Thursday, July 13, 2000

Reds take risk, hope for best




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        Realistically, the Reds did not trade Denny Neagle Wednesday. They traded 111/2 weeks of Denny Neagle.

        They swapped the balance of a contract that was bound to expire for a passel of prospects with legitimate long-term potential. They conceded their slender shot at the 2000 season for a decade of theoretically brighter tomorrows.

        They acted prudently, not popularly. They made the hard decision at the risk of the easy second-guess and another Barry Larkin backlash. They made the most hazardous move in baseball — asking frustrated fans to accept a promissory note on the pennant race while aiding and abetting the New York Yankees.

        “It's a hard sell for the fans, the media and the players,” Reds general manager Jim Bowden said. “You're trading your ace. But when we offered him $18 million over three years and he never countered, and he made it clear that he was going to test the free-agent market...”

        You take the hint.

WHAT WE GOT
img ED YARNALL
24, P, Triple-A
  He's the closest of the four to make the Reds. He's 2-1 with a 4.56 ERA but was 13-4 with a 3.47 ERA last season. He made one spot start for the Yankees this year, allowing five runs in three innings.

img DREW HENSON
20, 3B, Double-A
  Henson is expected to be Michigan's QB this fall. Scouts feel he could develop into a good-fielding, power-hitting major-leaguer -- if he doesn't choose the NFL.

img JACKSON MELIAN
20, P, Double-A
  The Yankees thought so much of Melian they gave him a $1.6 million bonus -- when he was 16. He has 21 extra-base hits, 38 RBI and 17 stolen bases in 81 games.

BRIAN REITH
22, P, Single-A
  A fourth-round pick in 1996. He's 9-4 with a 2.18 ERA.

Stockpiling: A good idea
        Once it became clear Neagle could not be persuaded to make a multi-year commitment to Cincinnati — for Bowden, that was Saturday — holding onto the loopy lefty was no longer a viable option. Though the Reds resume operations tonight just eight games behind St. Louis in the National League's Central Division, and only 51/2 games from wild-card playoff priority, their rotation inspires more contempt than confidence. With Neagle as their only reliable starter, the Reds might have muddled along for a while, but they could never match up with the league's elite pitching staffs.

        Keeping Neagle would have made the Reds more competitive every fifth day, but it could not have improved Steve Parris or invigorated Ron Villone. When the stakes get high, a single ace is seldom sufficient for a winning hand. Until they can develop or acquire better pitching depth, the Reds are probably better served stockpiling arms than depending on a lone lame duck like Neagle.

        Bowden acquired four players for Neagle and Triple-A outfielder Mike Frank: pitchers Brian Reith and Ed Yarnall, outfielder Jackson Melian and Drew Henson, the third base phenom who doubles as a quarterback for the Michigan Wolverines.

Looking for the payoff
        Henson's cloudy career path makes the deal difficult to judge. If he is a young Mike Schmidt, as Bowden suggests, the trade one day will look terrific. If he is instead a young John Elway, the Reds will have traded their best pitcher on a horrible hunch.

        “He's potentially the best player in the deal from our perspective,” Bowden said. “But it's a high-risk, high-reward player.”

        Such is life in baseball's small-market bargain basement. Bowden's budget demands he dare to look dumb periodically in search of prospects. (See Sanders, Deion).

        “We don't have a $107 million payroll like the Yankees do,” he said. “So we've got to make do the best we can with what we have. We took a lot of heat when we traded Dave Burba for Sean Casey. Sean Casey became an All-Star. We took a lot of grief when we traded John Smiley for Danny Graves. Danny Graves became an All-Star.”

        Among those whose attention span requires instant gratification, dealing Neagle will be seen as surrender. It should be thought of, however, as a tactical retreat.

        It's still hard, but it's not hopeless.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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