That the Reds were in first place through Sunday, 1½ games ahead of the Cardinals, wasn't completely unexpected; they've been a popular sleeper in the NL Central for years. The surprise is that it's not highly regarded young hitters or pitchers who are leading the charge. No, Cincinnati's best player this season is a 35-year-old third baseman who just 15 months ago was considered a payroll burden to be dumped on any team willing to take on his contract.
The resurgence of Scott Rolen is one of the best stories of 2010, and it begins with health. Since finishing fourth in the NL MVP voting in '04, Rolen has dealt with an array of injuries, from shoulder woes to a broken finger to a concussion. After hitting at least 25 home runs every year from 1998 through 2004, Rolen maxed out at 22 in the five full seasons after that. But at week's end Rolen was slugging .601, second in the NL, and was among the top five in homers (14), extra-base hits (31) and OPS (.974).
Rolen's left shoulder, which underwent three surgeries between 2005 and '09, has finally healed, allowing him to drive the ball again. He's hitting fly balls at near his career-peak rate, and his home-run-per-fly-ball percentage (14.6% through Sunday) is back where it was before the shoulder injuries took away his sock. And after missing more than 30% of his team's games from 2005 through '09, Rolen has played in 58 of the Reds' first 64 games.
Of course, Rolen would be doing all this for the Blue Jays if not for Cincinnati general manager Walt Jocketty, who grabbed Rolen at last season's trade deadline in part because Rolen had told Toronto that he wanted to play closer to his Indianapolis home. Jocketty had dealt for Rolen once before, in 2002 when he was G.M. of the Cardinals. That deal—and the eight-year, $90 million contract extension that Rolen got in '02—helped the Cards win four division crowns during the two men's tenure together in St. Louis.
Acquiring Rolen was one of many savvy late-season pickups by Jocketty. In St. Louis he traded for Mark McGwire at the deadline in 1997. In 2000 he replaced the ailing McGwire with Will Clark, who hit .345 with 12 homers in 51 games to help the Cards win the division. In '01 he dealt for pitcher Woody Williams and in '04 for outfielder Larry Walker; both became key parts of teams that reached the postseason. No executive in the game has Jocketty's track record of success when it comes to making big in-season deals.
To stay in the playoff race the Reds need a front-of-the-line starter, another reliable righthander in the bullpen and maybe help at shortstop and centerfield. As Rolen—who last winter signed a two-year, $13 million contract extension through 2012—re-creates the magic of his St. Louis days in Cincinnati, his G.M. will get the chance to do so as well.
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Blue Jays outfielder--third baseman Jose Bautista is an interesting contrast to Rolen: While Rolen is returning to an established level of performance, Bautista, second in the majors with 18 homers through Sunday, is a one-trick pony who is unlikely to fool the AL much longer. In his seventh season Bautista, 29, has become one of the most extreme fly-ball hitters in baseball. More significant than the extra fly balls are their outcomes: After a career in which about one in nine of his flies went for homers, Bautista is going deep on one in five. Home runs per fly ball tends to be a long-term skill for hitters, though, so Bautista's "extra" power is likely due to good fortune. With his high strikeout and fly-ball rates along with the inevitable decrease in his HR-to-FB rate, Bautista is bound to be a power disappointment in the second half.
Photograph by ANDY LYONS/GETTY IMAGES
REDS MENACE Rolen leads Cincinnati in home runs and is slugging at a career-high rate (.601).
LISA BLUMENFELD/GETTY IMAGES (BAUTISTA)