By Hal McCoy
Dayton Daily News
ST. LOUIS | For those expecting the Cincinnati Reds to pry open CEO Carl Lindner's vault or to dig low into his deep pockets for 2006, expect elsewhere.
General manager Dan O'Brien said next year's payroll will be, "in the neighborhood of last year's, which hovered around $60 million and is in baseball's lower middle class."
Is it enough to cover escalating salaries for arbitration-eligible players Adam Dunn, Aaron Harang, Austin Kearns, Jason LaRue, Javier Valentin, Felipe Lopez, Ramon Ortiz Wily, Mo Pena and possibly Ryan Freel?
O'Brien said relief will come with the removal of the $6 million paid to Danny Graves and the $2.72 million paid D'Angelo Jimenez, plus there could be trades.
When O'Brien spoke of next year's outfield, he spoke of Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr., but pointedly omitted Kearns and Pena. At this point last season, O'Brien said the team was content to go to spring training with those four outfielders because of the uncertainty of Griffey coming off serious surgery.
"Griffey has shown when he is healthy he remains an elite player," he said. "Dunn has put up consistent numbers in run production for two years now."
Does that put Pena and Kearns on the available list?
"We're more likely to be open-minded," said O'Brien. "It isn't something we have to do, but there has been significant interest in our outfielders."
Pitching, though, remains Priority A.
"This will not come as any surprise, but our No. 1 priority is to try to improve the pitching," he said, but he talked as if mostly it would come from within, "Because there is a less than overwhelming free-agent list."
He said Harang and Brandon Claussen have proved themselves as major-league pitchers and acknowledged that Eric Milton and Paul Wilson, if healthy, are part of it, too.
Ramon Ortiz, could be the fifth starter, if the club picks up his option, but there are other avenues — Matt Belisle, Luke Hudson, Josh Hancock.
"Hancock is going to winter ball in Venezuela and will start and Hudson is going to the Arizona Fall League and will start," said O'Brien. "Going into camp, Jerry has an open mind in considering Belisle as a starter, but no commitment one way or another. And we're getting a sense of Randy Keisler in a starting role right now."
Although Wilson is ahead of schedule after mid-season shoulder surgery and plans to be ready by spring training, Narron is advancing cautiously.
"We all want him to be ready Opening Day and we're all hoping he will be, but we won't put pressure on him and rush to get him back," said Narron.
Both catchers, LaRue and Valentin, are arbitration-eligible and O'Brien said of them, "The overall productivity of the catching (a combined .271 with 28 homers and 108 RBIs) has surpassed our expectations."
Can the Reds afford both?
"I can't answer that right now," said O'Brien. "We need to prioritize. Our needs entering the off-season remain to be answered at this point."
Signing LaRue probably will cost the club $4 million, but there is no help in the system and bringing in a good catcher would cost just as much. But there is Dunn to think about, at a cost of close to $9 million, and Ortiz at $4.5 million and Rich Aurilia at $2 million.
If both parties exercise the mutual option in Aurilia's contract, he could be the club's second baseman because Narron values Ryan Freel's versatility and doesn't want to anchor him at second base.
"Freel will get time at second base, but the staff feels that his greatest value to the team is his ability to play multiple positions and it gives Jerry great flexibility," O'Brien said. "The left side of the infield is fairly secure, with Felipe Lopez (shortstop) and Edwin Encarnacion (third base)."
More questions need to be answered and they'll be discussed inside and out next week in Sarasota during the team's organizational meetings Wednesday through Sunday.
"We've identified the key guys who are arbitration eligible," O'Brien said. "We're fully prepared to go forward with that group, but we haven't made all the decisions in that regard, but we're off-setting that with some contracts (Graves, Jimenez) rolling off the payroll."
Before the meetings, Narron plans to talk this weekend with the coaches and determine who is coming back and who isn't.
"I'll do my best talking to them to see what they want to do," said Narron.
Does that mean if they all want to come back they'll be back?
"They've all done a good job and worked very hard," said Narron. Told that didn't answer the question, he laughed and said, "I'm learning from Dan."