Thursday, January 24, 2002

Kearns' time as a Red may be near

        In a more perfect world, Austin Kearns would be ticketed for Triple-A. In the decidedly imperfect world of the Cincinnati Reds, his destination is undetermined.

        Kearns could stand some more seasoning, but the Reds may not wish to stand in his way. He is a promising right-handed hitter on a team top-heavy with left-handed bats, a polished outfielder, a certified phenom. He poses that classic baseball conundrum: Nurturing or need?

Austin Kearns at spring training last year.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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        “For 125 years, (young players) are not as good as they're going to be,” manager Bob Boone said Wednesday afternoon. “But Austin's awful close to being ready. If he comes out and dominates (in spring training), he's got a chance to get that right field job.”

        Kearns' minor-league apprenticeship was abbreviated last spring by a torn ligament in his right thumb. Consequently, he hit an underwhelming .268 for the Chattanooga Lookouts and has yet to make a plate appearance above the Double-A level.

        Yet when Reds general manager Jim Bowden looks at Austin Kearns, he is reminded of Mike Piazza. He sees prodigious power and a discerning eye. He sees a hitter who lit up the Arizona Fall League like a neon thunderbolt. He sees a lot of the same qualities he saw last season in Adam Dunn.

Tantalizing thought

        Whether Kearns can duplicate Dunn's rapid rise to the major leagues won't be settled before spring training, but it makes for tantalizing talk as the Reds launch their preseason promotional caravan. (Particularly as compared to Reds starting pitching.)

        “He has the opportunity to make strides similar to Dunn,” said Brad Kullman, the Reds' director of baseball administration. “It wouldn't surprise me if he exploded on the scene at some point. The organization would like Kearns to show, "I am ready.' But from a conservative standpoint, we need to expect him not to.”

        Because Kearns and Ruben Mateo have minor-league options left, Juan Encarnacion is the morning-line favorite in right field. Because Encarnacion compiled a paltry .292 on-base percentage last season, Boone's preferred lineup is only pencil-permanent.

        “Obviously,” Kearns said Wednesday, “there's going to be a few of us fighting for one spot.”

Learning to wait

        Like Dunn before him, Austin Kearns evinces no anxiety about the Reds' timetable. He has the confidence that comes from fast-track promotions and credentials that include being ranked as the Reds' top prospect two years in a row by Baseball America. If his arrival is not yet imminent, it is surely inevitable.

        A good hitter learns to bide his time and wait for his pitch. Austin Kearns always has been able to hit. He is learning how to wait.

        “The first year I played, I was too hard on myself,” he said between bites of a grilled chicken sandwich. “You've got to go out and play, and things will take care of themselves.”

        Having scouted Kearns in Arizona, Bob Boone believes him to be a more polished player than Dunn.

        For his part, Kearns claims supremacy only in video-game football. Tuesday night, Kearns' Florida Gators drilled Dunn's Clemson Tigers.

        Dunn retaliated during a round of video-game golf.

        In a more perfect world, Austin Kearns would have something better to do. But if he can hold his own with Adam Dunn, he's perfect enough for the Reds.

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