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June 23, 2005

Crooked Numbers

Seeing Red

by James Click

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Continuing BP's theme of "What's in the water in Ohio?", today is all about picking apart and picking on the Cincinnati Reds, the same team identified as quite possibly the worst defensive team since the 1979 A's buttered their fingers. Yesterday morning, the Reds were sitting at the bottom of the NL Central at 28-43, the only sixth place team in baseball. They finally figured out what to do with that nasty fourth outfielder problem by demoting Austin Kearns, Danny Graves was released, and resident pitching ace Paul Wilson is out for the season. Things have gotten so bad that they had to fire their manager, a step usually reserved for teams about to be contracted or countries losing global thermonuclear wars.

Okay, so things aren't quite that bad, but they might as well be. Since losing the wild card play-in game to the Mets in 1999, the Reds haven't finished within 10 games of the division title (and if you throw out 2000, the closest they've been is 19 games). In those halcyon days of yore, the Reds were coming off the "playoffs" and signed local-boy-made-good Ken Griffey Jr. from the Mariners at a hometown discount, causing fits of joy in the streets of southern Ohio and fits of madness in the player's union. The 2000 lineup scored a respectable 825 runs, led by Griffey (.271/.387/.556, 40 HR), Barry Larkin (.313/.389/.487), Sean Casey (.315/.385/.517), and a surprising performance from Chris Stynes (.334/.386/.497).

Eight different pitchers started at least 10 games for the Reds with Steve Parris, Pete Harnisch, Rob Bell, and Ron Villone all notching 22 or more starts with a combined ERA of 4.98 in over 600 innings of work. The bullpen managed to hold things together, dragging the team ERA kicking and screaming down to 4.33, allowing a total of 765 runs on the season. At 85-77, the Reds finished 10 games behind the Cardinals and well back in the wild card race. However, they had their new superstar, and smartly let Villone, Stynes and Parris walk. With new manager Bob Boone at the helm, they were clearly poised for annual runs at the division title.

Just over four years later, things look quite different. Generally, the Reds' struggles have been blamed on two things: injuries and the complete and utter inability to find starting pitching. Injuries are a part of baseball. Many can be prevented, a few predicted, but most of the time, they just come right out of nowhere and bite you in butt. Griffey's crusade to single-handedly raise health insurance premiums in America falls under all three categories, but the end result is that he averaged just under 300 PAs a season from 2001 to 2004. The 2003 season was completely devastated by injuries as Griffey, Kearns, Larkin, Casey, and even Jason LaRue lost significant time or production due to injuries.

As Will Carroll pointed out in this year's team health report, this is a roster that invites injury. Position players like Griffey and Larkin--while the most unfortunate--are the style and age of player likely to get injured. Kearns' situation seems more like bad luck than anything else, but when the pitching staff is constructed entirely of reclamation projects for released pitching coach Don Gullett, this kind of attrition has to be expected. The Reds have been gambling that Gullett can keep finding players like Harnisch, Parris, Villone, Elmer Dessens and Steve Avery and turn them into serviceable major league pitchers for the long term. That hasn't been the case for a few seasons and while the removal of Gullett may be viewed as cursory, his absence will hopefully force the Reds to focus on pitchers with talent instead of injury histories. Finding talented starting pitching is easier said than done, but the rotation has long been the Reds' largest weakness--posting ERAs of 5.44, 4.69, 5.77, 5.23, and 5.93 in the last five seasons--and it should be a priority going forward.

The other major problem is the defense. For the most part, that's only been a serious issue in 2005. From 2001 through 2004, the Reds turned about 1% fewer balls in play into outs than a league average team given their park, which only works out to about 25 runs or about 2.5 wins. That's not to say that 2.5 wins is inconsequential, but when the closest you've come to the division title in five years is 19 games, it's not that big of a deal.

So where do the Reds go from here? First--as Joe Sheehan pointed out yesterday--they need to avoid contracts like Eric Milton's from last winter. Watching a player assault Bert Blyleven's record for home runs allowed in a season is fun, but only if he's not pitching for your team. Larkin's final contract was another bad idea. Larkin slid off the table surprisingly quickly and while contracts of that size and length are highly questionable with players of that age, cutting loose a Hall of Famer who's a large draw at the box office can be a difficult business decision. Without another franchise player of that magnitude up for contract renewal any time soon, it's not a mistake that's likely to be repeated.

Second, they need to acquire some pitching talent. Thus far, the Reds seem adept at half of that equation: they acquire plenty of pitchers, but the talent part seems to have escaped them most of the time. Ramon Ortiz is a placeholder at best, but the Reds seem unlikely to invest in him, so there's little worry about another Milton-sized mistake here. Of the talent in house, Brandon Claussen finally seems to be putting things together and Aaron Harang has shown improvement, mostly by increasing his strikeout rate and keeping the ball out of the hands of the defense. Neither player is likely to be a front of the rotation starter, one of baseball's hardest commodities to acquire.

Down on the farm are Richie Gardner (42/19 K/BB in 56.2 IP in Double-A) and the outspoken Homer Bailey (56/27 in 42.0 IP in Single-A); the former is struggling through the upper levels and the latter is at least a few years away and still only 19 years old. Close behind is Tyler Pelland (58/29 in 46.2 in Advanced-A), though both Pelland and Bailey have shown uncomfortably high walk rates to accompany their strikeouts. The Reds did select pitchers with five of their first six picks in the 2005 draft, netting college pitchers with the last four of those.

Ryan Wagner was the subject of some brief discussion about moving to the rotation shortly after he was drafted in 2003. Wagner was a closer in college, struggled badly last year, and has rebounded in every stat except ERA this year. There's little reason to believe he could successfully move into the rotation and hopefully the Reds will flash back to all those happy Graves starts whenever they consider it.

With minimal talent at the major league level and the farm system unlikely to come up with any front line major league starters until at least 2007, the other option on hand is the trade market. The Reds big strength--four in-demand outfielders--has led to a great deal of interest from other clubs. Rather than sending Kearns to Louisville, the Reds would do well to ship him--or Griffey, if he's willing to go and they can find a buyer--elsewhere for some starting pitching. With the NL East and West as wide open as ever, there should be many buyers for the Reds prodigious outfield threats.

The other major piece to shop is the alien posing as Joe Randa. Off to his best season since 1999, Randa will easily command value on the trade market. Getting into the mix before the rest of the cellar dwellers finally decide they're out of it could net the Reds a respectable prospect or two. Perpetual 3B prospect Edwin Encarnacion is proving himself more than capable in Triple-A Louisville (.294/.373/.508 with 12 HR); Randa's resurgence means the Reds' brief gamble should pay off, but only if they're willing to cash in the chips for something else soon.

Five years ago, this was a franchise on the rise with a superstar at the helm, a new ballpark, and several young, talented hitters in the system. Things have changed dramatically for the Reds and though the injuries were unfortunate, the constant reliance on marginal starting pitcher talent and reclamation projects to fill out the rotation has left the Reds with five glaring holes to fill. The young hitters are still young and they're still hitting and hopefully without Gullett's reputation to lean on, the Reds will target some serious talent to fill out their rotation rather than the Ortiz's and Milton's of the world and aim for 2006 and 2007. It's far from a hopeless situation, but a few key, easy moves regarding the personnel on the field rather than in the dugout would make a big difference for Cincinnati.

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