Reds getting ready with a purpose
By Mel Antonen, USA TODAY
The Reds are planning to have fewer strikeouts and tighter defense in 2007, but the biggest key to their season probably will be the lessons they learned during their five-week slide from contention in 2006.
On Aug. 24, the Reds were tied with the Cardinals for first place in the NL Central before a 2-8 West Coast trip ignited their fall.
By Aug. 31, they were five games out.
They fell into third place Sept. 23 and finished there.
Reds manager Jerry Narron says last season's final month taught his players about how the regular season is a 162-game grind.
"We have a lot of guys that have never been in a situation where they were playing for anything the second half of the season," Narron says. "I think (we learned) as much as anything the mental part of it, what it takes to get up every night in those types of situations.
"We had a tough August schedule. That mental strain is what got us into trouble."
So when spring training camp opens in Sarasota, Fla., Narron wants his players to prepare differently.
"I think our guys understand that it's all about preparing to win, not just trying to get ready for the season," Narron says. "A lot of times guys try to get prepared just for the season, getting themselves ready, and don't get the team ready."
The new batting coach, Brook Jacoby, who had a career .270 average over 11 major league seasons, replaces Chris Chambliss and will try to shift the offense from relying on power to one that's more versatile and can generate runs in various ways.
"Brook Jacoby wants to stress with these guys about putting the ball in play better than we did a year ago and cutting down (on swings) with two strikes," Narron says.
The Reds led the NL with 820 runs scored in 2005 but dropped to ninth with 749 runs in 2006, a season in which their 217 home runs ranked second.
Their 1,192 strikeouts were the NL's fifth highest, and their .257 team batting average was next to last.
The Reds also became the first team to have the league leaders for strikeouts by a pitcher (Aaron Harang, 216) and a batter (Adam Dunn, 194).
The Reds don't expect Dunn's strikeouts to reduce drastically, but they think he would make a huge improvement if he could cut his total by 20 to 25.
Dunn is hardly the only Red trying to reduce his strikeouts.
Outfielder Ryan Freel struck out 98 times in 132 games, and infielder Brandon Phillips struck out 88 times in 149 games. Another infielder, Edwin Encarnacion, had 78 strikeouts in 117 games.
"Ryan Freel should definitely do better," Narron says. "I think Phillips and Encarnacion will improve with another year in the big leagues."
On defense, the Reds also see plenty of avenues for improvement. Phillips, the second baseman who had 16 errors last season, will be playing with a new shortstop, Alex Gonzalez. Gonzalez played for the 2003 World Series champion Marlins and for the Red Sox last season.
"Last year was the first time Brandon has focused on one position," Narron says. "He's got a chance to be really good defensively. He's got range, a good arm, and he's got good hands. He plays with energy."
Narron says Gonzalez, 29, is one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball. Gonzalez should help a Reds defense that made 128 errors, the second-worst total in the majors last season.
Narron thinks Gonzalez, who made seven errors in 2006, will be a positive influence on Phillips and third baseman Encarnacion.
"We should have one of the better infields in baseball with the three young guys," Narron says.
The Reds also might try to boost their outfield defense by moving Ken Griffey Jr., 37, to right field, allowing Freel to play center.
Griffey, speaking to reporters last month at the winter meetings in Orlando, didn't rule out moving to a corner spot but says he's going into spring training as if he's the center fielder.
"That's the only way to prepare myself," he says. "We will see what happens."
Griffey has 563 career home runs. He has won 10 Gold Gloves for his center-field play but hasn't won one since coming from the Mariners to the Reds before the 2000 season.
He can make the spectacular plays, but his range isn't what it once was, mainly because of injuries.
Griffey hasn't played in 145 games during a season since 2000. Injuries, including a strained biceps and a dislocated toe, limited him to 109 games in 2006.
Narron says he wants Griffey to play the position that causes the least wear on his body. Griffey thinks there could be just as much physical stress playing right field as center, but about a move, he says, "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."
Griffey's immediate concern is a broken left (throwing) hand, an injury the Reds say occurred in an accident at his Orlando home. The hand was placed in a hard cast and will be re-evaluated in mid-January.
If the Reds get more run production and better defense (a cause Griffey helps when he's healthy), their pitching should be even better. Last season the Cincinnati rotation had a 4.58 ERA, the sixth best in the NL.
The Reds went 52-27 in games when their starters pitched at least six innings and gave up three runs or fewer.
Arroyo had 23 of those quality starts, Harang 17 and Eric Milton 14.
"With Harang and Bronson at the top, you get 470 innings, you feel like you have a pretty good chance of winning every night with them," Narron says.
Harang and Arroyo made Narron's first full season of managing the Reds mostly enjoyable, with the exception of the collapse near the end.
"We pitched well enough," Narron says, "but we just didn't score."
Where the Reds stand at each position:
There's excellent depth with David Ross, Javier Valentin and Chad Moeller.
Scott Hatteberg ranked 10th in the NL in on-base percentage (.389) and was the league's sixth-toughest to strike out (once every 13.1 plate appearances) in 2006.
Brandon Phillips has range and an excellent arm and led NL second basemen with 25 steals.
In his first full season in the majors, Edwin Encarnacion led the Reds with 33 doubles, becoming the first third baseman to do that since Chris Sabo in 1993. Encarnacion also had a team-high 25 errors.
Alex Gonzalez, who has a career .970 fielding percentage, should improve the infield defense.
Adam Dunn is the Reds' leading home run hitter in each of the last five seasons, hitting 46, 40 and 40 the last three. He's the only player in franchise history to have more than one season with at least 100 runs, 100 RBI and 100 walks. (He did it in 2004-05.)
Ken Griffey Jr. is still one of the best in the game when healthy, but he has a broken left (throwing) wrist. It's unclear if the injury will cause Griffey to miss any of the 2007 season.
Ryan Freel stole a career-high 37 bases last season to lead the Reds in that category for a third consecutive season. He has the same all-out approach in the outfield, and the Reds have entertained the thought of moving him to center and Griffey to right.
The rotation is set with right-handers Bronson Arroyo, Aaron Harang and Kyle Lohse and left-hander Eric Milton in the top four slots. Arroyo's 3.29 ERA was fourth best in the NL last season, and Harang's 3.76 was 11th best. Lohse, who won 27 games for the Twins in 2002-03, is the sleeper. The Reds want Milton to change speeds better and more often.
Right-handers David Weathers, Todd Coffey and Gary Majewski and lefties Mike Stanton and Rheal Cormier are set. Other candidates: lefties Brian Shackelford and Bill Bray and righty Jared Burton, a 2006 Rule 5 draftee.
The Reds don't have a true closer, but they have veterans who have closed in spots in Stanton and Weathers. That gives them good experience and durability at the back of the bullpen.
A look at the Reds' top five prospects:
Homer Bailey, right-handed pitcher: Bailey, 20, the 2004 USA TODAY High School Player of the Year, was the Reds' top prospect going into 2006. He finished the season as one of the top pitching prospects in the minor leagues.
He combined to go 10-6 with a 2.47 ERA in 26 starts, 13 each at single-A Sarasota and Double-A Chattanooga. He was the winning pitcher in the Futures Game in Pittsburgh, and he had two games of 11 strikeouts.
After his promotion to the Lookouts, he didn't allow a run in his first 17 innings.
Bailey, from La Grange, Texas, was the Reds' first-round pick, seventh overall, in June 2004.
Bailey was 8-4 with a 4.43 ERA in 2005.
He throws mainly fastballs, and the Reds need him to work on his changeup and curveball so he's comfortable enough to throw them at any time in the count.
Bailey has one of the best fastballs in the minors and had 28 walks in 68 innings for the Lookouts.
The Reds aren't setting a timetable for Bailey to get to the big leagues.
They said they don't want to rush him, so he'll probably start next season at Triple-A Louisville.
"There is no timetable," Reds manager Jerry Narron says. "I'm looking forward to seeing him in the spring and see if he can pitch.
"If he shows he can make pitches, not just come out and throw a lot of fastballs to try and throw the ball by batters, he'll be in the big leagues and be pretty successful."
Chris Denorfia, outfielder: Denorfia, 26, was a Triple-A International League All-Star who hit .349 in 83 games at Louisville.
He is considered the best defensive outfielder in the Reds system and has excellent discipline at the plate. The Reds expect him to compete for a roster spot in the spring.
Joey Votto, first baseman: Votto, 23, a second-round draft pick in 2002, bats left-handed and won a Double-A Southern League batting title (.319) while finishing with 22 home runs, best in the system.
He also led the league in hits (162), on-base percentage (.408) and slugging percentage (.547).
The Reds like Votto's work ethic and say his perseverance is key.
He battled back from a subpar season at single-A Sarasota, where he hit .256 with 17 home runs in 2005.
Votto also had a strong showing in the Dominican Winter League.
Chris Valaika, shortstop: Valaika, 21, made a strong impression in his first pro season, averaging .324 with a .520 slugging percentage in 70 games for the short-season Billings Mustangs, who won both halves of the Pioneer League.
Valaika was the Pioneer League MVP.
He hit eight home runs and set a league record with a 32-game hitting streak, averaging .374 (49-for-131) during that span.
Jay Bruce, outfielder: Bruce, 19, who was selected in the first round, 12th overall in the June 2005 draft, put up impressive numbers for single-A Dayton in the Midwest League, hitting .291 with 16 home runs, 81 RBI and 19 stolen bases.
The Reds like his makeup and maturity and expect him to move fast in the organization.
He plays excellent defense, has a strong arm and hits with power to all fields.