Reds banking on young trio for final two months

CINCINNATI – It was April and things were going exceptionally well for Todd Frazier. The Reds’ third baseman had gotten off to a hot start at the plate but there was no chest puffing or bravado coming from Frazier. He knew it was only April and chances were those hot days at the plate weren’t going to continue at the pace they had. They rarely do for any hitter. 

No, Frazier was as contemplative then as he was Thursday before heading out onto the field at Great American Ball Park for a team workout the day before the Reds host Pittsburgh in the first of a three-game series that kicks off the post-All-Star game portion of the schedule.

The Reds are in third place in the NL Central, 11 games over .500 (53-42) but five games behind leader St. Louis and four games in back of second-place Pittsburgh. Following their series with the Pirates, the Reds head out on an 11-game, 10-day road trip to San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. When they return home on Aug. 2, they get St. Louis for a weekend series.

“It’s a crazy little thing we’ve got going on after these three games to kick-start us,” said Frazier. “When we get out on the West Coast we’ve got no excuses. It’s a three-hour difference, but so what? It’s the second half of the season and we’ve got to keep driving to get to be number one in the division.”

Frazier, shortstop Zack Cozart and catcher Devin Mesoraco are all in their second full season in the big leagues. A lot of responsibility has been placed upon them for a team expected to contend not just for a division championship and playoff berth but for the National League pennant and a World Series. No excuses for them or from them but it is a fact worth remembering as the Reds begin these final 67 games of the season.

Baseball players often are judged by the back of their baseball cards. These three don’t have anything on the backs of their cards yet to adequately judge exactly how they’ll respond down the stretch.

“They’re still young,” said Reds manager Dusty Baker on Thursday. “Very few guys come into the league tearing it up and then keep tearing it up. Very few. Sometimes we expect these guys to be seasoned veterans when they’ve only just begun. Mentally, emotionally, physically. Last year was the first time those guys played into September. Usually their season is over in August.”

They’ve all got room to improve. Frazier is hitting the best of the trio – which isn’t saying all that much – at .239 but his slugging percentage is .399 and he’s driven in 43 runs in 88 games. He played in 128 games last season when he hit .273 and drove in 67 runs as a jack-of-all-trades player, filling in wherever needed.

Cozart has played in 87 games this season after appearing in 138 last season. He’s hitting .233 and his on-base percentage is just .262, although his 33 RBI are just two shy of his total from last season. Cozart has been the target of much ire from fans throughout the season whenever Baker puts him second in the batting lineup, something he said he ignores. He has grounded into 12 double plays but his 10 sacrifices are tied with teammate Bronson Arroyo for tops in the Major Leagues.

“Physically, I feel great but it’s always a mental grind in this game,” said Cozart. “I had not as good of a first half as I wanted to but it’s a long season. I had some extra base hits and I played defense the way I expect to play defense. For me, that’s what I fall back on. I can’t do anything but improve in the second half.”

Mesoraco has played 54 games so far this season, the same number he played all of last season. Unlike last season when he saw very little action after July, this season Mesoraco is expected to continue splitting duties with Ryan Hanigan. Hanigan is currently on the 15-day disabled list with a wrist injury so Mesoraco is going to do more than split time behind the plate.

“There haven’t been as much prolonged scuffles. I haven’t played great but I’ve been able to minimize the length of my struggles,” said Mesoraco. “Defensively is where my biggest jump as been, as far as handling the pitchers. I think just the understanding of how to call the game and how to get guys out has been 10 times better.”

CINGRANI OPTIONED: The Reds optioned pitcher Tony Cingrani to the rookie level Arizona League Reds on Thursday and recalled infielder Neftali Soto from Triple-A Louisville.
 
The move was necessitated by the four-day All-Star break as well as the upcoming doubleheader in San Francisco. Cingrani started last Sunday’s series finale at Atlanta and isn’t scheduled to start again until he gets the ball for one of the two games next Tuesday at AT&T Park against the Giants. That’ll be nine days in between starts.

Normally players sent to the minors cannot return for 10 days but MLB rules allow teams to add a 26th player to the roster for doubleheaders without restrictions. Cingrani will join the Reds for that one day and then return to the minors. He will be eligible to return to the Reds fulltime on July 28.

There has been no announcement on who will pitch the other game of the doubleheader. The Reds are likely to call up another pitcher from the minors to start that game.