Reds take chance on reliever
By Marc Lancaster
Post staff reporter
Dan O'Brien referred to Thursday's signing of reliever Grant Balfour as a "calculated risk" for the Reds, but in baseball terms it was a relatively low-risk move.
The Reds will pay the 28-year-old right-hander $340,000 this year, knowing he won't be available to pitch in the majors until sometime this summer at the earliest. But if Balfour recovers from injuries that kept him on Minnesota's disabled list all of last season, he could prove a worthwhile investment.
"It's a combination of flashes of past performance, the power arm, his age and the fact that if he does return to his previous form, we would potentially control the player for several years to come," O'Brien explained.
Because Balfour has less than three years of major league service time, he still hasn't entered the salary arbitration phase, so the Reds could retain the rights to him for at least three more seasons after this one if they so desire. Whether they do depends on how well Balfour bounces back from Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery that ended his 2005 campaign before it even started and a subsequent procedure last September to repair a torn rotator cuff and torn labrum.
One factor in the Reds' decision to take a chance on Balfour's healthy return is that both surgeries were performed by their team medical director, Dr. Tim Kremchek. Balfour will be able to continue his recovery with firsthand guidance from Kremchek, and O'Brien said the prognosis is encouraging.
"He'll report to major league camp, he'll continue to rehab," said O'Brien. "If things go according to plan, the doctor projects that he might be able to return to pitching in the big leagues at some point in midseason."
Before the injuries, Balfour posted the kind of numbers that are rare among Reds prospects. Pitching in Class AAA in 2002 and most of 2003, Balfour recorded 175 strikeouts in 142 1/3 innings while walking just 46. Those ratios didn't quite hold in the majors with the Twins in 2004, but Balfour still struck out 42 and walked 21 in 39 1/3 innings.
To make room on their 40-man roster for Balfour, the Reds designated right-hander Josh Hancock for assignment. That, too, is something of a risk, as the Reds could lose Hancock through waivers, but they're expecting and hoping he'll make it through and accept a minor league assignment.
Assuming Hancock clears waivers, O'Brien said the pitcher will be in the mix for a swing role on the pitching staff as was originally planned. Hancock, 27, had a frustrating 2005. He appeared in only 11 big-league games after a nagging groin strain and elbow soreness kept him from the majors until September. He pitched well in his limited duty with the Reds, allowing three earned runs and walking one batter in 14 innings of relief.
Also Thursday, the Reds signed three more players to minor league deals with invitations to major league spring training. The additions of infielder Frank Menechino and catchers Ryan Hanigan and Steve Torrealba give the Reds 17 non-roster invitees.
Menechino is the most intriguing newcomer. He was a 45th-round draft pick of the White Sox in 1993 and spent nine years in the minors before making it to the big leagues with Oakland in 1999. He has been in the majors ever since, mostly as a backup infielder. The vast majority of his major league appearances have come at second base, which is becoming quite a logjam for the Reds.
Not counting Felipe Lopez, who will start at shortstop, the Reds will have eight players in big-league camp with experience playing second base in the majors: Rich Aurilia, William Bergolla, Ryan Freel, Aaron Holbert, Anderson Machado, Menechino, Ray Olmedo and Tony Womack.
"It's about depth and it's about maneuverability and it's about creating competition," O'Brien said of the infield glut, adding that Menechino was well aware of the situation before he signed.
Neither Hanigan nor Torrealba has much of a chance to break camp with the big-league club, but every team tries to take several catchers to spring training.