Saturday, March 17, 2001

Reds get passing mark at mid-term

But questions remain about rotation, bench

By Chris Haft
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        SARASOTA, Fla. — At the midpoint of the exhibition season, manager Bob Boone sounded more than halfway satisfied with the Reds' progress so far.

        Significant issues still must be addressed, such as the batting order, the rotation and the bench. Boone also is saving certain strategical nuances, such as baserunning and bunt plays, for the regular season. “You don't want to show your flea-flicker until you get into the game,” Boone said Friday, using a football analogy.

        But Boone's thinking is already settled in two primary areas: Effort and pitching. He likes what he has seen of both overall.

        “I've really enjoyed the way a lot of people have played,” said Boone, who preached the concept of fun-through-hard-work since training camp opened. “We've won some games with hustle and doing little things.”

        The Reds' 21 stolen bases in 23 attempts illustrate that. This could have been expected with the arrival of Boone, who put runners in motion almost constantly during his Kansas City tenure. Last year, the Reds stole just 99 bases, matching their second-lowest total for a full season since 1972.

        Cincinnati also has eight sacrifice bunts, compared to their opponents' three. Boone was so intent on improving the team's bunting, he set up a specific area devoted to this fundamental during early workouts.

        The Reds' pitchers have been noticeably free of sloppiness. They've displayed great control, averaging just 2.9 walks per nine innings.

        “Since day one, I've been pretty pleased with how many guys threw strikes,” Boone said. “Usually, you're in camp saying, "Jeez, come on.'”

        Though no “phenoms” have emerged in workouts or exhibitions, the Reds at least have unearthed some mild surprises.

        Rookies Jared Fernandez and Chris Reitsma reported to camp as long shots to make the staff. Now they're legitimate contenders for the rotation. Left-hander Justin Atchley, who was taken off the 40-man roster in January, remains alive for a bullpen spot. Utilityman Donnie Sadler, coming off a subpar 2000 season, has had a strong spring.

        However, Boone admitted that this is a “nervous time” for him. Though many position players are ready for the regular season, pitchers still need further development — and with two weeks to go, plenty of bad things can happen, such as injuries.

        “We're ready to put the hammer down right now, but it's too early,” Boone said.

        The Reds still have several questions to answer:

        • The batting order. Boone has installed Ken Griffey Jr. and Sean Casey as the third and fourth hitters, respectively, and indicated Friday he was still inclined to lead off with Barry Larkin.

        Boone added, “We may not be finished with tinkering with the lineup on Opening Day, just because we haven't been able to put the starting group in. I'm pretty comfortable with it, though.”

        • The five-man rotation. Pete Harnisch, Rob Bell, Os valdo Fernandez and Elmer Dessens appear to be in, while Scott Williamson, Jared Fernandez and Reitsma are still competing.

        Though Williamson's experience might give him an edge, Jared Fernandez or Reitsma could sneak in as a long reliever.

        “Ideally, you need a guy who's got to be able to give you three innings a couple of times a week,” pitching coach Don Gullett said. “We have some quality people here who may fit that role.”

        • The bench. Sadler and Juan Castro have roles, but will Wilton Guerrero join them? Or outfielder Michael Coleman? Is there room for Hal Morris or D.T. Cromer as a left-handed bat off the bench? Boone probably will opt against keeping Matt Walbeck as a third catcher, but that could change.

        Said Boone: “That's where you'll be saying, "Do you want that versatility, do you want a third catcher, do you want a fifth or sixth outfielder?' Those are things we're going to discuss.”


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