The Reds have looked as mediocre as a team can look through the first month of the season. They need to improve to contend. We can all likely agree on that, which brings us to the big question: how are they going to improve? Maybe Billy Hamilton gets better. Seems like he has to at this point. The bullpen must improve and with J.J. Hoover and Tony Cingrani pitching more important innings and the Reds finally cutting Kevin Gregg (oh great giver of runs!), they probably have improved already. But the Reds biggest potential improvement comes in right field.

The Reds need Jay Bruce. At least for this year. If they have any hope of competing in 2015, they need Jay Bruce to be the 2010-2013 version of himself. Maybe if the Reds All Star catcher was playing regularly, they wouldn’t need Bruce as much. But no one seems to know whether Devin Mesoraco will play regularly again this season. The Reds need to fix the bullpen, but a productive Bruce is the best chance the Reds have to go from a mediocre team to a contender.

Jux Berg wrote an article on Monday suggesting the Reds trade Bruce and essentially cut their losses. Unless the Reds are ready to have a fire sale and punt on this season, they shouldn’t do that. Unless they can extract real value from him (unlikely), they would be foolish to trade him. They have no one with remotely the same potential as Bruce to put in right field and are highly unlikely to acquire that player in a trade.

Bruce has played really poorly thus far in 2015. Hard to argue that. He has always had his slumps, but this slump is likely the worst of his career that didn’t result in part from an injury. The cause of this particular slump is difficult to understand. His Hard% (percentage of balls he hits hard) is the highest of his career. He is swinging at fewer balls out of the strike zone than he ever has. His strikeout rate has dipped 5% points to 28%, even though that’s still too high. His walk rate is at career high levels.

As several writers have stated on this site, Bruce’s BABIP is ridiculously low. Unsustainably low. So low that pitchers generally have a higher BABIP by .20 or .30 points. Even so, Bruce has a 13.5% line drive percentage against RIGHT-HANDED pitchers, which has resulted in a .152 batting average and .304 slugging percentage. How is that possible? Has he lost that much ability is such a short amount of time? He’s slugging .484 against lefties in 35 plate appearances. That’s just strange. No way Bruce will continue to struggle this much against right handers.

But I’m leaving all that behind for now. I can throw stats around all day and make an argument that Bruce is a washed up 28-year-old or a dynamic player ready to break out at any time. Doesn’t matter. We will find out soon enough. What matters right now is that the Reds NEED Bruce to be what he was for four straight seasons: one of the best right fielders in the game.

The Reds have scored 132 runs so far, good for 20th in baseball, They finished 28th last year in runs scored, so the Reds look somewhat improved on offense. Unfortunately, they probably don’t have as good a pitching staff as they’ve had in past years. Nick Doran covered that well this morning. We expect good things from Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake, but the rest of the staff either has question marks or is Jason Marquis (SOS!)

Michael Lorenzen is young and has good stuff, but he has been a starting pitcher for one year and one month. Desclafani has pitched well but has struggled with control at times, and his xFIP is 4.55 right now. This number suggests we should see some regression from him soon.

Long story short, the offense needs to be better this year for the Reds to contend. While the Reds clearly lacked depth coming into the season, their lineup appeared formidable when healthy. Now, Mesoraco is hurt. While Pena has hit well thus far, we shouldn’t expect him to continue based on his career numbers. Cozart may indeed be a better offensive player this year, but is he this good? He has the second highest runs created score on the team with a 145 wRC+. His highest wRC+ in one season is 83.

124, 119, 120, 117. Those are Bruce’s runs created scores from 2010-2013. Bruce was always around 20% better on offense than the average major leaguer before his injury plagued season in 2014. He averaged just over 30 homeruns during those seasons. Bruce was unbelievably consistent. He undoubtedly has that potential now at 28 years old. Imagine how much better the Reds would be if Bruce regained his form? They would basically replace a replacement level player with an All Star.

And he must regain that form for the sake of a team with too much talent to blow up the roster and not enough depth to sustain bad seasons from key players. A Bruce breakout is the best and mostly likely chance the Reds have to significantly improve this team.

Bruce has made a lot of loud outs lately. He almost won the game Monday night with a hard shot to right. As far as exit speed off the bat, Bruce had the two hardest hit balls on the team on Tuesday. As frustrating as he is, Bruce’s peripherals suggest that a hurricane of production is coming. He could be that difference maker.

They can re-evaluate the Bruce situation if they fall out of the race or when the offseason comes. They have a number of young outfielders that may be ready to take over in the near future. But they can’t trade Bruce now. They need their All-Star right fielder to hit the ball with authority. If the Reds are serious about contending this season, they have no choice but to bet on Bruce. For better or worse, they need him.