CINCINNATI, OH - Aroldis Chapman of the Cincinnati Reds throws a pitch against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Great American Ball Park. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
The Cincinnati Reds are the hottest team in baseball, and they're running away with the Central with the help of a superlative bullpen.
Oh, man, the temptation.
Aroldis Chapman discovered the fountain of control this offseason. Remember when he was broken and fighting through Steve Blass Disease? No more. He can throw strikes, and he can throw them a million miles per hour. He applies this skill about once every other Reds game.
The temptation is to have him apply that skill for seven, eight, or nine innings every fifth day. You don't have to speculate what a successful conversion would look like. We've seen it. It had a mullet and a mustache, and it led to a World Series championship, a perfect game, and over 300 wins. That's what happens when the most electric left-handed arm in the world suddenly throws strikes, when it suddenly moves pitches in and out of the zone at will.
Chapman in the rotation, where he'd replace an underachieving Mike Leake, is a heckuva temptation.
Alas, it's not going to happen. The Reds are in first place by a bunch. They've won 15 of their last 16 games, and are are 19-3 in the second half. They've achieved this kind of success in very specific ways, and one of those ways is having Aroldis Chapman pitch in the ninth innings of games. It's worked, and it's worked really, really well so far. There's no real reason to make wholesale changes right now.
Here's the Reds' consolation prize: They have a ridiculous bullpen. This means something to Cincinnati fans, who last enjoyed a World Series win behind a three-headed monster of a bullpen. Twenty-two years ago, the Reds won the World Series in no small part because of the contributions of Randy Myers, Norm Charlton, and Rob Dibble. That bunch had a nickname. They probably had a rap song or something, though you can be damned sure I'm not looking that up.
And that's where their success is coming from in 2012. They have Joey Votto going Canadian ape on the league. Johnny Cueto is in his third-straight season of not allowing home runs, and he's boosting his strikeouts and limiting his walks at the same time. But other than those two, the offense and rotation are pretty ordinary. Some guys are having good years; some guys are having down years. The team OPS+ is 95, and the starters have a collective 3.70 ERA. The first part is acceptable, and the latter part is good, but not run-away-with-the-Central good.
It's the bullpen that's going nuts. Chapman is in the middle of one of the greatest relief seasons of all-time -- the perfect pitcher for the lofty-strikeout era. Jose Arredondo is keeping runs of the board, even if he isn't necessarily keeping runners off the bases. Sean Marshall is pitching extremely well in a setup role, Sam LeCure and Alfredo Simon are giving good innings in the back of the bullpen, and even Logan Ondrusek is doing well, despite the handicap of obviously being a hockey player.
The Reds also added Jonathan Broxton at the trading deadline. Regardless of what you think about the sustainability of Broxton's renaissance with Kansas City, you have to be somewhat optimistic about his chances to be the fifth or sixth option out of the bullpen. It's almost certainly the deepest bullpen in the game right now.
Reminder: Ryan Madson was supposed to be on this team.
With all of this depth, you can start to dream about Chapman in the rotation. Would the team really miss one lousy ol' reliever? It's tempting. Oh, man, the temptation.
But don't forget last season. The Rangers and Cardinals each made the World Series despite a rotation running on fumes. Out of ten games leading up to the World Series, the Rangers had a starter pitch a full six innings exactly twice. And, even then, it was exactly six innings.
The Cardinals had Jaime Garcia pitch seven innings and Chris Carpenter throw a complete game in the NLDS, but in the NLCS, they didn't have a starting pitcher make it into the sixth inning. The World Series champions didn't have a starting pitcher go longer than six innings in the National League Championship Series. It boggles the mind.
So if the trend is toward super-bullpens in the playoffs, the Reds are well set up. They're the hottest team in baseball, and though there's a temptation to put the electric arm of Chapman into the rotation, you can understand why it isn't going to happen. Things are going pretty well as is. And the teams in the 2011 World Series are a good reminder that a ridiculously deep bullpen can make up for a lot of flaws in a short series. The Reds have a ridiculously deep bullpen, alright. And it's one of the reasons they're taking command of the NL Central.
If that recent history is any guide, that bullpen is why they might be postseason favorites. The next step is to get that far.