I know the conventional wisdom: Spring training stats are meaningless. This year, that truism applies maybe even more so than ever, with a large bloc of the most talented players off participating in the World Baseball Classic.

Still, for what it's worth, the trends this spring suggest we're going to see a far different Reds team in '06 than we caught in '05. On the plus side, the pitching might not be as putrid as we feared. But the negative side, the offense is looking more spotty and shakier, although some of that's no doubt due to Junior's absence and Dunn being given an extended spring vacation.

What trends might these be? Simple.

Last year, the Reds scored more runs than any other NL team -- 820 -- joining St. Louis and Philadelphia among the trio of squads to surpass 800 runs. But through Monday's games, the team had scored 147 runs, meaning so far this spring it has been outscored by nine other NL squads. The Reds' 147 runs fell well below the league-leading Arizona Diamondbacks, who had plated 212.

It's not shocking that we're ranking 10th in runs scored, as the team cumulatively stood at 10th in batting average, 10th in SLG, tied for 8th in home runs and an abysmal 15th in stranding 214 baserunners.

Looking over the offense this spring, there's been very little to cheer, except for Encarnacion forcing the brass to take him seriously and Freel once again proving his worth as a table-setting catalyst. As of Monday, we had 26 stolen bases, tied for 1st with the Washington Nationals, and Freel by his lonesome accounted for more than a third of those.

It's spring, as I said, so it's premature to sound the alarm bells. Any team missing its two top RBI producers might expect to show slippage in offense. And the spring batting stats always favor the Cactus League squads over their Grapefruit League counterparts, owing to the band-box parks out in Arizona.

Even so, it's fair to begin to suspect. Might this team that scored 820 times in '05 have trouble exceeding 750 runs in '06? What if production tapers off to 730 runs or even 700?

On the plus side, the pitching. Last year, we surrendered a league-worst 889 runs with our hurlers posting a cumulative 5.15 ERA, a shade below the chronic rock-bottom Rockies.

But this spring, the team ERA has improved to 4.72, fifth best in the NL, behind only Florida, Los Angeles, St. Louis and Philadelphia. The Reds pitchers have struck out 175, 4th best in the league, and also substantially curbed the number of free passes they are issuing. Harang and Claussen continue to improve as starters, and the bullpen -- while lacking a clearcut closer -- has shown tentative stirrings of emerging as a collective core of strength in the grand Reds' tradition.

Yet our pitchers aren't out of the woods, by any stretch of the imagination. So far this spring, they have given up 288 hits, 15th in the league, and 34 home runs, getting rocked and roughed up in that category more than any other NL team. That's a danger signal that bears close watching. We all know GABP has turned into a home run paradise, not only for our players but also the opposition.

Still, from what I'm seeing, I'm genuinely optimistic that the '06 Reds hurlers will improve upon the performance of their '05 counterparts. Instead of giving up 889 runs, maybe they can hold the line below 800. That's certainly possible, although again, it's premature to say whether that's a realistic expectation.

What can be reliably forecast: The pitching should get better, the offense is likely to deteriorate. Whether we win more games or not in '06 really depends on which of those trends is the more dominant.

I haven't touched on defense here. It's important, too, but who among our off-season acquisitions might shore up the defense? If you can name an '06 player who is a measurable defensive improvement over his '05 counterpart, I'd like to hear about it.

McCracken over Wily Mo doesn't count. That's a no-brainer, but it remains to be seen exactly what kind of no-brainer we're talking about. If Arroyo wins 10-13, we can do without Wily Mo. Otherwise, we lost another one to DiTech.