MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Garrett a key piece for surprising Reds

Cincinnati re-establishing winning mentality with strong pitching, dependable defense

Garrett a key piece for surprising Reds

And a 27 percent three-point shooter shall lead them.

Whatever it takes, the Reds are thrilled to be off to one of their best starts in years -- their best since 1990, actually, having won seven of their first nine before falling to the Brewers, 5-1, on Thursday night.

That's a huge step forward for manager Bryan Price and his Reds, who lost 94 games last season and 98 in 2015.

The difference between this team and those has largely been rookie left-hander Amir Garrett, who decided to focus on baseball after two years of basketball at Divison I St. John's University, and free-agent right-hander Scott Feldman, who will make his third start Friday night against Milwaukee.

No one is expecting a lot from the Reds this season, but when you play baseball in Cincinnati, there's a high standard.

It's been only four seasons since the franchise of Johnny Bench and Pete Rose was on a run that saw it go to the postseason three times in four years. It takes some imagination to see the Reds challenging the Cubs and Cardinals in the National League Central, but the pieces are somewhat quietly sliding into place.

For one thing, Price's team has evolved into one of the best fielding units in the Major Leagues. Just ask the Brewers' Keon Broxton, who was called out on a review on a Javier Baez-quick type tag by Arismendy Alcantara while seemingly stealing second base in the top of the ninth on Thursday night.

Broxton out after review

Or talk to hitters who have had singles or extra-base hits gobbled up by Billy Hamilton and left fielder Adam Duvall the past two seasons. Third baseman Eugenio Suarez, a converted shortstop, is a defensive asset, as is shortstop Zack Cozart and second baseman Jose Peraza.

Hamilton's leaping catch

Cincinnati ranked 15th in defensive efficiency in 2015, as measured by Baseball Prospectus. That number moved to seventh in the Major Leagues with zero fanfare last season, and sat at fifth entering play on Thursday.

Using his fielders, Garrett is giving the Reds the ace they haven't had since trading Johnny Cueto to the Royals at the Trade Deadline in 2015. Their starters were 12th in the NL with a 4.79 ERA last season, and the bullpen was even worse.

Garrett has won both of his starts, one against the Cardinals and one against the Pirates, both on the road. He'll make his Great American Ball Park debut on Tuesday against the Orioles.

They'll need to come get him, as Garrett has shown since arriving in Arizona for Spring Training that he's locked into a delivery that lets him throw strikes (only six walks in 21 1/3 innings in the Cactus League) and go after hitters with improved breaking pitches.

Feldman lost to the Phillies on Opening Day, but he came back to throw six shutout innings to beat the Cardinals in his last start. The Reds hope he'll do for them what he did for the rebuilding Cubs in 2013, when he made 15 solid starts before being traded to the Orioles for Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop.

Feldman goes six-plus, K's six

OK, that's a lot to ask for. But Feldman has shown that when he's healthy he can be an effective depth option for a contending team, so Cincinnati will welcome what he gives the club as it continues to develop rotation prospects like Cody Reed, Robert Stephenson and Tyler Mahle.

Reed and Stephenson have joined 2013 first-round pick Michael Lorenzen to give Price a group of strong arms in the bullpen that is anchored by Raisel Iglesias and newcomer Drew Storen. The left-handed Reed, who took his lumps during a 10-start baptism by fire last season, may slide into the rotation with Rookie Davis on the disabled list.

While Brewers veteran Jimmy Nelson shut down the Reds on Thursday night, they've been scoring runs. They've averaged 5.9 runs in their seven victories, including a three-game sweep in Pittsburgh and a stretch winning two of three in St. Louis.

You know what you're going to get with Joey Votto. It's the top of the rotation, post-Cueto, that has been a mystery.

Let's see how Garrett holds up. He's a guy who his St. John's coach Steve Lavin (a huge baseball fan himself) praised as "the most tenacious competitor'' in his high school recruiting class. That fire carries over well to the mound.

If Garrett can sustain his early success and Cincinnati continues to catch the ball as well as it has, the Reds will have a running start on getting back into the conversation sooner rather than later.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.