Wednesday, August 18, 2004

The State of the Cincinnati Reds

I was watching the Reds game on television last night as they played the Cardinals in St. Louis. In the middle of the seventh inning, Brandi asked if we could watch something else. I considered the situation: the Reds were leading 2-1 over a team that has owned them this season, and the bullpen would be taking over in the bottom of the seventh--starting pitcher Brandon Claussen had been removed for a pinch hitter.

I decided I didn't really want to see what was coming, so I let her change the channel. It turned out to be a wise choice--the Reds went on to lose the game, 7-2.

It's been frustrating to be a Reds fan for the past couple of months. The team was in first place in the National League Central Division through the first part of June, and they've since fallen off the face of the planet. Injuries have played a part, but mostly it's just been a case of the team's weaknesses finally being exposed. From a fan's perspective, here's what needs to happen for next year and beyond.

MANAGEMENT: It would be nice if owner Carl Lindner would sell the team, or perhaps find a dormant interest in it within himself. One of the wealthiest men in America, Lindner refuses to invest much money in the team. It's a shame. Cincinnati is a great baseball town, and they deserve a team with an owner who is interested in putting a competitive product on the field. Lindner's unwillingness to expand the team's payroll has hampered the front office's attempts to upgrade the roster.

Last season, general manager Jim Bowden and manager Bob Boone were fired and replaced with Dan O'Brien and Dave Miley, respectively. The jury is still out on O'Brien--he's trying to rebuild the team from within by bringing along good young players, so the verdict on him won't be clear for at least a couple of years. Miley, on the other hand, has already proven to be a good manager. The team's woes this year are not his fault. However, he's only under contract through the remainder of this season. Keeping him at the helm should be a high priority for the Reds.

OUTFIELD: On paper, this is one of the team's strength's. In reality, it's something of a question mark. This year's outfield was supposed to be Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey Jr., and Austin Kearns. All together, they're pretty potent. Griffey and Kearns are both very good defensively, and Dunn is constantly improving and getting to a point where he's pretty decent. All are excellent offensive threats as well. However, only Dunn has consistently been in the lineup this year. Both Griffey and Kearns have shown to be injury-prone. It's hard to say how much the Reds will be able to depend on them in the future. The one bright spot of the injuries in the outfield is that it has provided an opportunity for Wily Mo Peña to get some much needed playing time. He's made the most of that opportunity, showing flashes of brilliance. He's still raw, especially defensively, but if he continues to improve the way he has this year, he'll be a star in short order. There has been some talk of moving Kearns to another position in order to make room for Peña for next year, but that may or may not be a moot point, depending on Griffey's health. Having them all in the lineup would be an ideal situation.

CATCHER: Jason LaRue is pretty solid behind the plate, but can't be counted on to provide much offensively. Still, he's a gritty and tough player, and I like seeing him out there. Backup Javier Valentin is much the same. An upgrade at this position would be nice, especially since I'm not entirely certain that LaRue is under contract for next season (all my attempts to find a site listing contract info have so fair failed).

THIRD BASE: This position has been a gaping hole since Aaron Boone was traded last season. I hoped the Reds would make a run at re-acquiring him, but no such luck. Brandon Larson hasn't shown that he is capable of playing at the Major League level, and is injured a good deal of the time anyway. This is where they've talking of trying out Austin Kearns, but being able to move him depends on Griffey's health. I think the best option would be to keep Ryan Freel to play this position, as he's probably the best option at the leadoff spot anyway. Another possibility is prospect Edwin Encarnacion, but I don't know if he'll be ready for the big time by next year.

SECOND BASE: D'Angelo Jiminez is a pretty decent player, but the Reds could probably do better. I don't think he's signed for next year, so something will need to be done. If he leaves the team, this is another possible spot for Ryan Freel to play. Otherwise, the Reds will need to sign or trade for someone new.

FIRST BASE: Sean Casey is The Man, end of story. Sign him to a lifetime contract and let him play as long as he wants.

SHORTSTOP: Despite much searching, the "shortstop of the future" has not emerged. Barry Larkin originally planned to retire after this season, but those plans are now on hold. If he chooses to play on, the Reds would be crazy to let him get away, as he's the best option they have. On the other hand, he's hurt a lot of the time--he plays well while he's in there, but like Griffey and Kearns, you just don't know how much you're going to get from him. Felipe Lopez may be growing into this role, but right now he's too inconsistent defensively, and doesn't seem to provide enough offense to make up for it. Juan Castro is awesome defensively, but generally doesn't hit much.

STARTING PITCHING: Believe it or not, the Reds have a decent core. Right now, most of them are young. Paul Wilson is the staff veteran right now and should be re-signed for next year. He has expressed a desire to stick around. Brandon Claussen (who pitched a good game last night) and Luke Hudson are both essentially rookies with a world of potential. Aaron Harang has been inconsistent, but can be good. Jose Acevedo has gotten destroyed lately, but I think he has some potential as well, if he can get it together. Of course, acquiring good starters and upgrading the staff would be awesome if the Reds could pull it off, but it seems unlikely. Bringing these guys back would not be the end of the world.

BULLPEN: Ugh. Gut it and start over. For several years the Reds had one of the best bullpens in baseball, but those days are over. Ryan Wagner can develop, but I can't think of anyone else in the bullpen that I would hate to see off the team. I've never been sold on Danny Graves as a closer--he gets a lot of saves, but blows too many. This area needs a lot of work. Of course, it would be nice if the starters could go deeper into games and thus reduce the bullpen's workload as well.

OTHER: Besides the pitching staff, I think the most glaring weakness of the Reds this year has been a lack of clutch hitting. So many times there have been runners in scoring position with less than two outs and the Reds have failed to drive them in. Having a healthy Kearns and Griffey in the lineup would help, but the Reds also need to get some more bats on the bench for when guys are out or when pinch hits are needed. Jacob Cruz and Juan Castro hit well in those roles early this season, but have slumped more recently. John Vander Wal was brought in to address this need, but he's been hurt most of this season and hasn't contributed much.

Overall, I would say that the core of this team is very good. Casey, Dunn, and Peña are stars (or will be), and hopefully Kearns and Griffey can rejoin that group as well. Freel is a great guy to have on the team. Claussen will be a very good pitcher, and hopefully Hudson and Wagner will be as well. Now management needs to make sure and lock these guys up, and get a solid supporting cast around them. I would love to continue being excited about baseball into September, but it's been a while since the Reds have been able to inspire that excitement.

No comments: