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February 26, 2004
Team Health Reports
CL Danny Graves
Season one in the Great American Ballpark wasn't what the Reds had hoped for. While the team flailed on the field, the front office suffered through its own turmoil, and too many fans came to the park dressed as empty seats. Yet looking at the lineup above, we see many of the same names we saw last year. The Reds may have the least turnover of any team in the NL.
Last season, I thought the Reds would have a shot at the NL Central crown. Oops. Instead, injuries once again tore down the team's chances as more than half the starters were on the DL at one point near the end of the season. Instead of what could have been an historically good outfield, two-thirds of that trifecta spent the better part of the season on the DL, and the other turned into a modern Dave Kingman. Was that a fluke, or is that what the Reds can expect this season? For the medical staff of the Reds, this could be considered a make-or-break season.
It's safe to say that as Griffey goes, so go the Reds. With over 250 games missed in the last three seasons, Griffey has absorbed too much payroll for too little production. Leg injuries have sapped his speed and power (and being a step slower can be blamed for his shoulder injury as well); the injuries have gone hamstring, knee, ankle--so if I were Griffey, I'd be really worried about my feet. With the typical off-season workouts, there's no evidence that Griffey is any less injury-prone this season, and thus he carries a red light. But he also carries enough raw talent to be the Comeback Player of the Year with little effort.
While the loss of Ken Griffey really broke the Reds down, it was the injury to Austin Kearns in late-May that doomed the team to the cellar. Kearns limped through a couple months with a damaged shoulder, but was not effective, eventually shutting it down for surgery. Kearns had injury problems in the minors, but seems to be able to return, giving his career line a Saberhagen-like feel. This being an even year, Kearns should be healthy, but it's still early in spring training, and his shoulder not yet at full strength. He still needs to prove he can make it through a full season before he can live up to his considerable potential.
Barry Larkin was nearly in another uniform this season until a last-second reversal by ownership. Clearly not a baseball decision, Larkin seems unable to stay healthy at this stage of his career. Like Willie Mays at the end of his career, Larkin is a shell of what he formerly was and it's occasionally painful to watch. When he inevitably injures himself, I only hope it's not serious and that he can make a proper exit from a great stay in Cincinnati.
Sean Casey missed significant time last season with a groin injury, but by the time he couldn't go, the Reds had nothing left to replace him with beyond Juan Castro. That's never a good sign. Casey's declining production, regular injuries, and contract make him near unmovable, so Dan O'Brien will need to teach Carl Lindner the concept of sunk cost or pray that Casey can somehow get back to league-average levels.
Late season back spasms from Jason LaRue finally gave us a sign why his production was down both at bat and behind the plate. Larue got some relief from the team's chiropractor, but these types of injuries tend to recur in catchers. With this injury and crossing over the age-30 line put LaRue well into yellow-light territory.
Finally, Brandon Larson is out of options and returning from surgery to repair his labrum, rotator cuff, and frayed biceps tendon. There's no real backup--D'Angelo Jimenez would slide over--which says as much about this team as anything else. Larson is reported to be at 80% early in spring training, so he's one to keep an eye on for progress.
On the pitching side, the staff looks to be nearly as fragile. "Ace" Cory Lidle is coming off a poor season in Toronto, but really is the top starter going into the season. At least he's healthy. For the rest, each could be good or could be injured. Paul Wilson probably can't blame Dallas Green for all of his injury problems, but I'm guessing Green isn't on his Christmas card list either. Wilson never got his shoulder loose after a spring training where he seemed to be constantly injured. At least he wasn't badly injured when Kyle Farnsworth went linebacker on him.
Jose Acevedo has perhaps the most potential on the staff, but ended the season by having surgery on an ankle he injured going down the dugout steps. He should have little problem returning from what is a relatively minor procedure. Jimmy Haynes, on the other hand, never seemed to recover from back spasms and is a question mark as far as both durability and talent. Add in injury concerns for Ryan Wagner, unquestionably talented, but young and possessing a violent motion, and John Riedling to a mix that is as flammable as Haitian politics.
Danny Graves returns to the closer role after his body failed to hold up as a starter. One of the poster children for V-Loss, Graves' fastball was in the mid-80's by midseason and his shoulder finally ended his season. Back in the proper role, most of his durability concerns go away and he slides just under the yellow light threshold.
I won't make the mistake of calling the Reds a favorite again, but with the right breaks, this isn't a bad team. Getting their lineup to hit at baseline levels would be enough to bring them much closer to the Cubs and Astros, but health and a near complete lack of depth will likely doom Reds fans to another season of pining for Pete Rose's return.