Improved Reds won't be going away any time soon
BY JEFF GORDON
STLTODAY.COM SPORTS COLUMNIST
Columnist Jeff Gordon
(E-mail a "Letter to Gordo")
Hitting has never been a big challenge for the recent Reds, even with their unfortunate injury history. They have generally enjoyed a surplus of accomplished batters.
Pitching, of course, has been a whole different matter. That’s why you have to give their front office -– er, front offices, owing to a mid-winter ownership change -- high marks for upgrading the Cincinnati staff.
The Reds come to town with a better-balanced ballclub and a stronger chance to finally contend for a playoff spot. They are 6-3 and own a piece of the National League Central lead.
New general manager Wayne Krivsky traded tantalizing outfielder Wily Mo Pena –- high on potential, but just so-so on production at age 24 -– for starting pitcher Bronson Arroyo.
Oddly enough, the Red Sox had no spot in their rotation for Arroyo, despite his 14-10 record last season and 205 1/3 innings pitched. The year before that, Arroyo played a significant role in Boston’s incredible postseason run.
The guy was willing to play for less to stay in Boston and the team moved him out anyway. Apparently, the Red Sox figure David Wells has another big season in him at the age of 63, or whatever he is this year.
(Wells allowed seven runs during his first start of the season for the Red Sox and heard it from Boston fans at Fenway Park.)
The Reds were able to move Adam Dunn back to left field after making the Pena deal, with newcomer Scott Hatteberg taking over at first base.
Earlier during the offseason, Dan O’Brien, Krivsky’s predecessor, traded fan favorite Sean Casey for lefthanded pitcher Dave Williams. Casey, 31, had lost some power at the plate.
He was in the last year of a contract paying him $8.5 million -– money that regime felt was better off spent on pitching. The club didn’t plan on extending his contract to prevent him from becoming a free agent.
Now Arroyo and Williams join Eric Milton to give the Reds a solid starting pitching foundation. Arroyo is 2-0 with a 1.98 earned-run average and two homers as a hitter. Milton is 2-0 with a 2.63 ERA.
Milton was awful last season, finishing 8-15 in 2005 with a 6.47 ERA and (gulp) 40 homers allowed. So how do you fix that?
An offseason weight program helped Milton rebuild his lower body strength after nagging leg injuries cost him velocity last season. Also, the Reds have asked him to change speeds and quit trying to overpower hitters.
“We're trying to stay away from the high fastball," pitching coach Tom Hume told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “All our guys have been concentrating on that since spring. If you miss, miss down.”
Williams lost his only start his season, but allowed just two earned runs in six innings. Brandon Claussen (0-1, 5.40) and Aaron Harang (1-1, 8.49) round out the rotation.
“That's why our record is what it is. Our pitchers are pitching well,” Dunn told MLB.com. “We pretty much have three No. 1's right now. When Harang is on, Arroyo is doing what he's been doing, and Milton is doing what he's doing, that's three pretty good pitchers right there."
Even with Casey and Pena missing from their offense, the Reds have a formidable batting order. Here is why:
* Adam Dunn is still a monstrous force. He already has five homers and is batting .355 this season.
* Oft-injured Austin Kearns is back to full-time duty, batting .297 with three homers this season.
“Last year, Wily was playing a lot,” Kearns told the Enquirer. “He was hot from the get-go. I think it's a different mind-set when you know you're going to be out there. This year, I'm not sitting there worrying about if I don't do something here I might not be in there tomorrow. It's easier on the mind-set.”
* Ken Griffey Jr. managed to get through spring training AND the World Baseball Classic in one piece. He recently suffered some knee stiffness, but it wasn’t believed to be a serious issue. When he is healthy, he adds to a Hall of Fame resume.
* Shortstop Felipe Lopez, 25, has become one of the NL’s elite hitters at his position. He is batting .324 with three homers, seven RBIs and three stolen bases.
* Third baseman Edwin Encarnacion, 23, seems to have significant offensive potential as well.
* Second baseman/outfielder Ryan Freel is batting .368 and already has six stolen bases.
Hatteberg and fellow veteran Rich Aurilia haven’t hit much this season, but Cincinnati has mounted a powerful attack without their bats. The Reds just won two of three games against the Cubs, scoring 9-2 and 8-3 victories in Wrigley Field.
With the ball carrying well in the new Busch Stadium, the Cards will have to treat this lineup with the usual respect.
This three-game series ought to tell us more about both teams. Our guess? The Reds aren’t going away any time soon this season. They look ready to make the N.L. Central much more competitive than it was in 2005.