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The Reds have been moving quickly to get their arbitration-eligible players taken care of for the 2006 season. In the past two days they have locked up Aaron Harang, Austin Kearns, and Wily Mo Pena to one year deals, and before that, they signed Ryan Freel, Jason LaRue and Javier Valentin. And they still have to worry about Adam Dunn and Felipe Lopez.

In our last look at the Reds, we postulated that the Reds’ catching duo could earn in the neighborhood of $6-$7 million combined in arbitration this year. The Reds did well to lock up both before the arbitration process, first by Jason LaRue signing a two year extension and now Javier Valentin signing a one year contract. Combined, they’ll bank $5.05 million in 2006. Having both back for ’06 for reasonable salaries has to represent a win-win for Reds management.

The off-season trade of Sean Casey will open up full-time opportunities for the recently re-signed Pena and Kearns. Pena in particular has been vocal in the past about spotty playing time hindering his development; he’ll earn $1.25 million in 2006, more than double his 2005 salary. Kearns’ 2006 salary of $1.85 million will be double his 2005 salary of $930,000. These two will have a full season to see if they can live up to their considerable hype, all for the tidy sum of half of Jeromy Burnitz.

Harang was the only Reds pitcher to throw 200 innings, and he had the lowest walk rate and highest strikeout rate among Reds starters. His hit rate wasn’t that great, but the team’s poor Defensive Efficiency prevented most pitchers from having good H/9 numbers. Harang’s salary bump from $440,000 to $2,350,000 may seem drastic, but is in the neighborhood of increases given to pitchers like Sidney Ponson, Jon Garland, and Ben Sheets.

The Reds have also been looking for arms outside the organization, recently inking former Twin Grant Balfour to a one year contract. Perhaps the team best equipped to gamble on Balfour–team Medical Director Dr. Tim Kremchek has performed both of his recent operations–the Reds expect Balfour back by mid-season. While Balfour certainly has not earned the praise he has garnered in the past, he does represent a good risk. When utilized at the Major League level, he has been a league average or better pitcher, featuring good heat and a good slider. His translated statistics show that he has succeeded in most of the right places, with great K/9 and HR/9 rates and a subpar BB/9 rate. At 28, with three years of arbitration eligibility left, it’s worth it for the Reds to see if he can stay healthy and put it all together.

While the Reds work towards bridging the gap with Dunn and Lopez, we are left to wonder what will happen with Cincinnati in 2006. With ownership changing hands the team may well be circling the wagons again for 2007. That the Reds are focusing on one year-deals rather than saddling themselves with long-term deals for players they still control is a prudent strategy. The only player the Reds currently have money committed to for the 2008 season is the revitalized Ken Griffey Jr.. While the team and its fans may like to be rid of Eric Milton and his price tag, the fact that the Reds are maintaining a flexible payroll will allow them to move quickly when/if they get closer to contending.

Paul Swydan

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There’s not a team in baseball with as much starting-pitching depth as the A’s have. Heading into spring training, they return all five members of one of the 2005’s strongest rotations, and behind that, they feature at least four pitchers who can be expected to provide league-average work in 2006 or who have the upside to do even better than that in future seasons.

Rich Harden, Barry Zito, Joe Blanton and Dan Haren all return from last year’s rotation, which had a 3.82 ERA, third in the American League. The A’s midseason rush to contention was built on two foundations: improved offense, especially from the corner spots, and a rotation that shut down the opposition. They can expect more of the latter in ’06. Esteban Loaiza, a reliable innings-muncher, has been signed to fill out the fivesome, replacing last year’s #5, Kirk Saarloos. This is a moderate upgrade, given Loaiza’s performance in two of the last three seasons and his solid peripheral stats.

Saarloos, who posted a 4.17 ERA for the A’s (albeit with a 54/53 K/BB in 159 2/3 innings), joins Joe Kennedy, who had a 4.45 ERA and a 45/20 K/BB in 61 2/3 innings for the A’s after coming over from the Rockies, at the front of a “shadow rotation” that on its own might fall in the middle of the pack in the AL. Juan Cruz pitched poorly for the A’s in limited work, but dominated the PCL, posting a 2.40 ERA in 13 starts, with 90 strikeouts in 75 innings. Picked up on the cheap from the Blue Jays, Chad Gaudin also had a severe MLB/AAA split last season, pitching poorly in a brief stint in Toronto while performing well at Syracuse. He’ll be just 23 on Opening Day, and despite being mishandled over the past few seasons, retains the talent of a mid-rotation starter.

If the A’s really had to go 10 deep, they could look at converting Justin Duchscherer back to the rotation, or rushing the return of Dan Meyer. They have the luxury of not doing so, and can again rely on Duchscherer for multiple-inning outings from the bullpen, while allowing Meyer to rehab at his own pace.

Most teams with this kind of depth would be looking to move it to fill other holes. Certainly Zito, who makes $8.25 million and can become a free agent after the ’06 season, would seem to be a prime candidate to end up elsewhere. Rumors ebb and flow about Billy Beane’s intentions, and right now, there’s no indication that a deal is in the works. One reason could be that the A’s lineup and bullpen are also fairly set. Having acquired Milton Bradley for a single prospect (Texas League MVP Andre Ethier), Beane’s lineup is set, and in fact he has a logjam on the corners, one that may push Dan Johnson into a full-time DH role. When you consider the depth of the bench and bullpen, the A’s may have the strongest 16-25 roster in the game. That matters over 162 games.

After a couple of disappointing seasons, each of which ended with the A’s watching the Angels celebrate a division title on their home field, they look loaded for bear in 2006, and will likely enter the season as the favorite in the AL West.

Joe Sheehan

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