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Burleson happy to stay with Reds, managing Mustangs
By MIKE SCHERTING
Of The Gazette Staff
Rick Burleson is ready to manage again.
Freed from the mandates of the Cincinnati Reds' previous regime -- mainly former general manager Dan O'Brien, who was fired in January -- Burleson is excited once again about another season in Billings with the Mustangs in the Pioneer League.
For the past two seasons, under the leadership of O'Brien, minor league managers at the lower levels of the Reds' organization were pretty much limited in what they could do during a game. For instance, pitchers were on blanket pitch counts and hitters couldn't swing at a pitch until they had taken a strike, taking a lot of the decision-making out of the hands of the minor-league managers. The take-a-strike philosophy seemed to have the most impact. Last year the Mustangs ranked last in the Pioneer League in hitting with a .258 team batting average and had the second-most strikeouts. The Mustangs struck out 720 times for an average of 9.5 per game.
But when Bob Castellini took ownership of the Reds early this year, he fired O'Brien, and with the GM went those strict measures. Castellini hired a new general manager in Wayne Krivsky, and the new Reds' regime quickly restored the traditional ways of letting the manager have more control over game decisions. Though there will be a few restrictions on players, the guidelines will be individualized and much more relaxed than in the previous two seasons.
"They've really been great as far as letting us do our jobs as far as player development people," Burleson said upon arriving at Cobb Field Friday in preparation for Tuesday's opener. "They trust us to do our job. It's not like you're being watched ... (Last year) you almost felt like you were being watched all the time by other people overseeing you.
"We have more flexibility (this year) as long as we're getting the job done. We have more freedom to teach and to get the most out of these guys. I think it's going to be a more fun atmosphere."
Fun seemed to be lacking last season, and with his contract with the Reds expiring last fall, Burleson felt his days with the team were over. But then came all the organizational changes, and now he's settled back into his familiar role as Mustangs manager. This will be Burleson's fifth season as the Mustangs manager, a job he first held in 2001. Burleson managed the Reds Triple-A affiliate in Louisville the second half of the 2003 season and for the entire 2004 season before returning to the Mustangs last summer.
"When I left the organizational meetings last October, I didn't think I was going to come back to the Reds," Burleson said. "And then all of a sudden the new ownership came in, Dan got fired, they hired (Krivsky) and things started to change for the good. I'm not going to bad-mouth beyond that. That's in the past now.
"I'm just going to say that I'm back, I'm glad to be back, and I'm happy to be a member of the Reds and that they're heading in the right direction as far as I'm concerned."
The Mustangs put in their second day of workouts at Cobb Field on Sunday, and part of the day's schedule included a six-inning simulated game.
The team's pitchers dominated for the most part. Few balls were hit out of the infield, but first-round selection Drew Stubbs connected for a home run to left field. Logan Parker, a 12th-round pick, had two hits -- one went for a double -- and hit the ball hard in nearly all his at-bats.
"The pitchers did a nice job," Burleson said after the game.
The Mustangs plan to have a two- or three-inning simulated game again today. They scheduled to be on the field for stretching by 10:30 a.m. today.
Chris Valaika, the Reds' third-round pick, arrived in Billings Sunday and will be added to the roster soon, pending a physical today. The arrival of the shortstop from UC-Santa Barbara means the Reds' top three draft picks this year are in Billings.
The Mustangs are also awaiting seventh-round pick Justin Turner and 32nd-rounder Danny Dorn, an outfielder. Both are playing for Cal State-Fullerton in the College World Series.
Burleson said he's very familiar with Turner, a second baseman.
"He's a gamer, a lead-off guy, a guy that really makes your team go," Burleson said.
The Mustangs have three catchers on their roster -- Tony Esquer (24th round pick), Rey Gonzalez (free agent) and Justin Tordi (41st-round pick in '05) -- but Burleson said his depth chart for that position is yet to be decided.
"The catchers are all in competition for their time," he said. "They're all going to get to catch early in the season and whoever emerges as the No. 1 guy is going to get most of the time.
"They know the most important thing is to get the pitchers through the game, handle the pitching staff, catch the ball, block the ball, those things, learn how to call a good game. If they do those things then they'll emerge as the No. 1 or No. 2 guy."
Brian Wilson, the Reds' scouting supervisor in Texas, died of a heart attack Saturday night. Wilson, 33, spent three seasons in the Reds' farm system, including with the Mustangs in 1994 and '95. As a scouting supervisor, Wilson signed the most recent Reds' No. 1 draft picks: Jay Bruce in 2005 and Stubbs this season.