirates. With the Brewers’ sudden free fall, the Reds are only 1.5 games back in the Central. Do you see this team having what it takes to win the division, or are these last two weeks more of a fluke than anything?
Jason Linden: I’ve been saying since very early in the season that I didn’t think the Brewers were as good as they showed earlier in the season. Lately, they’ve been proving me right. The Reds performance over the last month or so is, I think, an indication of what the team can do when they are mostly healthy. The team is, however, very injured right now. The absence of Votto, especially, hurts. I don’t think they Reds are pretenders, but they need Mesoraco and Frazier to keep it up and they need to not suffer any more big injuries. The NL Central is wide open right now and all the teams vying for it have flaws.
WJ: The Reds, much like the Cardinals, have been ravaged by the injury bug this season. Do you think they can continue to play at the level they have been without superstars Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips? What steps do you think GM Walt Jocketty will take to keep this team in contention?
JL: A trade needs to be made for a bat. In an ideal world, the Reds would get someone who can plugin at left field next year, but I don’t think anyone wants to see Jocketty give up top prospects. Jesse Winker is hitting really well and figures to be ready sometime late next year if he keeps progressing, so odds are, anyone they pick up is going to be a band aid.
WJ: The Reds employ many former Cardinals thanks Mr. Jocketty’s (former Cardinals’ GM) penchant for acquiring players he knows. Do you think this practice hurts the Reds as an organization?
JL: Yes. With the exception of one good season from Ryan Ludwick, Jocketty’s willingness to overpay for old players who have experience with “The Cardinal Way” has been detrimental to the Reds. I don’t think there can be any question about this, really.
WJ: Adam Wainwright is the premier Cardinals’ pitcher and likely one of the forerunners for NL Cy Young this year along with Clayton Kershaw. However, Johnny Cueto has also had a spectacular season, posting a 2.13 ERA. Why is Cueto deserving of the Cy Young over Wainwright or Kershaw at this halfway point?
JL: Well, innings matter, and he’s thrown more than Kershaw. Additionally, one of the things people miss too easily is that we don’t have a good handle on how to value pitchers. fWAR and bWAR often vary greatly for pitchers. Dave Cameron has even written about how FIP doesn’t do Cueto justice because (among other things) he’s so good at shutting down the running game and FIP can’t see that. Another excellent example came earlier this year when Cueto had back-to-back starts against the Pirates. In the second start, he radically changed his approach to keep them off balance. It meant fewer strikeouts, but the Reds’ defense is great, so that’s not a problem. Cueto knew he had a great defense behind him and he used it. How does FIP value that? It’s a complicated question. I favor Cueto right now, but realistically, it’s hard to decide for certain who is better from that group.
WJ: imagesEver since the altercation in 2010 between these two clubs, there has been a simmering rivalry always ready to boil over. However, historically the Cardinals have dominated the Reds and have continued to do such in 2014, winning all three series the two teams have played. Is the spark still there in this rivalry or have the two teams let it settle?
JL: I know Reds fans don’t like the Cardinals. In terms of the teams, what I read seems to be of the, “This is our competition for the playoffs” kind of thing. But I really don’t know. It has seemed to me that Reds-Pirates has been running hotter lately with lots of HBP and the like. Which is stupid, as these kinds of things usually are.
WJ: Finally, in a weird twist of fate, the two sparkplugs of that 2010 fight, Yadier Molina and Brandon Phillips, both suffered the same thumb injury on the same day last week. How will the Reds fill the void left by Phillips and will the team have the same passion without their most vocal leader on the field?
JL:I dislike the implication that Phillips is some great leader. He certainly talks a lot, but I don’t know that the other players speak of him as a leader. There are rumors that he is not especially popular in the clubhouse, though that’s not confirmed. He’s also in midst of a season-long fit that has him not talking to the local writers for daring to do their jobs and question him. I think people tend to misread volume for passion. Anyway, they’ll miss his defense, I know that. His offense less so as he’s declined over the last few years. I don’t know how you replace it. They’ll just have to make due with what they have, probably. One of the big weaknesses on the club is a lack of depth.

You may follow Jason on Twitter here and Redleg Nation here.