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03-25-2006, 08:26 AM
Kearns looks ahead
Last season was 'interesting'
BY JOHN FAY | ENQUIRER STAFF WRITER

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Austin Kearns thought about the question for a moment, searching for the right word.

"Interesting" was the one he chose to describe his 2005 season.

Odd. Bad. Trying. Those would have worked as well.

At a time when the outfielder should have been reaching his potential as a player, he struggled mightily, was dispatched to Triple-A Louisville, was put on a crash fitness/weight program and became fodder for talk radio debate.

"I think everyone's ready for the season to start," he said. "Last year was an interesting year. There were some negatives. But there were also some positives that came out of it."

The month at Louisville was viewed widely as punishment from then-general manager Dan O'Brien.

Kearns wasn't happy about it, but he played well in Louisville (.342, seven homers, 21 RBI in 28 games) and got himself in better shape.

Kearns, 25, ended up hitting .240 with 18 home runs and 67 RBI with the Reds. The home run and RBI totals were career highs. His numbers were better upon his return - .253.

"My weight was not the reason I was struggling last year," he said. "Struggling is struggling."

That, however, did not stop Kearns from reporting to camp this year at 225 pounds, 20 under his weight listed in the media guide.

"They wanted me to come in lighter," Kearns said. "I planned on doing it anyway, just because such a big deal was made out of that last year. I didn't want people to use that as an excuse."

Kearns is having a good spring after a slow start. He doubled in the third inning of the Reds-Tampa Bay Devil Rays game Friday night, giving him hits in seven of his last eight games. He's hitting .550 with six RBI over that period.

Reds manager Jerry Narron sees this as a critical year for Kearns.

"No question," Narron said. "First of all, he's going to get a chance to play every day. At the end of the year, if he hasn't had a good year, he has no one to look at but himself.

"I think he'll do well. He has a chance to establish himself as an everyday major-league player."

At one time, scouts and executives in the organization were split on whether Kearns or Adam Dunn had more potential. Kearns finished third in the rookie of the year voting in 2002, hitting .315 with 13 homers and 56 RBI in 107 games.

He was on the way to a great season in 2003 when he injured his shoulder in a collision at home plate with Ray King.

That ultimately led to shoulder surgery. A thumb injury and a broken wrist limited him to 64 games in the big leagues in 2004.

Bottom line: He was a .313 hitter before the King collision; he's a .232 hitter since.

Kearns wouldn't go so far as to call this year critical.

"I don't know how to term it," he said. "I'm going to be out there every day. That's big for me. Staying healthy is the biggest thing. If that happens, everything else should take care of itself."

Kearns was the subject of trade rumors in the offseason. With the trade of Wily Mo Peņa Monday, Kearns appears to be safe for the near future at least.

"I hope so," he said. "But I don't know. I'm not sure. I think everybody thought it was settled when they traded (Sean Casey). Now, Wily Mo's gone. We'll see."

E-mail jfay@enquirer.com

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