By Brian Gillespie, MLB Analyst (Sports Network)
2004 FINISH (76-86) - Fourth Place (NL Central)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: SS - Rich Aurilia, RP - Kent Mercker, SP - Eric Milton, SP - Ramon Ortiz, 3B - Joe Randa, RP - David Weathers, RP - Ben Weber
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: 3B - Juan Castro, LP - Phil Norton, RP - John Riedling, RP - Gabe White
PROJECTED LINEUP: D'Angelo Jimenez (2B); Joe Randa (3B); Sean Casey (1B); Adam Dunn (LF); Ken Griffey Jr. (CF); Austin Kearns (RF); Rich Aurilia (SS); Jason LaRue (C)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Paul Wilson (RHP); Eric Milton (LHP); Ramon Ortiz (RHP); Aaron Harang (RHP); Brandon Claussen (LHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Danny Graves (RHP)
MANAGER: Dave Miley
Heading into the offseason, the Cincinnati Reds had plenty of questions to answer. First and foremost, owner and billionaire Carl Lindner had to decide whether he truly wanted to take a shot at winning. Of course, that decision required that he pour some of his billions earned in the business world back into the club.
Lindner had earned a reputation for being a penny-pincher over the last few years, forcing general managers to work with a shoestring budget despite the existence of a new stadium. Apparently, Lindner had heard enough about his frugality to spur him into action in December, as he went on a spending spree not seen in the Queen City in years.
After Reds general manager Dan O'Brien was able to loosen Lindner's kung-fu grip on his pocketbook, he promptly inked a trio of relievers (Kent Mercker, David Weathers, Ben Weber) to bolster the bullpen, added two frontline starters (Eric Milton, Ramon Ortiz) and tacked on a pair of starting infielders (Rich Aurilia, Joe Randa) for good measure. In the process, the Reds' payroll extended into the upper $50 million range.
"The bottom line is, Mr. Lindner's made it very clear to us that he wants to win," said Reds chief operating officer John Allen. "We're trying to improve our chances."
The five additions to the pitching staff were much-needed for the Reds, who finished 29th of 30 teams in the league in ERA (5.19) last season. Cincinnati also ranked 28th in the league in opponents' batting average (.280) and 24th in strikeouts per nine innings (6.18).
Meanwhile, the Reds got much needed replacements on the left side of the infield in Randa and Aurilia. Randa takes over for talented utilityman Juan Castro, who signed with the Chicago White Sox, while Aurilia will likely split time with Felipe Lopez at shortstop. Aurilia and Lopez will have big shoes to fill, as they will try to make Cincinnati forget about the now-retired Barry Larkin.
Talented first baseman Sean Casey is the loveable anchor of the Reds' infield. Casey, who had his contract extended through the 2006 season in October, had his best campaign since 1999 last year, recording a .324 batting average with a career-high 44 doubles, 24 homers and a career-high tying 99 RBI. The 30- year-old is never an easy out in the three hole, setting the table for Ken Griffey Jr. in the clean-up spot.
Randa, a 10-year veteran, will handle the hot corner duties this season for the Reds. The former Kansas City Royal inked a one-year, $2.15 million deal in December, pushing Austin Kearns back to the outfield. Cincinnati had considered moving Kearns to third to relieve the outfield logjam, but the experiment went awry. Randa is a quite capable corner infielder, as he possesses a .286 career average with 102 home runs and 643 RBI.
Second baseman D'Angelo Jimenez has quietly become one of the most consistent players on the Cincinnati roster over the past 1 1/2 seasons. The 27-year-old hit .270 with 12 homers, 67 RBI and a career-high 13 stolen bases last year, while committing just seven errors in 152 games. Look for Jimenez to turn up the heat on the basepads this season.
The evolution of the shortstop slot should be interesting for the Reds, as Aurilia is looking to revive his career while Lopez, the currently injured Anderson Machado and Ray Olmedo are chomping at the bit for a chance.
Aurilia has fallen fast since 2001, when he was named an All-Star and won the Silver Slugger Award as the best offensive shortstop in the National League by posting a .324 batting average, 37 home runs and 97 RBI with San Francisco. Last season, Aurilia hit .246 with six home runs and 44 RBI with San Diego and Seattle.
Lopez is very talented fielder, but he has yet to put together a solid offensive effort. In 2004, Lopez hit just .242 with seven homers and 31 RBI with the big club. Lopez spent half the season with Triple-A Louisville last year.
Handling the pitching staff once again will be veteran backstop Jason LaRue, who has been with the franchise for his entire six-year career. LaRue inked a one-year, $3-million deal in November to stay with the clubs. The veteran hit .251 with 14 home runs and 55 RBI last season.
It's the same old story in the outfield for the Reds, as they have one too many cooks in the kitchen. Four players for three spots wouldn't work on most teams, but other squads don't have the oft-injured Griffey on the roster. Wily Mo Pena, who currently seems to be the odd man out, will simply have to be patient and wait for the other shoe to drop on Griffey.
Last season, Griffey seemed to back to his old self with 20 homers, including his 500th, and 63 RBI in 83 games before tearing his hamstring. The injury- plagued centerfielder, who underwent surgery to repair his hamstring, has played a total of just 206 games over the last three seasons. Look for the Reds to work Griffey into the lineup slowly in April.
Left-handed power hitter Adam Dunn is a basher that can go deep at any time, that is if he can get the bat on the ball. Dunn shattered the major league record with 195 strikeouts last season, while registering 46 homers and 102 RBI. Apparently, the 25-year-old has worked hard on being more selective at the plate in the offseason.
Kearns will be manning right field for the Reds, as he tries to stay healthy for the first time since 2002. The 23-year-old, who struggled with a plethora injuries last season, mustered just a .230 batting average with nine homers and 32 RBI.
Top starter Paul Wilson set the tone for the Reds' offseason when he signed a two-year, $8.2 million deal in November. Wilson won his first seven decisions in 2004 before finishing with an 11-6 mark and a 4.36 ERA in 29 starts. The Orlando, FL native registered a career-high 11 wins, three more than his previous high.
Of course, after Wilson the Reds had little to no consistency with guys like Cory Lidle and Jose Acevedo being high in the rotation. Lidle was dealt to Philly and Acevedo could be groomed for the closer role. Filling those holes will be headline free agent addition Milton and trade acquisition Ortiz.
Milton, a highly sought after lefthander, chose the Reds over a multitude of clubs, including suitors such as the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. Casey, closer Danny Graves and Wilson get assists for Milton's signing, as they all contacted him to encourage him to take a look at the franchise. Last season, Milton won 14 games to earn the three-year $25.5 million contract he inked. However, there are concerns that he gives up too many homers and his ERA (4.75) is too high.
In Ortiz's situation, the Reds actually acquired a veteran for prospects rather than the other way around for once. Ortiz, who was unhappy being flip- flopped between the rotation and the bullpen in Anaheim, has posted double- digit wins on three occasions in his career. Last season, Ortiz went 5-7 with a 4.43 ERA in 34 appearances for the Angels.
The final two spots in the rotation will likely be held down by youngsters Aaron Harang and Brandon Claussen. Harang did a solid job for Cincinnati last season, going 10-9 with a 4.86 ERA. Meanwhile, the highly-touted Claussen struggled with a 2-8 mark and 6.14 ERA. Luke Hudson could eventually unseat Claussen, but the University of Tennessee product has widespread inflammation in his throwing shoulder which will keep him out indefinitely.
The Reds' starters will have some of the pressure to throw long innings removed from their shoulders this year, as they will have comparable replacements coming out of the bullpen. Veteran lefthander Mercker, who will be beginning his third stint with the club, will be the key to the 'pen. Mercker was terrific for the Cubs last year, registering a 3-1 mark with a 2.55 ERA and 16 saves. The 37-year-old gives Dave Miley a reliable southpaw out of the 'pen after he was forced to watch Phil Norton muck things up in 2004.
New additions Weber and David Weathers will provide some righthanded punch out of the 'pen. Weber, a 35-year-old setup man, is coming off a disastrous season in Anaheim, where he went 0-2 with an 8.06 ERA. Cincinnati is betting that pitching coach Don Gullett can bring Weber back to his 2003 form, when he went 5-1 with a 2.69 ERA and 11 holds.
Meanwhile, Weathers has jumped around over the last few seasons, playing for five different teams since 2001. The hefty righthander compiled a 7-7 record with 4.15 ERA and 12 holds between Houston, New York and Florida last year.
Another name to watch is 22-year-old righthander Ryan Wagner, who had a rough rookie campaign following high expectations in 2004. Wagner went 3-2 with a 4.70 ERA in 49 games last season, but did post eight holds. The youngster could still be in the mix to be the Reds' closer of the future.
Although the Reds flirted with moving Danny Graves into middle relief, he returns as their closer. Graves racked up a club record 41 saves last season, but he also went just 1-6 with a 3.95 ERA and nine blown saves. If he gets out of the gate slowly, look for the Reds to look elsewhere for a closer, possibly using Weber in the short term.
Mr. Everything Ryan Freel is always the first guy off the bench for the Reds, as he is capable of playing nearly every position on the field. Freel, a third baseman by trade, has no qualms about running full speed into a wall or the stands to make a defensive play. The 29-year-old stole 37 bases while hitting .273 with three homers and 28 RBI in 143 games last season.
Pena, who is just 23, is no slouch off the pine either with a powerful bat and the ability to play all three outfield positions. Many think the Dominican youngster, who posted 26 homers and 66 RBI in 110 games last season, will be dealt prior to the deadline if Griffey can stay healthy.
The Reds' front office has re-energized the fan base in Cincinnati with its offseason dealings, but there are no guarantees in the tough National League Central. Cincinnati should be much better than Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, but surpassing Chicago, Houston and St. Louis will be no easy feat. The key to the Reds' success will be their health, as the powerful outfield must stay on the field. Nonetheless, look for the Reds to win between eight and 10 more games this season, but a playoff berth isn't likely.