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TeamBoone
03-04-2006, 12:56 PM
Without a classic No. 1, opportunities abound
Column by The Post's Lonnie Wheeler


SARASOTA, Fla. - You get the feeling here - maybe it's the perpetually sunny sky - that the Reds' new bosses are not going to tolerate all the losing that has lately taken over the franchise. You also get the feeling - maybe it's the roster - that they might not have much choice.

Cincinnati surrendered the most runs in the National League last year. With Adam Dunn playing first base instead of Sean Casey, and Wily Mo Pena taking over in left field for Dunn, its defense is not likely to shave any off this time around.

That task has been left to the pitchers. The good news there is that 80 percent of the Reds' starting rotation has returned. The bad news is the good news.

Had he been hired earlier, which was not possible, new general manager Wayne Krivsky might have been able to lend more assistance to the pitching staff. But as he points out, "There's no one there to go get right now. The free-agent market is dry and No. 1 starters aren't traded for too often.

"But there are a lot of teams that don't have a true No. 1 starter. There aren't 30 guys out there who are No. 1 starters, by the profile. Just because a guy is starting Opening Day, that doesn't mean he's a No. 1 starter."

Had the GM been speaking of his own Aaron Harang, which he wasn't, the 6-foot-7 right-hander would not have been offended. As the Reds' best pitcher last year (11-13, 3.83), and given the schedule that manager Jerry Narron has laid out for spring training, Harang is nearly certain to start for the Reds against the Cubs on April 3. To his credit, the quiet Californian hasn't let it go to his head.

"I'm not trying to think anything about that," said Harang, who, along with less accomplished others, came to the Reds from Oakland at the bloody trading deadline of 2003, in exchange for Jose Guillen. "The biggest thing is maintaining throughout the season. Make sure my durability is there, that I can go out and throw 130 pitches or however many.

"I'm going to go out and do the same thing I did last year. Try to get through the whole game, or get as deep into the game as I possibly can every time."

If that sounds like an understated approach, it fits snugly on the 270-pound pitcher, a mountainous man who doesn't seem to comprehend how big he is; or care. Back in San Diego, the high school football coach couldn't persuade Harang to come out as a tight end. He played basketball only to stay in shape for baseball. And he pitches, albeit well, as if he were using Ryan Freel's less auspicious frame.

"I think of myself more as a control pitcher," Harang said. "I can get it up in the mid-90s every once in a while, but I just try to change speeds and hit my spots."

Doing so, the former graphic design major (San Diego State) has distinguished himself as not a No. 1, perhaps, but, at 27, a pitcher who conceivably could be. The same might be said for 26-year-old Brandon Claussen. Last year, the possibilities along those lines were veterans Paul Wilson and Eric Milton, one of whom is recovering from shoulder surgery, the other from a season-long shelling.

Put them all together, and it seems unfathomable that the National League would again bat .292 against the Reds' rotation, or punish it for a disorienting 5.38 earned runs a game. On the other hand, there's only one thing materially different about it: Dave Williams.

The Alaska-born left-hander led the Pirates with 10 victories last year, which impressed the Reds enough to trade Sean Casey for him. At 26 - and mostly because of a shoulder injury that kept him on the disabled list for parts of 2002 and 2003 - it was Williams' first full season in the big leagues.

But the Reds are a different kettle of pitchers, and this time, Williams (who will follow Harang on the mound today against the Yankees in Tampa) has essentially been assured of his share of early-season starts. For him, it's all new.

"Last year," he said, "I had a mediocre if not a bad spring training and got to go north. Lloyd (Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon) brought me into his office and said I was going to be on a short leash. And I ended up taking off."

Even so, he lost 11 games, many of them close ones. There was no Adam Dunn in Pittsburgh's lineup; no Ken Griffey Jr.

"The way our offense was set up was a little different. Those tight, one-run games you dealt with in Pittsburgh are going to help you throughout your career. Everything I went through in Pittsburgh has been a stepping-stone for me," Williams said.

That's evidently what Dan O'Brien was thinking when he made the trade in early December. It stands to reason that if Cincinnati's rotation is to significantly improve, the new guy needs to be significantly better than the pitcher he is supplanting, that being Ramon Ortiz (9-11, 5.36). Without a classic No. 1 or even a certified No. 2 starter in the cycle, the Reds' best hope is to hold their own with a string of No. 3 and No. 4's.

It remains to be seen whether Wilson's shoulder will permit him to return to that level - if not, lefty Michael Gosling is the most likely replacement - but it looks to be accessible enough for the others. At least, that's how Williams saw it from the opposite dugout.

"It seemed like every time they came to visit us," he said, "Harang was pitching and doing well. And we've still got Milton. He's going to come back and do better.

"I saw him pitch in Philly and this guy is legit, man. Last season was last season. As his teammate, I feel like he's an awesome left-handed pitcher. As a young guy - and Claussen would probably say the same thing as another lefty - you're going to have to watch him and pick his brain. I'm not going to not ask him a question be- cause of the year he had last year."

And yet, last year itself has raised the most pressing questions about Cincinnati's pitching, and consequently its prospects. Unfortunately, Krivsky arrived too late to answer.

So the Reds, like it or not, have turned to the same guys - and Williams - in fervent hope of a different result; a tolerable one, somehow.

Contact Lonnie Wheeler at lwheeler@cincypost.com.

http://news.cincypost.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060304/SPT05/603040383/1027