By John Erardi
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Reds third baseman Brandon Larson received the Reds' "Chief Bender Minor League Player of the Year" award Wednesday night at the LaSalle High School Sports Stag.
This afternoon, he leaves with buddy and big-league teammate Austin Kearns on the Reds' 2003 Winter Caravan - a three-day, six-city tour of Reds country - that is designed to build fans' excitement for the upcoming season at Great American Ball Park.
The promise of the coming season depends upon unproven starting pitchers, battered outfielders and an infield experiment to see how Aaron Boone takes to second base and whether Larson can hit major-league pitching for a full year.
"I figured my role this year would be coming off the bench," Larson said, "but then Todd Walker was traded and Aaron agreed to try second base, and all of a sudden I had a shot at third base. What a difference one off-season can make."
Larson started last season at Triple-A Louisville. He hit .340 with 25 home runs and 69 RBI in only 80 games. He played well in a brief stint with the big club - .275, four HR and 13 RBI in 23 games - before toe and wrist injuries ended his season.
He is 26, which makes him a late bloomer by recent Reds standards. Minor-league mates Adam Dunn ('01) and Kearns ('02) are still in their early 20s. Dunn is 23 and Kearns 22.
For Larson, a first-round draft pick out of Louisiana State in 1997, it has been a constant struggle with injuries.
Even last year when he was called up to the Reds and displayed a new level of readiness for prime time, he had his big toe broken by a Randy Johnson pitch and later hurt his left wrist on a foul-ball smash into the dugout by Todd Walker.
Larson characterizes each of those setbacks as a freak injury ("I had a bulls-eye on me last season," he said) and proclaims himself ready to go.
Those injuries cost him at least 100 big-league at-bats.
Larson worked with Freddie Benavides and Tim Foli in the Reds instructional league late last fall to prepare himself for the possibility of playing some second base. The trade of Walker and the move of Boone to second base changed all that.
"I'm still approaching it as everything being wide open," Larson said. "They're going to put the guys out there who can help the team the most, so it's up to me to take care of my end of things and let the other things fall into place. This is an exciting time for me."
Also in the Reds' infield picture are Russell Branyan, who as a left-handed hitter could platoon some with Larson at third, and recently acquired Felipe Lopez (from the Toronto Blue Jays), who the Reds see as the heir apparent to Barry Larkin at shortstop.
"You know and I know that nothing is set in stone," Larson said. "I'm a natural third baseman and I'm looking forward to playing every day, but nothing's being handed to me. I have to perform. If anybody can make the switch to second base, though, it's Aaron. He's got the range and the hands and the (athleticism and work ethic) to be able to master the double play."
Without Boone's enthusiasm for the switch, there'd be no serious talk of Larson getting 500 at-bats this season or of him having a chance to hit 30 home runs.
"I was surprised to see how enthusiastic Aaron was about making the switch, but I think it's great," Larson said. "He could have balked at it. He's an established big-leaguer and a budding superstar. It says a lot about him that he's eager to try it."
Larson is back to wearing the yoke of great expectation, but he feels good about it.
"It's great to know from the higher-ups where you stand in the organization," Larson said. "I've never had that before. In the past, it's been a matter of different people (in the Reds organization) saying, `This is what we foresee for you,' but it wasn't anything that I could bank on to where I could say, `OK, here's what everybody's thinking and now I just need to go out and achieve it.'
"When you hear these things from Bob Boone and (Reds general manager) Jim Bowden, it's a testament to how far you've come. They're telling you they see something. On the other hand, I know you can't judge a guy on 50 at-bats. I'm going to have to go out there and do something with the opportunity."
Larson is pining for Opening Day, and by that he doesn't mean riding the pine.
"I've already had a lot of sleepless nights," he said. "I have a lot of nervous excitement about it."
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