CINCINNATI -- If the approaching Memorial Day holiday is an early benchmark for contending teams to show they're for real, the Reds will spend the next few weeks trying to prove their current last-place status isn't genuine. Though some analysts made Cincinnati a preseason sleeper pick for the National League Central title, the club is off to a 14-21 start that has exposed an unexpected blight. They're already eight games behind the first-place Cardinals. "We've got to find something, some way to get this turned around," said ace starter Aaron Harang, who stunningly has a 1-5 record despite a solid 3.09 ERA. "This team is a lot better than we've been playing -- all around."
Wednesday's seven-homer, 15-hit display in a 9-0 pounding of the Cubs aside, the Reds' offense has really been sagging. Their .250 team average is ranked 12th out of 16 NL teams. While ranked third with 41 homers, a .134 average with two outs and runners in scoring position is ranked last in the league is evidence that their clutch hitting is MIA. They've also been outscored for the season, 170-146. Key power hitters Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr. have yet to get rolling, and have just 31 RBIs between them. Dunn is batting .219, while Griffey is at .244 and has been stuck at 597 career homers since April 23. Despite Edinson Volquez's 5-1 start with a 1.06 ERA and Harang's hard-luck quality starts, the pitching staff is ranked 12th in the NL with a 4.52 ERA. Rookie Johnny Cueto had a sensational start but has since returned to earth, while Bronson Arroyo is trying to figure out how he's 1-4 with an 8.63 ERA. On top of that, the Reds have already changed general managers. Just 21 games into the season with a 9-12 record, GM Wayne Krivsky was let go by owner Bob Castellini in favor of Walt Jocketty. Cincinnati has gone 5-9 since. Reds manager Dusty Baker hates losing, but in a sense hates negativity more. Baker is convinced the first 35 games are not indicative of how his team's 2008 season will ultimately turn out. "Nothing lasts forever," Baker said. "It just seems like it's forever. It's not that we're not working. We're definitely working." "I still think the season is salvageable," Jocketty said. "I still think guys are pressing hard. We still have guys trying to pick up the slack and do a lot themselves. The key to this is trying to run off a few wins and try to take the pressure off." At the 35-game mark in 2007, the Reds were 15-20 and 9 1/2 games out. Essentially out of the race by Mother's Day, the season had already hurtled out into space by Memorial Day, and manager Jerry Narron was dismissed at the end of June. Although the 2008 club is one game behind last year's pace, any apparent submission to losing is missing. It's been a feisty week in the Reds clubhouse. On Sunday, Baker held a team meeting to both relax and rally his players. On Monday, reliever David Weathers called out broadcaster Jeff Brantley for implying the team had already quit. Then there was Wednesday's offensive explosion. "Everybody wants to win so bad that sometimes it hurts," Griffey said. "There's not a lack of effort, and nobody has quit on this team." "We're going to do better," Weathers said Wednesday. "We're just in a tough stretch. We have to fight. I think we will fight." Baker is 100 percent convinced that the slumping players will rise to the numbers on their baseball cards. "You're going to tell me Harang is a 1-5 pitcher?" Baker said. "Is Arroyo a 1-4 pitcher? Is Griffey a .240 hitter, Dunn a .220 hitter? Will [Brandon] Phillips hit .270? Is our bench not going to get any pinch hits? "We're in a total funk right now. But hey, the beauty of the game is that any day at any minute, if you keep working, things will come together for no apparent reason. A break here, a broken bat hit there, and bam. That's how it usually starts -- something small." Baker may be counting on fortunes to improve for Dunn, Griffey and Harang, but the Reds have to rest their season's hopes that Volquez is able to keep his excellence going, that rookie Joey Votto can keep hitting well and that Cueto can still be electric when at his best. That's a lot to ask of two 24-year-olds and a 22-year-old. The Reds also have to get better within their division to have any chance. They are only 7-13 vs. NL Central rivals. If Cincinnati can't climb out of this early season hole, Jocketty would have little choice but to look ahead to 2009. That would mean exploring trades for Dunn and Griffey, who each can choose free agency after the season. It would clear space for top prospect Jay Bruce to get his chance. Like Bruce, pitching prospect Homer Bailey is also waiting his turn at Triple-A Louisville. Regardless of which moves are made, or how the team might improve, there is no snap-your-fingers solution for a quick climb out the NL Central cellar. "If you think you're going to have an eight- or nine-game winning streak, you might get it," Baker said. "But you have to slow walk back into contention. It's what I've always believed and have always seen. You just have to play good, sound baseball for an extended period of time."
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.