Votto's return puts pressure on Baker

Dusty Baker has many ways in which he can write a lineup, but the choices won't be easy. Jake Roth/US Presswire

Joey Votto has been activated, and he is expected to be back in the lineup tonight.

He is not completely healthy and does not expect to be for the rest of this season, but Votto is still regarded as one of the league's best pure hitters -- maybe the best -- and is a Gold Glove-caliber first baseman. He's going to play.

Which means that manager Dusty Baker is going to be making some really excruciating choices about who else plays and about where they'll hit in his lineup.

In early July, before Votto had knee surgery, the Reds' pre-trade deadline focus was on adding somebody who could hit in the middle of their lineup, like San Diego's Carlos Quentin. Their thought at that time was that this might allow Brandon Phillips to hit in one of the top two spots in the lineup, where the Reds had gotten very little production.

But when Votto went down, Cincinnati went into emergency mode, with Todd Frazier becoming his primary fill-in and Ryan Ludwick -- who started swinging the bat well in late June -- becoming entrenched in the middle of the order.

Frazier has had 180 at-bats in Votto's absence, batting .279 with eight homers, 30 RBIs and 13 walks; he has an .880 OPS in the games in which he's started at first base this season and is hitting .315 against left-handed pitching, while building a strong résumé for NL Rookie of the Year. He's had just 16 at-bats this season while starting as an outfielder.

Ludwick is now a rock in the Reds' lineup, having posted the fourth-highest OPS in the majors since the All-Star break. Scott Rolen -- whose average had been below .200 in the first half of the season -- had a .425 on-base percentage in August, with more walks (10) than strikeouts (nine).

Rolen has nine errors this season, but he is still one of the better third basemen in the league, and he is a highly respected and experienced player. Baker has said that Rolen told him, in so many words, do what you need to do -- in other words, play the guys you think should play.

Really, this should be viewed as a great situation. While teams like the New York Yankees are scrambling for alternatives because of late-season injuries, Baker has an array of really good options at his disposal. With Votto back, Cincinnati's lineup has more balance against right-handed pitchers, and when opponents start lefties, Baker has the option of stacking some right-handed hitters. If Baker's starting pitchers generate lots of ground balls -- and Johnny Cueto has produced the highest ratio of grounders out of all the Cincinnati starters -- he could go with Rolen at third base.

Phillips is hitting .296 with a .333 on-base percentage, and his move back to the top of the lineup should be a plus, considering that Cincinnati's leadoff hitters rank dead last in the majors in OPS this season.

With the emergence of Ludwick and Frazier, the Reds are a deep team with a good rotation and a wealth of strong bullpen options. Because of that depth and Cincinnati's huge lead in the NL Central, Baker will be able to properly rest his every-day guys down the stretch. If Rolen's surgically repaired left shoulder nags at him, well, Baker could give him days off, as needed. This should all be good.

But Baker is going to have to sit somebody, whether it be the very popular Frazier, the blistering-hot Ludwick, or his most experienced player in Rolen -- really tough choices that will carry over into the postseason.

Baker's contract is set to expire after this season, making his choices more vulnerable to second-guessing. Even at the end of what has been a spectacular season for the Reds, their manager's choices will be under greater focus than ever.

With Votto back, Baker's lineup choices -- already greatly scrutinized in Cincinnati -- will draw even more attention, writes Paul Daugherty.

The Reds won again on Tuesday, reducing their magic number for clinching the NL Central to 18. Jay Bruce is an MVP candidate, writes Hal McCoy.


• The Yankees' 10-game lead has disappeared. Like one of those NASCAR races filled with caution flags, the AL East has been officially reduced to a four-week sprint between the Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles -- who blew out the Toronto Blue Jays on Tuesday to move into a tie for first place.

From David Waldstein's story:

    "We're going to start from zero now," said Robinson Cano, who produced the only Yankee runs with a two-run homer in the first inning. "We are going to keep playing hard and forget about what happened the past few weeks, and focus on the game."
    On July 18, the Yankees had built a seemingly insurmountable 10-game lead, but Tuesday's defeat was their 10th in their last 14 games, and it guaranteed a third consecutive series loss against a divisional opponent.
    Until now there had been no visible signs of frustration during the slide, no indication that panic had seeped into the clubhouse or on the field. But during this game Manager Joe Girardi got into a fiery exchange with the plate umpire Tony Randazzo after he was ejected, and the hitting coach Kevin Long acknowledged that the burden was mounting on his struggling hitters.