Cincinnati ESPN 1530 radio host Lance McAlister perfectly described the first half of the Cincinnati Reds’ season as “good but not good enough.”

#Reds 1st half: Good, but not good enough.

— Lance McAlister (@LanceMcAlister) July 15, 2013

The Reds were 11 games over .500 at the All-Star break, but they are in third place in the NL Central. Cincinnati is three games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates and five games behind the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals.

Luckily for Cincinnati, the team’s record came without a number of key contributors throughout the first half of the season. Relief pitchers Jonathan Broxton, Sean Marshall and Nick Masset, starting pitcher Johnny Cueto, catcher Ryan Hanigan and left fielder Ryan Ludwick spent significant time on the disabled list in the first half of the season.

The Cincinnati Enquirer‘s John Fay tweeted that he expects several of the injured players to return by mid-August:

RT @gnilly97: Your best guess…..are Cueto, Marshall, Brox, ludwick, hanigan all back by mid August?//Don’t, yes, yes, don’t know, yes

— John Fay (@johnfayman) July 12, 2013

The return of these role players to the lineup means that the Reds are positioned to make a big push for the division lead in the second half of the season.

The other good news for Cincinnati is that as of July 19, Dusty Baker’s squad holds the second National League wild-card spot, and the next closest teams, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies, are 5.5 games behind.

The Reds’ 3.42 team ERA is fourth in the majors, but Pittsburgh and St. Louis are two of the teams in front of them.

It’s not just the Cardinals’ pitching that will make it difficult to re-take the NL Central lead but also St. Louis’ hitting. The Cards are the best in Major League Baseball at hitting and getting on base with runners in scoring position.

Despite having two of the hottest teams in baseball in their division, the Reds are in position to make the playoffs. They have a comfortable lead in the wild-card race and they can only improve as their roster returns to full strength. 

The rest of the National League should be afraid by how much Cincinnati’s pitching can improve with the return of its injured pitchers.

Right-handed starter Johnny Cueto is coming off of a Cy Young-caliber season in which he was 19-9 with a 2.78 ERA and 170 strikeouts. Injuries have limited the starter from the Dominican Republic to only nine games and 48.2 innings this season.

Second-year lefty Tony Cingrani (3-1, 3.23 ERA) has filled in nicely for Cueto in his 10 starts, but Cincinnati could use its ace back in the rotation. In Cueto’s limited number of starts this season, opposing hitters have a .213 batting average against him. 

Similarly to Cincinnati’s starting pitching, its relief pitching has been solid this season, but it can improve as it returns to full strength:

Sam LeCure, Aroldis Chapman and Alfredo Simon have anchored the bullpen for the Reds. All three have WHIPs below 1.15 and ERAs below 2.90. After those three relievers, there is a bit of a drop-off in WHIP and ERA.

J.J. Hoover has the next-best statistics with a 1.28 WHIP and 3.69 ERA. 

Twenty-three of Cincinnati’s 42 first-half losses were by two runs or fewer. Since the Reds are trying to catch up to two of the best pitching teams in baseball, they need to capitalize on every opportunity to pick up another win. The return of Broxton, Marshall and Masset will give Cincinnati more depth and flexibility in which relievers Baker can use to finish games.

According to John Fay, all three pitchers still need to finish their rehab throwing programs before returning to the Reds.

Marshall will not throw this weekend. He’ll get treatment instead.

“We’ll see how he responds,” [trainer Paul] Lessard said. “If he responds well, we’ll resume throwing Monday.”

If Marshall only misses a few days, he will be able to pick up his throwing program at the point he left off.

Right-hander Jonathan Broxton (elbow) will throw a bullpen tomorrow. It’s his first since going on the DL June 15.

Once they’re healthy and back in the bullpen, they will be major assets for Cincinnati.

In Marshall’s 11 appearances this season, he had a 0.86 WHIP and averaged one strikeout per inning. Last season, Marshall pitched in 73 games, accumulating 22 holds with a 1.16 WHIP and a 2.51 ERA.

Broxton was second on the team in holds with 11 before the All-Star break. In nine season in the majors, Broxton has averaged a 1.24 WHIP and 3.17 ERA for his career.

Masset hasn’t pitched since 2011. His best season came in 2009, when he had 20 holds, a 1.03 WHIP and a 2.37 ERA in 74 games pitched.  

Both Cincinnati’s pitching and offensive production should improve when Hangian returns to the lineup after rehabbing from his wrist injury.

His injury has limited to only 46 games this season and he has performed well below his career averages when he does play. The catcher is batting just .193 with a .293 on-base percentage and has a negative WAR so far this season:

Reds disable C Ryan Hanigan (sprained left wrist), retroactive to yesterday, promote C Corky Miller (#37). #whiff

— Reds (@Reds) July 11, 2013

Even though Hanigan hasn‘t played in more than five games consecutively and has had little offensive production, he is still a better option behind the plate than current backup Corky Miller. Miller is hitting just .105 this season.

Cincinnati’s biggest offensive spark should come from Ludwick, who dislocated his shoulder on Opening Day against the Los Angeles Angels when he slid head-first into third base. Reds left fielders have hit .247 this season with nine home runs and 81 strikeouts. 

In 2012, Ludwick‘s first season in Cincinnati, he had the second-best year of his career when he hit .275 with 26 home runs and 80 RBI. Ludwick has been the Reds’ cleanup hitter in his time in Cincinnati, and right fielder Jay Bruce had the best offensive season of his career in 2012 when he hit behind Ludwick in the batting order. 

The Cincinnati Reds made the playoffs in two of the past three seasons. With their nucleus of Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce and Shin-Soo Choo, a good starting rotation and Aroldis Chapman to close games in the ninth inning, the Reds are on pace to make the postseason again in 2013.

With the expected return of several key role players, Cincinnati can play even better baseball in the second half of the season and contend for the NL Central division crown. 

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