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How many championships might the Reds have won if the careers of Jim Maloney, Gary Nolan and Mario Soto were not cut short by injury?

How many championships might the Reds have won if the careers of Jim Maloney, Gary Nolan and Mario Soto were not cut short by injury?
MLB.com

This is the third in a series of articles that will explore intriguing 'What If?' scenarios in Reds history.

Jim Maloney, Gary Nolan and Mario Soto

What Happened? Jim Maloney, Gary Nolan and Mario Soto suffer injuries that drastically shorten their careers.

This is the third in a series of articles that will explore intriguing 'What If?' scenarios in Reds history.

Jim Maloney, Gary Nolan and Mario Soto

What Happened? Jim Maloney, Gary Nolan and Mario Soto suffer injuries that drastically shorten their careers.

The Background: Reds history is replete with pitchers whose careers ended prematurely due to injury. The unfortunate trend can be traced as far back as 1905 when Noodles Hahn's career effectively ended at age 26 due to a sore arm. For Maloney (1970), Nolan (1977) and Soto (1986) it was in their 29th years that devastating injuries befell them. Each pitcher was among the best in the league when he got hurt and the fortunes of the Reds may have been quite different had each pitcher remained healthy.

The Aftermath: In each instance, the Reds were denied the services of an outstanding young pitcher. With the loss of each pitcher, potential titles were also lost as the Reds have routinely been characterized by strong offensive clubs that seemed to lack only that extra pitcher or two to make the difference between winning and losing.

What if these pitchers had not been injured?

Jim Maloney was one of the league's best starters for the seven seasons prior to his injury. He pitched three no-hitters and regularly ranked among the league leaders in strikeouts. It is not difficult to imagine a healthy Maloney making a difference in the 1970 World Series. In that series, Reds pitchers were rocked for 33 runs and posted a 6.70 ERA. Starting pitchers Gary Nolan (7.71), Jim McGlothlin (8.31), Tony Cloninger (7.36) and Jim Merritt (21.60) were each hit hard. Without their staff ace, Reds pitching collapsed against Baltimore's powerful offense. With Maloney on board, things may have been different. A healthy and effective Jim Maloney might also have altered the outcome of the 1972 World Series. Maloney would only have been 32 years old in 1972 and given the A's small margin of victory in the '72 Series, the Reds ability to throw a pitcher of Maloney's caliber against Oakland may have been a difference maker.

When Gary Nolan was injured during the 1977 season, the Reds were defending back-to-back World Championships. Although many point to the trade of Tony Perez as the reason for the Reds disappointing second place finish in 1977, the numbers suggest that poor pitching was the primary culprit. Nolan's injury contributed mightily to the Reds pitching woes that season.

After breaking in at age 19 in 1967, Nolan had been one of the Reds most effective pitchers. He suffered a major injury that cost him the majority of the 1973 season but bounced back with consecutive 15 win season in 1975 and 1976. Nolan opened the 1977 season on the disabled list and wound up hurting his arm when he was rushed back into action. He managed to start only eight games for the Reds and was traded before the season ended. If Nolan is healthy, his presence combined with Tom Seaver (acquired that June) and the steady Fred Norman may have been enough for the Reds to mount a more serious challenge to the Dodgers. More to the point, a healthy Gary Nolan impacts the 1978 Reds as well, a team that finished only 2.5 games behind the Dodgers.

As Nolan's big league career was winding down, Mario Soto's was getting underway. Soto debuted in 1977 and pitched in parts of each of the next four seasons before solidifying a spot in the rotation in 1981. He established himself as the unquestioned ace of the Reds staff in 1982 when he won fourteen games for a Reds team that managed only 60 victories. He excelled for poor Reds teams in each of the following two seasons as well, regularly placing among the league leaders in strikeouts and innings pitched. He was named to three straight All-Star teams from 1982-1984 and set the club strikeout record in 1982.

The Reds returned to contention in 1985 with a second place finish in the division. Ironically, the 1985 season was Soto's worst as a full-time starter. Sadly it was also his last healthy season as he suffered a major shoulder injury in 1986 that limited him to only 19 starts on the season as the Reds again finished in second place. Soto was lost for the bulk of each of the next two seasons as the Reds strung together two more second place finishes. All told, from 1986-1988, the Reds finished in second place each year a total of 23 games behind the division winner. His availability and effectiveness severely limited by injury, Mario Soto started only 39 games over the same period, winning eleven of them. In the three years prior, Soto had started 103 games, winning 47 times for Reds teams that finished a combined 44.5 games out of first place. It seems that a healthy Mario Soto may have been the difference for the bridesmaid Reds teams of the late 1980s.

If these three pitchers stayed healthy, Reds fans might be looking back on World Championships in 1970 and 1972 and postseason appearances in 1978 and 1987 and 1988.

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