By Brian Gillespie, MLB Analyst (Sports Network)
2003 FINISH (69-93) - Fifth Place (NL Central)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: SP - Cory Lidle, RP - Mike Matthews
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: INF - Russell Branyan, SP - Ryan Dempster
PROJECTED LINEUP: D'Angelo Jimenez (2B); Adam Dunn (LF); Ken Griffey Jr. (CF); Sean Casey (1B); Austin Kearns (RF); Brandon Larson (3B); Barry Larkin (SS); Jason LaRue (C)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Cory Lidle (RHP); Paul Wilson (RHP); Jimmy Haynes (RHP); Aaron Harang (RHP); Jose Acevedo (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Danny Graves (RHP)
MANAGER: Dave Miley
For nearly 10 years, Cincinnati management set the stage for the opening of its new stadium. When Great American Ballpark opened its doors, it was supposed to mark the beginning of a new era in Cincinnati Reds baseball -- one that would be filled with success.
Needless to say, things didn't go well in season one of the new park. Starting with yet another serious injury to Ken Griffey Jr., everything went downhill. If it weren't for a large amount of ninth inning victories early in the season, the Reds' ship would have sunk quicker than the Titanic. Instead, the fade was slow and painful.
With their playoff dreams dashed in late July, the other shoe dropped on nearly the entire organization. General manager Jim Bowden and manager Bob Boone were given their walking papers. A fire sale ensued, as Jose Guillen was dealt to Oakland, third baseman Aaron Boone to the New York Yankees, closer Scott Williamson to Boston, and middle reliever Scott Sullivan to the Chicago White Sox. Almost anyone with substantial salary left on his contract was tossed to the curb in favor of minor league talent.
Dave Miley, a longtime member of the Reds' organization, was handed the reins of the club. Since being drafted by the Reds in 1980, Miley had toiled for the organization. Finally, he had his chance to shine as a major league manager. His back was against the wall, but he did a yeoman's job down the stretch and earned the confidence of the organization. After a short offseason search for a manager, the Reds decided to stick with Miley.
The search for a replacement for Bowden wasn't so simple, as the Reds scoured the Earth for someone who wouldn't expect a lot of money and would be prepared to work with a miniscule payroll. Eventually, Cincy found its man in Houston's assistant GM Dan O'Brien. The 49-year-old pointed out the obvious at his December press conference.
"We have a lot of work to do, and the challenges are significant," said O'Brien. "I can't and won't underestimate the task at hand. We are committed to refocusing this organization. We do understand that there is no shortcut to success. We want success and would prefer to have it tomorrow. But we will never sacrifice the long-term success of this franchise for the short term."
O'Brien didn't exactly change the franchise overnight, in fact he did little to adjust the franchise's future in the winter months. While other teams were acquiring the A-Rods and Curt Schillings of the world, Cincinnati essentially stood pat with the minor additions of pitchers Cory Lidle and Mike Matthews. It remains to be seen whether the offseason inactivity will spell good things for the organization.
One trade that didn't get much press, but could turn out to be the best of the 2003 deals was the early July acquisition of D'Angelo Jimenez. The second baseman came over from the White Sox in exchange for minor-league pitcher Scott Dunn. Jimenez, a 26-year-old switch hitter, hit .290 with seven homers and 31 RBI down the stretch. His solid hitting and adept fielding will likely make him the Reds' long term solution at second base. However, there's a slight chance that Jimenez could end up at third if Brandon Larson misses on his final big league opportunity.
Once thought of as the gem of the Reds' minor league system, Larson has been unable to come close to expectations. Larson began the year at the hot corner in 2003 for the Reds, even displacing Aaron Boone, but he fell on his face in the early weeks of the campaign. The 27-year-old mustered a poor .101 batting average with 31 strikeouts in just 89 at-bats. Larson has fanned 51 times in 173 major league plate appearances. If the Triple-A specialist gets off to another slow start, veteran utilityman Juan Castro and rookie Tim Hummel could take over for Larson.
A pair of veterans in shortstop Barry Larkin and first baseman Sean Casey are back for another year. The Reds surprised many by re-signing Larkin for another season, as he has been hampered with injuries in recent years. Larkin, a stalwart in the Reds' organization for 17 years, has played less than half the season in two of the last three campaigns. His skills have diminished a bit in the field, but he maintains a dangerous hitter.
Casey isn't your typical major league first baseman, as he doesn't have the power stroke. However, he makes up for his lack of home run power with a solid hitting technique. A career .300 hitter, Casey has had occasional injury problems which have kept him from playing more than 151 games in any campaign. Last season, Casey hit .291 with 14 homers and 81 RBI. Working on yet another short term contract, this could be Casey's final season in the Queen City.
The Reds will have staple Jason LaRue behind the plate this season. LaRue hit a career-high 16 homers last season, but his average slipped 19 points to .230. Overall, LaRue is a solid player that continues to improve on his defense.
As usual, Cincinnati's strength will lie in its outfield. Griffey, who has had an excellent spring, must excel this season for the Reds to be successful. The 34-year-old has played in a total of 123 games in the past two seasons, amassing a .255 batting average with only 21 home runs and 49 RBI. Once considered a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame, Griffey has seen his career come crashing down since being traded to Cincinnati in 2000. No matter his measure of success this season, the Reds could end up dealing Griffey's large contract elsewhere by the deadline.
Bookending Griffey in the outfield will once again be youngsters LF Adam Dunn and RF Austin Kearns. Dunn, who has hit a major league record homers (72) for a player in 400 or fewer games, must find a way to get some patience at the plate. The strong-armed 24-year-old fanned 126 times in 116 games last season, while batting just .215. His poor fundamentals at the plate overwhelmed his 27 homers and 57 RBI.
Kearns, who also struggled with injuries last season, saw his average dip from .315 to .264 in 2003. His power numbers did improve in fewer games, as he posted 15 homers and 68 RBI in 82 games compared to 13 HRs and 56 RBI in 107 contests in 2002. A healthy Kearns is a must for the Reds this season.
When it comes to starting pitching, the waters become very murky for the Reds. The rotation could change at the drop of a hat, but for now it appears that Cory Lidle will be the number one starter. He posted an 12-15 mark with a rather meaty 5.75 ERA in 31 starts for the Blue Jays. The righthanded hurler dropped off substantially down the stretch, losing 10 of his final 12 decisions. It will be crucial for the Reds to get double-digit wins this season.
Veteran Paul Wilson was a decent surprise last season, tallying an 8-10 record with a 4.64 ERA in 28 starts. However, he struggled with biceps tendinitis in September last season. Wilson must stay healthy and provide stability for the rotation.
Veteran righthander Jimmy Haynes has slipped to third in the rotation after a miserable 2-12 mark with a 6.30 ERA. Haynes, who struggled with a bulging disc, must return to his 2002 form when he tallied a career-best 15-10 record with a 4.12 ERA. With Haynes making a relatively large salary ($2.3 million), the Reds have little choice but to keep him on the major league roster if he struggles.
The back end of the Reds' starting rotation will likely consist of youngsters Aaron Harang and Jose Acevedo. Harang came over from the Athletics in the Jose Guillen deal, posting a 4-3 mark with a 5.31 ERA in nine starts with the Reds. The righty will need to improve on his ERA and become more consistent with his pitches. Acevedo was terrific on the major league level last season, tallying a 2-0 mark with a 2.67 ERA in five outings before suffering a freak season- ending injury while walking towards the bench.
Keep an eye on youngsters Brandon Claussen and Jesus Sanchez. Claussen, a lefthander who came to the Reds from the Yankees in the Aaron Boone exchange, has been red hot in spring training. If Haynes struggles, one of the two will likely get the call.
Danny Graves returns to the closer role this season after a failed stint in the rotation. Placing Graves in the rotation was one of the death knells for Bob Boone, as the talented reliever struggled mightily. Graves finished the season with an ugly 4-15 mark and an unimpressive 5.33 ERA. The Saigon, Vietnam native has a hard time keeping his pitches down, which led to him allowing 92 extra-base hits. Graves will need to go back to aggressively using his four-seamer.
If Graves happens to struggle, Chris Reitsma is capable of closing the door on opponents. Late last season, Reitsma became the closer and posted 12 saves. His strong sinker and fastball make him an effective single inning pitcher. The 26-year-old managed a 9-5 record with 4.29 ERA in 57 outings split between the rotation and the bullpen.
Others expected to see time on the mound out of the 'pen will be John Riedling, Brian Reith and 21-year-old Ryan Wagner. Riedling was 2-3 with a 4.90 ERA last season, while Reith was 2-3 with a 4.11 ERA in 42 appearances. Wagner performed brilliantly in 17 games last season, posting a 2-0 mark with a 1.66 ERA.
Key reserves for the Reds will be youngsters OF Ryan Freel and utility man Ray Olmedo. Freel and Olmedo saw plenty of time in the lineup down the stretch last season, both posting solid efforts. Freel tallied four homers and 12 RBI to go along with a .285 batting average in 2003, while Olmedo played solid defense at shortstop.
Another solid Cincinnati bench member is veteran Juan Castro, who is capable of playing three infield positions. Castro saw the field in a career high 113 games last season, registering a .253 batting average. The 31-year-old is a sure-handed fielder as well.
Its hard to believe that the Reds will be much better than their 69-win 2003 season. Cincinnati has some good young arms, but its veteran pitchers are sub- par at best. The Reds would be best served to deal Griffey and/or Dunn for some good arms. Unless the Reds' front office brass decides to open up its pocketbook a little more in the near future, Cincinnati will continue to languish near the bottom of the NL Central.