Reds' revival a reversal
Updated 5/9/2006 2:58 AM
Source: USA TODAY research
By Paul White, USA TODAY
The standings show a change in Cincinnati, where the Reds have the second-best record in the National League at 21-11. But outfielder Adam Dunn sees changes elsewhere.
"In the past, our front office preached 'compete,' " Dunn says of the new management team that includes owner Robert Castellini and general manager Wayne Krivsky. "The first thing we heard from these people was 'win.' "
The Reds haven't won at this rate since 2000, the last time they finished above .500, the franchise's longest stretch of futility in half a century.
Last year the team finished 73-89 as the pitching staff allowed the most hits (1,657) and home runs (219) in the major leagues and the most runs (889) in the NL. This year the Reds pitchers rank seventh in hits and third in home runs in the majors and fifth in the NL in runs.
"They've had a notorious lack of pitching," says Houston Astros manager Phil Garner, whose team won 12 of 16 games against the Reds last year but lost two of their first three meetings this year. "Their starting pitchers and their relievers threw a lot more strikes against us (this year). If they hold that all season, they're going to be OK."
The starting pitching has been led by Bronson Arroyo (5-1, 2.36 ERA) and Aaron Harang (5-1, 3.78 ERA).
But the other starters have combined to allow 64 runs in 95 2/3 innings (6.02 ERA). Brandon Claussen, Dave Williams, Eric Milton (expected back late this month after knee surgery) and Elizardo Ramirez are a combined 7-8.
"We can be better," Harang says, pointing out poor starts put too much pressure on the bullpen early in the season. "We have to. I think we will."
Freel's added dimension
But the Reds are still mostly about offense, leading the league in runs and ranking second in home runs.
They'll have to count on their stars, Dunn (12 homers), a healthier and rejuvenated Austin Kearns (.328 average) in right field and, of course, Ken Griffey Jr., who has been out since April 13 with a strained right knee tendon.
"We'll need him in the lineup," says Ryan Freel, who has taken Griffey's spot in center field. "I can't fill his shoes. He's a Hall of Fame player."
The Reds also need a steady dose of Freel, who gives the team a spark and another dimension with his ability to play second base, third base and three outfield positions. He's disruptive to other teams, who know he's liable to steal any base at anytime. During an April game against the Florida Marlins, he stole second and third bases on consecutive pitches and was able to score on a groundout.
"Freel has the capability of stealing 50 bases," manager Jerry Narron says. Freel stole 36 and 37 bases the last two years.
When Griffey returns, Narron faces a dilemma, an almost daily Rubik's Cube of playing styles and positions.
If Freel isn't in center field, where will he be? Narron says Dunn and shortstop Felipe Lopez are the only sure things in the lineup every day.
Kearns is the team's leading hitter. Brandon Phillips has been a revelation at second base after being traded from the Cleveland Indians in April and is third on the team with 23 RBI. And third baseman Edwin Encarnacion leads the team with 26 RBI.
Freel's other forte is defense, another aspect of the team that must improve if the Reds are to remain in contention.
"The defense is not as good as you'd like," Krivsky says. "We gave up more unearned runs than anyone else last year."
That's no longer the case, but barely. Only the rookie-laden Florida Marlins have allowed more unearned runs and have a worse fielding percentage than the Reds. And Cincinnati still leads the league in errors.
Freel's strong defense in the outfield could create the temptation to trade one of the other outfielders to upgrade a couple of positions, most likely the pitching staff.
But Freel's versatility allows Narron what the manager considers a luxury and a strategy that would preclude trading anyone.
"A lot of time you can have more success, more production playing five times a week instead of seven," Narron says.
"It's hard for (the players) to believe that."
That goes for Freel, who had hits in nine of his first 11 games as the starting center fielder, then just six hits in his next 11 games. Like any player, he wants to play every day. But his performance backs up Narron's theory.
It also goes for Griffey, who has taken longer than first anticipated to come back from his eighth trip to the disabled list since joining the Reds in 2000. At 36, Griffey points out, he's in his 18th major league season. He says he understands the value of being careful with his body at this point.
"I'm going to do what's best for the team," says Griffey, who has been working out and could return this week.
Ready for next move
The Reds have shown an ability to win at home (10-4) and on the road (11-7), as well as a knack for coming back. But the NL Central remains a formidable division after producing NL champions in St. Louis in 2004 and Houston in 2005, both of which were within 1½ games of the Reds entering Monday.
Krivsky says it's far too early to determine what kind of midseason moves he would consider to keep the team in contention, though he says he aims to build "a team that can be in contention every year for a long time."
"I don't have a three-year plan, a five-year plan or a 20-year plan," Krivsky says. "But I think I have an idea how to do it."
The players, though, expect help from the new ownership that took over in January.
"If we do our job," Dunn says, "I expect they'll go out and improve the team."