As I watch the progress of the Cincinnati Reds during spring training, I can’t help but long for a season like last year’s Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks, or even the 2006 Detroit Tigers, had.
The Rockies had a ton of youth with a bit of veteran wisdom, as did those Tigers, both of which made it to the World Series.
The Baby-Backs, while they did have a few older pitchers, really got by with all young guys.
This year’s Reds have vets like Ken Griffey, Jr. Adam Dunn, Aaron Harang, Bronson Arroyo and Francisco Cordero in key positions, but it’s a group of young players, like Brandon Phillips and Edwin Encarnacion, who enter their third full season as a Red, Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Jared Burton, Johnny Cueto, Edinson Volquez and Homer Bailey who’ll determine what this group can do.
Yes, Bruce and Bailey are to start the season at AAA, but it won’t be long before Bruce is up with the big club, and Bailey is an injury away from being thrust into the rotation.
It’s an exciting time to be a Reds fan. Not since the group of Eric Davis, Barry Larkin, Paul O’Neill, Tom Browning, Chris Sabo, Rob Dibble and Norm Charlton all came up within a few seasons of one another in the late 1980s, have there been so many highly touted prospects in the organization.
The group of Sean Casey, Pokey Reese, Aaron Boone, Dmitri Young, Scott Williamson and Danny Graves was exciting, but flamed out and dispersed after just one solid season in 1999 — Jim Bowden mortgaged everything to pay Griffey’s salary, and soon had to trade off many of those players just as they were about to garner longterm deals. Even so, that group wouldn’t have rivaled the one 10 years earlier, and hopefully won’t come close to the current youngsters, because there simply wasn’t enough pitching.
In the dreadful dog days of late July 2003, the Reds fired Bowden and, even without a new GM, traded for Aaron Harang and began building. The Dan O’Brien era began, as did an effort to beef up the farm system, but O’Brien didn’t last long and in came Wayne Krivsky, seemingly out of O’Brien’s mold when it came to stockpiling young talent, but also with an eye toward picking up pieces for the big league club — see the Phillips, Arroyo, David Ross and Scott Hatteberg acquisitions, all after being hired a mere few weeks before spring training in 2006.
I’ve been critical of some Krivsky moves — the trade of Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez for Gary Majewski and Bill Bray felt so wrong to me at the time, and hasn’t yielded much since, but young pitcher Darryl Thompson has turned heads and he may be the best piece of the whole deal within a year or two — but a willingness to take a chance and make something happen impresses me.
A farm system that Marge Schott so ran into the ground there were fewer scouts than the Bengals currently have, now is ranked among the top three in baseball according to Baseball America.
But what does that mean now?
The best way to predict success is a limited number of question marks. Well, the Reds still have plenty of those, including:
1. Will the young pitchers fill in the gaps?
Harang and Arroyo both have the ability to throw over 200 innings and while not many national writers have realized it, Harang was among the National League’s best in almost every category the last two years, including wins, innings and strikeouts.
Arroyo started last year really poorly, but turned it around midway through the season and while he was the victim of seemingly half of the 28 blown saves from the bullpen, he’s still a solid and reliable starter.
Cueto and Volquez will likely have spots in the rotation from the beginning. Both throw above average fast balls and Volquez has as good a change up as the Reds have had in years — maybe even back to Mario Soto, who mentored both youngsters in camp this spring.
One issue with the pair will be durability. I believe both pitched in winter ball in their home Dominican Republic, and Krivsky’s system has been to keep pitch counts and innings down for the younger pitchers — although new manager Dusty Baker has a reputation of wearing out said young arms, so we’ll see.
Josh Fogg rounds out the rotation for now, but Matt Belisle could be another answer, as would Bailey if he proves he can keep his pitch counts down in Louisville.
2. Will the bullpen really be better?
Already mentioned were the 28 blown saves from a season ago. Usually that means your team has no closer, and while the thought of having David “Stormy” Weathers as the closer made me ill last season, it wasn’t his fault. Most of the saves were blown in a feeble effort to get the ball into Weathers’ hand.
Now that Weathers will be in a more familiar set up role, with Cordero signing a huge contract after saving over 40 games for the Brewers last year, things should be better, right?
Yes and no. With the young starters not expected to go past the sixth inning most of the time, it’ll be imperative that the other relievers do their job to at least get to the eighth inning. Burton had a second half ERA under 2.50 last year, but he was a Rule 5 pick and is still young.
Mike Stanton is still on the roster, although there are rumors of a possible trade to get out from under his huge salary, Dublin native Kent Mercker is looking to make a comeback, Todd Coffey lost around 40 pounds and is hoping to regain his 2006 form. Other potential relievers throughout the year include newly acquired Jeremy Affeldt, Jon Coutlangus, Marcus McBeth, Mike Lincoln, Majewski and Bray.
Even though I have the pen listed as one question, I see at least three or four pretty big ones in that list of names! The only real strength of most of the Bowden era could once again be the Achilles’ heel.
3. Will an offense known for inconsistent power be able to score runs in more ways than fly balls out of Great American Small Park?
The numbers seem to look good if you just look at the totals at the end of the year. The Reds often have more homers than their opponents, and score a lot of runs overall, but if runs come in bunches, so do droughts.
This team needs to hit with runners in scoring position and cut down on the strikeouts.
Encarnacion needs to continue to improve, Votto needs to establish himself and if Dunn knocks about a dozen more strikeouts off his total from a year ago, he should be OK.
The Reds have to have consistent play out of their veterans so that Votto and Bruce, when he’s called up, can ease into the lineup successfully.
I don’t know what to expect. I’m excited, but I know this team could be another year away — explain that to a diehard fan after being told in 1997 at a season ticket holders’ luncheon that the club is rebuilding for 2003. “Yeah, just wait about six years or so before we can replace our dump of a stadium and put a good team on the field.”
Then 1999 rolls around and dandy Jim jumps the gun, trading prospect B.J. Ryan for a two-month rental of Juan Guzman and trading off prospects for Griffey, forcing him to be unable to sign mid-level pitchers and causing management to pull the plug on any future signings or trades — in 2002 deals were in place for Bowden to acquire Scott Rolen and Bartolo Colon. Both were nixed by ownership.
So 2003 is here, the new stadium is up and running, but July rolls around and it’s the same story. “Be patient. It’s a long progress rebuilding a farm system.”
Fortunately for the folks in charge I’m a sucker when it comes to the Red Legs. I’ll be there every spring forking over my money for tickets to as many games as I can get to.
Gotta love blind loyalty.
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