Sunday, July 01, 2001

Lindner-Larkin deal
all-time Reds blunder




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        Let this be a lesson to you, Carl Lindner. Let the message seep into your billionaire brain. Let the Barry Larkin experience be of lasting benefit. Let your baseball people do their jobs.

        The signing of Larkin for three years and $27 million ranks as the most expensive personnel mistake in the long history of the Cincinnati Reds. The Frank Robinson trade was bad, but it did not bind the ballclub the way keeping Larkin has. It did not prevent the Reds from pursuing other players, and it did not create the residual problems inherent in maintaining a 37-year-old shortstop.

        Trading Robinson was dumb. This was dumber.

        Make no mistake: Barry Larkin has been a terrific player for the Reds. A case can be made that he is worthy of the Baseball Hall of Fame, and there can be no argument about his professionalism and grit. He plays hard every day, plays hurt at the expense of his batting average and remains a disciplined and dan gerous hitter even as his defense declines. Furthermore, it is profoundly unfair to assess his skill level when he's competing with, at minimum, a pulled groin.

        Yet reason says no player can field such a demanding position as shortstop at such an advanced age without sacrificing a few steps. When Ernie Banks, Cal Ripken Jr. and Robin Yount were Larkin's age, they had left shortstop for less demanding spots on the diamond. Joe Nuxhall's observation that Larkin has “lost it” was startling in its candor, but it hardly qualifies as a revelation. When the sympathetic Nuxhall is moved to criticism, the problem usually predates his remarks by several seasons.

        At the risk of repetition, in this town, at today's prices, Larkin is an extravagance. Lindner's baseball people said as much before the Reds' principal owner caved in to public sentiment and signed the shortstop last summer. Now, as Larkin begins hissixth disabled tour in five seasons, Lindner's folly is painfully plain.

        If general manager Jim Bowden attempted to trade Larkin right now, he probably would be laughed at.

        Meanwhile, the purported core players of the 2003 team — Sean Casey, Danny Graves, Pokey Reese and Dmitri Young — are unsigned beyond this season. Because there isn't enough room in the payroll to lock up all of them long-term, Bowden may be compelled to trade some of his prime talent before those players attain free agency.

        Once, Larkin expressed a desire to leave the Reds because he wasn't convinced management was committed to winning. Ironic, then, that in making his commitment to Larkin, Lindner has made winning more difficult.

        Unless Larkin retires — a remote possibility given the dollars he's due — his salary surely will force the Reds to unload several players they'd prefer to keep. (See Stynes, Chris). If a new position must be found for Larkin next season, those decisions get more complicated.

        Already, the uncertainty surrounding Larkin's future is fueling front-office debate about the advisability of trading Reese. Larkin's health makes Reese more valuable, but Larkin's contract makes Reese less affordable.

        Twenty-seven million dollars doesn't buy what it once did, but it could have made a huge difference for the Reds. Provided, of course, it had been well spent.

        E-mail tsullivan@enquirer.com. Past columns at Enquirer.com/columns/sullivan.

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