Friday, March 03, 2000

Reds' Ochoa shows offense

'Defensive' OF helps out at plate, too

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Alex Ochoa homered and doubled Thursday.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
        SARASOTA, Fla. — Alex Ochoa started alongside the Reds' likely Opening Day lineup in Thursday's intrasquad game. He's penciled in with the regulars again in today's split-squad exhibition opener against Minnesota.

        That didn't mean Ochoa has replaced Dmitri Young in left field. But it certainly reflected the Reds' confidence in Ochoa.

        The Reds see Ochoa as essential to their plans for this season. They wanted a right-handed-hitting outfielder with strong defensive skills to replace Jeffrey Hammonds, who went to Colorado in the Dante Bichette trade. They need somebody reliable to plug into the lineup in case they trade Young.

        Events will dictate whether Ochoa complements left-handed-hitting backup outfielder Michael Tucker or develops into an everyday player. No matter what happens, the Reds already know that Ochoa can help them win.

Alex Ochoa
        Cincinnati obtained Ochoa from Milwaukee on Jan.14 for outfielder-pinch hitter Mark Sweeney and a player to be named. Ochoa hit a career-best .300 last year with eight homers and 40 RBI in 277 at-bats.

        “I liked him last year,” Reds manager Jack McKeon said. “Here's a guy who really came on. He was always a guy with a lot of potential, and everybody was looking for him to really blossom. I thought last year he did a heck of a job in the role he was in. The more he got to play, the better hitter he was.”

        Given McKeon's tendency to use late-inning replacements to strengthen the defense, expect Ochoa to receive plenty of activity in this role.

        “He and (Ken) Griffey (Jr.) probably have the best throwing arms on the club,” McKeon said.

        Ochoa already has played in five organizations in 10 professional seasons, but he hasn't been a castoff. He made his first move in 1995 when Baltimore, desperate for a designated hitter, sent him to the New York Mets for Bobby Bonilla and another player.

        Joining a Reds outfield loaded with talent won't be anything new to Ochoa, who shared playing time with Carl Everett, Bernard Gilkey, Butch Huskey and Princeton High grad Lance Johnson as a Met in 1997.

        “We joke about that all the time — "How many organizations have you been with?'” Ochoa said. “But I take it like, there's a reason (for a trade). The Reds got me to help them, so I look at it that way.”

        Ochoa believed he'd probably begin this season with the Brewers, so he was mildly surprised when told he was traded.

        “It was kind of weird,” Ochoa said. “But when (Brewers General Manager) Dean Taylor told me it was Cincinnati, I was pretty excited, knowing how good a season they had last year and just looking across the dugouts and seeing how they enjoyed themselves every day. Everybody got along. It was cool.”

        Ochoa was hot Thursday, homering and doubling in three at-bats. Having lifted his average by 43 points last year, he seems poised to continue progressing. Because he turns 28 on March 29, he still has time.

        “Yeah, that's the way I look at it,” he said. “I kind of know what my role's probably going to be this year. Hopefully it increases.”


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