Sunday, February 11, 2001

Reds spring training preview

Pitching question casts large shadow

By Chris Haft
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The ace has endured shoulder trouble since 1999. One of the brightest prospects yielded home runs at an alarming rate last season. The former Rookie of the Year has seemed injury-prone and is considered a candidate to hurt his arm permanently.

        The only returning starter with double-digit victories last season had two career wins entering the season, and the only returning starter with an ERA under 4.00 and a winning record last season has a history of arm problems. One left-hander hasn't started regularly since 1998; another failed miserably in his last attempt to reach the major leagues.

  • Tuesday: Pitchers and catchers report. Also, injured players given permission to participate early.
  • Wednesday: Physical examinations.
  • Thursday: Workouts begin.
  • Saturday: Position players report.
  • Monday: Full-squad workouts begin.
        This constitutes most of the competitors for the Reds' five-man rotation during spring training. This shows why expectations surrounding the team for the 2001 season are muted.

        Baseball's oldest professional franchise approaches camp in Sarasota, Fla., with an array of talent that would compare favorably with most teams in its rich history. New manager Bob Boone has a likely Hall of Famer in center fielder Ken Griffey Jr. and a strong Cooperstown candidate in shortstop Barry Larkin. First baseman Sean Casey and left fielder Dmitri Young are productive hitters. Second baseman Pokey Reese has won two consecutive Gold Glove Awards, and outfielders Alex Ochoa and Michael Tucker and third baseman Aaron Boone are solid performers. Scott Sullivan and closer Danny Graves are a formidable bullpen tandem.

        But starting pitching, the commodity most essential to a team's success, threatens to nullify all the rest, unless the rotation stays healthy or improves quickly.

        Asked how he'd respond to skeptics insisting the Reds lack enough quality starters to contend in the National League Central, general manager Jim Bowden said, “I'd say to them, they're right. If our starting rotation were stronger, we'd be favored to win not only the division, but also the league.

        “We're going about it in a way of giving the young people an opportunity to do it instead of veteran stopgap guys.”

        That's a politically correct way of describing the financial crunch that forced the Reds to save almost $10 million from this year's projected payroll by trading veterans, including starters Steve Parris and Ron Villone.

        Spring being what it is, the Reds have hope after finishing 85-77 last year, 10 games behind St. Louis.

        “If a couple of young pitchers can come through and surprise all of us, who knows? The sky is the limit,” Bowden said.

        Competition being what it is, at least the Reds' Opening Day rotation will be a quintet that earned something. Boone expects to audition a minimum of eight candidates, though the number could grow to 11.

        “I think we're going to be surprised by some things — and I don't know what they are,” Boone said. “I think there are going to be enough guys evenly matched (so) that somebody's going to step up and force our hand.”

        Probable Opening Day starter Pete Harnisch, who was 8-2 with a 3.49 ERA after overcoming his shoulder woes (8-6 with a 4.74 ERA overall), will make the rotation if healthy. Rob Bell, 7-8 as a rookie last year, appears to be another cinch. But Bell allowed 2.1 home runs per nine innings last year.

        Elmer Dessens, whose 10 wins as a starter last year tops all current Reds, must prove he wasn't a fluke. He posted only a 2-8 mark from 1996-98 with Pittsburgh. Overcoming a two-year absence after twice undergoing elbow surgery, Osvaldo Fernandez was 4-3 with a 3.62 ERA. But his elbow woes returned briefly last year, casting doubt upon his ability to last a full season.

        Scott Williamson and Dennys Reyes might be the most intriguing candidates. Reyes has worked almost exclusively out of the bullpen for the last two years, and Williamson, the '99 Rookie of the Year, made a successful conversion to the rotation before back and toe injuries derailed his season. Debate continues whether starting or relieving can best reduce the strain on Williamson, who employs a maximum-effort delivery.

        A pair of former American Leaguers must prove themselves anew: lefty Ed Yarnall, who posted a 24.11 ERA last spring when the New York Yankees hoped he would be their No.5 starter, and right-hander Seth Etherton, acquired during the winter meetings after finishing 5-1 with Anaheim.

        Others with extensive starting experience who might receive a shot include former Cleveland Indian Jim Brower Chris Reitsma, who sparkled as a reliever in the Arizona Fall League; and nonroster invitee Jared Fernandez, who throws a reportedly wicked knuckleball.

        Bowden also mentioned rookies Clayton Andrews, Leo Estrella and Brian Reith as outside possibilities. All three, along with Brower and Reitsma, are among the young pitchers Cincinnati acquired in trades since last July.

        “A lot of people,” said Bowden, “are going to have a chance.”

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