Creeping Inexorably Toward A Worthwhile Sub-Heading.
Friday, February 27, 2004
Know Your Enemy - Part I - The Reds
Welcome to the Know Your Enemy series. Over the next five Fridays, I will present a preview of each of the Cubs' NL Central opponents. By the time I'm through, we should all have a better idea of what we're up against in 2004.
Optimism ruled the day in Cincinnati on the eve of the 2003 season. Two young guns and a favorite son sparked speculation of an All-League outfield. The infield featured three former All-Stars and a prospect with a name to make at the hot corner. The starting pitching was weak, but the bullpen was strong and the offense promised to be one of the better units in the division. Plus, there was a new ballpark to celebrate, and the increased cash flow would help the team be competitive now, and for years to come.
Ah, April! What a tease! By year's end, the All-League outfield was immobilized in the trainer's room, the bullpen was traded en masse along with the son of the newly fired manager, and the ballpark was devoid of people and the promised revenue streams. The 2003 Reds season was to disaster as Marylin Monroe was to sex appeal. But does 2004 bode more of the same?
No one symbolizes this team's recent struggles like Local-Boy-Made-Not-So-Good, Ken Griffey, Jr. The last two years have seen him play only 123 games, and having paid approximately $21M for his services over that period, Junior's status has shifted from hometown coup to hometown boo. Still, when healthy, Griffey rakes. His bat remains an object of fear, and it's a good thing, too, because it's on his now fragile shoulder[s], and those of his outfield mates, that the fate of the Reds' offense rests.
The Kid, with his increasingly inappropriate nickname, was not the only denizen of the outfield orchard to neglect the apple harvest. Doctors wouldn't stay away from Adam Dunn or Austin Kearns, and for the Reds to be successful, both must be healthy and productive.
Kearns is still on the mend from shoulder surgery, but once fully healthy, he should have no problems. He's already a lifetime .292/.388/.480 hitter, and will be only 24 this year. He's young, he's strong, and when injury free has few discernable weaknesses.
On the other corner, Dunn is quickly becoming a parody of his own skill set. The hulking left fielder has displayed tremendous patience and power in his young career, walking once every 4.8 at bats, and whomping 48% of his hits for extra bases. Yet, his career average sits at .241, and with strikeouts in one of every 3.1 at bats, the Reds are getting nervous, despite the inherent value in his patience and power package.
Some believe that Dunn is patient to the point of passivity at the plate, frequently getting himself down in the count because a pitch wasn't exactly to specs (what Cub fans refer to as "Bellhornism"). Whether that's an accurate assessment or not, Ken Phelps only dreamed of being this much like himself, and unless Dunn starts to make better contact, the Reds may be inclined to trade his power bat for a power arm.
The infield is a different matter. Let's look at last year's hitting lines for this year's projected starters:
146; CHA(73), CIN(73)
Either the Commissioner's Office has consented to the onfield use of wheelchairs, or 2004 will be another short season for Barry Larkin. It's a shame because Larkin is a deserving Hall of Fame candidate, but his insistence on continuing to play, despite his body's lack of cooperation, could cause less discerning voters to forget his thirteen consecutive years of well above average hitting and fielding at the game's most demanding position. Hopefully, the damage isn't enough to keep him from his well-earned plaque.
Whatever Larkin's HOF status may be, the relevant question is who will replace him once he takes his rightful spot on the DL. Ray Olmedo and Filipe Lopez look to be the choices at the moment. Both are young, which is good, and both have been unable to produce in the Majors, which is bad. Lopez still has some prospect fairy dust on him, so if they really want to build for the future, they'll set him loose and booted grounders be damned.
Speaking of prospects who have lost their shine, Brandon Larson returns in 2004 to take another crack at the everyday third base job. This looks to be Larson's last shot, and if you thought the 18 games it took the Reds to give up on him last year was a short leash, the only thing keeping it from being shorter is the lack of a viable alternative. Not that it should be that way, he's shown obvious talent in his time in the minors, and with the team going nowhere they can afford to let him learn. But the Reds have already shown an impatience that belies their rebuilding status when it comes to Larson, and there's no reason to believe that's changed. Hopefully, if the Reds give up on him this year, a more enlightened organization will give him a shot.
On the opposite corner, Sean Casey peaked when he was 24, and over the last four seasons has become a hitter of moderate patience and mediocre power, who makes lots of contact and hits for a good average. Nice for a middle infielder, not so nice for your starting first baseman. Some graphic illustration:
That's a bit glib, but if you recast your gaze on last season's hitting lines, you'll notice they produced very similar numbers. The difference is that Jimenez' production is valuable at his position, where Casey's is well below average at his. Assuming that Jimenez can remain on the team all year (and judging from history, that's no mean feat for D'Angelo), he will be the most productive hitter in the Reds infield.
Finally, Jason LaRue doesn't burn it up, but he hits at a slightly below average pace, and for a catcher, that's not half bad. His defense has fallen off of late, due in large part to a marked decrease in his ability to throw out baserunners. Here are the percentages for the last three years:
I'm willing to write off 2001 as a freak of nature year, but according to the Cincinnatti Team Health Report by Will Carroll of Baseball Prospectus, LaRue suffered from back spasms last year, and that serves to explain some of the dropoff from 2002 to 2003. He was still valuable last season, and I think he's unlikely to become a millstone, but a return to form would be a welcome plus.
The most frightening thing I see at first glance is that this rotation should be significantly better than last year's. That's much like saying one prefers Nancy Sinatra to Frank Jr., but improvement will be accepted in all its myriad forms.
In 2003, the Reds had four of the twenty worst pitchers in the Majors, according to BP's VORP measurements. Of course, one of them is back, and he's sporting an exclamation mark, but on the positive side, simply moving Danny Graves back to the bullpen and letting Ryan Dempster rehab in Chicago are steps in the right direction, and the addition of Cory Lidle should pay some dividends as well.
If there was any justice, Acevedo and Claussen would be in the Guaranteed column, with Harang and Mattox being joined by Haynes, but Jimmy H. is making too much money ($2.5M) for the Reds to condemn him to the waiver wire, so youth and upside must suffer. Acevedo did well in his initial trial with the Reds, and would have gotten more work if not for a freak ankle injury suffered on the dugout steps, so he looks like an early favorite for one of the spots, while Harang might get the other gig just because of perceived veteran-ness.
Chris Reitsma might be the only survivor from last year's opening day pen, but he won't be the only familiar face. Graves will be back in the closer's role after a year of starting, the results of which mirrored other failed experiments like the Cubs' College of Coaches, the White Sox' short-pants uniforms, and New Coke.
Young phenom Ryan Wagner will also return after last year's mid-season debut, hoping to mimic the career path of his like-named counterpart in Philadelphia. He's already being billed as the Reds' closer of the future, and if he picks up where he left off in 2003, he'll fulfill those expectations quickly. That is, if his super-duper violent mechanics don't land him in Dr. James Andrews' office.
The rest of the bullpen is just a bunch of guys. The primary lefty is likely to be Phil Norton, and while he's not quite young, he's not quite old either, and he did well when called up at the end of 2003. He doesn't strike anybody out, though, so we may have seen the best 18 innings he had.
The only lefty outside of Claussen and Norton on the 40 man roster is Phil Dumatrait, and he's a starter who hasn't seen AA yet. Cross him off the "possible" list. Likely, one of the lefty NRI's, Rigo Beltran, Mike Matthews, Mark Watson, or Jesus Sanchez, will be portsider number two, with the favorite being Matthews.
The best hitter off the Reds bench is already out for the year. John Vander Wal was supposed to be outfield insurance for the Reds, but he blew out his knee shoveling snow, and now he's done. That leaves the outfield backup duties to the talented, but still very young, Wily Mo Pena, and the versatile Ryan Freel.
We've already spoken of Olmedo and Lopez as likely infield backups, and you can add Juan Castro to that mix as well. That's not very pretty, but the good news is that Freel can play a little second and third as well, so Castro shouldn't see a lot of action. Corky Miller acts as the backup backstop with solid defense and a wee bit 'o pop.
The Bench isn't good, but at least it's young. There is some talent in Lopez and Pena, and if the latter can start to figure out Major League pitching, the Reds have a legitimate power source on their hands, as well as a way to get Sean Casey out of the lineup. Not that they would, he's an "organization man" who costs too much, but it's nice to know the option exists.
The Cincinnati Reds won't get far this year. There are too many breakable parts, and Don Gullet can only do so much. That's the bad news. The good news is that last year should be the organization's nadir. The young nucleus of a good team is forming, and while it will take some savvy drafts and smart allocation of the Reds' limited resources to make the transformation complete, the opportunity is there if they know how to take it.