August 13, 2021

Will Cincinnati Reds Overtake San Diego Padres in NL Wild Card Race?

For a majority of the MLB season, the assumption has been that the two Wild Cards in the National League would come out of the NL West, leaving teams in the NL East and NL Central to win their division or head home at the end of September. However, that’s no longer guaranteed to be the case.

The Cincinnati Reds have started to make a push while the San Diego Padres are starting to look a little vulnerable. Despite a recent losing skid, the Reds are very much within striking distance of the Pads with over 40 games left to play.

While the Padres remain in the driver’s seat, here are why the Reds are poised to overtake them for the second Wild Card spot in the National League.

Reds' Lineup is Healthy (and Dangerous)

Frankly, the Reds have had a playoff-caliber offense all season.

They currently rank sixth in the majors and second in the National League in runs scored as well as fourth in the MLB and second in the NL in OPS. Nick Castellanos and Jesse Winker were both All-Stars this season and are among the select group of hitters who are batting over .300 this season. Either could be a legitimate MVP candidate with a strong finish, especially if the Reds make the playoffs.

Perhaps more importantly, the Reds head into the stretch run as healthy as they’ve been all season. Both Castellanos and Mike Moustakas recently returned from the IL, and along with Winker and Joey Votto, that quartet creates one of the most intimidating middle-of-the-order segments in the majors.

The 37-year-old Votto, in particular, has become a revelation over the past month, hitting 11 home runs in July and continuing to hit for power in August. With Votto as hot as anyone and Moustakas joining Cincinnati’s two all-stars, no pitcher wants to face the Reds, especially with the way Jonathan India has helped set the table for the Cincinnati lineup this season. In other words, the Reds will continue to score enough runs to be a playoff contender.

Reds' Rotation is Coming Along

If you look at the season numbers for Cincinnati’s rotation, they appear to be average, perhaps a tick above average. But that doesn’t tell the story of how well the Reds are pitching right now. After an abysmal start to the season, Luis Castillo is pitching like the ace the Reds know him to be. He pitched to a 1.71 ERA in June and a 2.15 ERA in July, reasserting himself as a frontline starter capable of leading the Cincy rotation. Likewise, Tyler Mahle has continued to improve over the course of the season. The Reds have also received an unexpected boost from rookie Vladimir Gutierrez.

Of course, Wade Miley has been a reliable starter for the Reds all season. He has an ERA of 3.00 over his first 21 starts, allowing more than three runs in a start just four times this season. His consistency has been remarkable to watch and will be invaluable for the Reds coming down the stretch.

With Miley being so reliable, Castillo coming on strong, Mahle solid, and Gutierrez helping to round out the back end of the rotation, the Reds have the kind of starting pitching that will allow them to string wins together, which means they can make up ground quickly should the Padres stumble.

The Bolstered Bullpen

It’s no secret that the Cincinnati bullpen has been the team’s biggest weakness all season. However, the Reds did a good job of addressing that need at the trade deadline, creating optimism that the bullpen won’t be as much of a problem late in the season. It’s not just that the Reds added relievers, but they added good relievers. Michal Givens currently has a 2.21 ERA after coming over from the Orioles while Luis Cessa owns a 2.66 ERA after joining the Reds from the Yankees. Those two have a chance to shape the entire Cincinnati bullpen late in the year.

In addition to Givens and Cessa, Michael Lorenzen returned from the IL in late July, adding to the set of relievers the Reds have late in games. Meanwhile, Tejay Antone, who was the team’s best reliever during the first two months of the season with a 1.87 ERA, is close to returning from the IL as well.

Along with Sean Doolittle, the Reds have a chance to turn their bullpen from a weakness into a strength during the last six weeks of the season once Antone returns.

Padres' Pitching Problem

As for the Padres, the injury to Fernando Tatis is surely a concern, but San Diego’s pitching staff is a much bigger problem. To be fair, the San Diego bullpen remains one of the best in the National League. But the rotation is another matter. Chris Paddack and Dinelson Lamet are currently on the IL, forcing the Padres to dig deep into their depth to fill out their rotation. At the same time, a dream start to the season for Ryan Weathers has turned into a nightmare. The 21-year-old starter has allowed 20 runs in his last 11.2 innings of work over his last three starts, which is a problem if injuries force the Padres to keep him in the rotation. 

In fairness, the Padres still have Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove at the top of the rotation. Both have been excellent all season, which is why the Padres have the inside track on a Wild Card spot. But Blake Snell has not been as good as advertised in his first season in San Diego. Darvish is also a little bit of a question mark after a disastrous month of July.

The Padres failed to add reinforcements to their rotation at the trade deadline, and as a result, their starters have some question marks, which could make them vulnerable down the stretch because the Reds appear to have the more reliable rotation.

Strength of Schedule

It’s important not to overlook each team’s schedule playing a role in the Wild Card race. In this category, the Reds have a clear advantage over the Padres.

Based on the winning percentage of the teams left to play, San Diego’s remaining schedule is the second-toughest in the majors. Since they play in the NL West, the Padres still have nine games left against the Dodgers and seven with the Giants. They also have four games against the Braves, three with the Phillies, and three against the Astros. The only saving grace for the Padres is a pair of series with the Diamondbacks, but the rest of San Diego’s schedule is rather brutal the rest of the way.

Meanwhile, the Reds have the second-easiest schedule in the majors because they are members of the NL Central. The Reds will play six more games against the Cubs, who recently dismantled their roster. They also play six games against the last-place Pirates. For what it’s worth, Cincinnati will play three games against the Dodgers and three with the Brewers. But they also have seven games against the last-place Marlins, three games against the Tigers, and four home games with the Nationals, who also dismantled their roster at the trade deadline.

Compared to San Diego’s remaining schedule, the Reds have a cakewalk of a schedule, which could end up being the biggest factor that allows them to overtake the Padres in the Wild Card race.

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