Sunday, February 16, 2003

Changes few, expectations many for Reds

Bowden says club doesn't need overhaul to contend

By John Fay
The Cincinnati Enquirer

SARASOTA, Fla. - Usually when Jim Bowden remodels his roster between seasons, he doesn't do a little touching up. He uses broad strokes.

Catcher Jason LaRue stretches on the first day of pitchers' and catchers' workouts in Sarasota Saturday.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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Manager Bob Boone watches pitchers throw to catchers.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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Ryan Dempster and others work on their swing.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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His first year as general manager, Bowden traded for Kevin Mitchell, Bret Boone and Erik Hanson. He signed free agents John Smiley and Juan Samuel.

Presto, the Reds had a new look and Bowden had a reputation for dealing.

In his 10-plus years as GM, that has been his modus operandi in the offseason.

But since the 2002 season ended, Bowden hardly has shaken things up.

The Opening Day lineup for 2003 - with the exception of one player - is the same as the one that would have ended 2002 if everyone had been healthy.

Three of the five starters from the end of '02 are back in the rotation for '03, and the bullpen is virtually the same as it was in September.

And the group that opened spring training Saturday should be the group that opens the season March 31.

"We always try to make the team better," Bowden said. "But the core is definitely in place. The core is here. We believe in the core. We think the young players are going to continue to get better."

Bowden was in a position where he didn't have to make big changes. The young talent is good enough to compete, and the payroll wasn't out of whack. Most of the Reds' recent trades - such as dealing Todd Walker and Elmer Dessens - have been to shed payroll.

  This offseason has been one of the least active, as far as player moves, in Jim Bowden's tenure as the Reds' general manager. Here's a look at offseason moves he made to shape his previous clubs:
• 1993: Traded for Kevin Mitchell, Bret Boone, Roberto Kelly and Erik Hanson. Signed free agents John Smiley and Juan Samuel.
• 1994: Traded for Eddie Taubensee, Jeff Brantley and Deion Sanders. Signed Tony Fernandez.
• 1995: Traded for Mark Lewis and Mike Remlinger. Signed Benito Santiago and Mike Jackson.
• 1996: Traded for Curtis Goodwin, Mike Kelly and Gabe White. Signed free agent Joe Oliver.
• 1997: Traded for Ruben Sierra. Signed Deion Sanders, Terry Pendleton, Ricky Bones and Kent Mercker.
• 1998: Traded for Dmitri Young, Melvin Nieves and Sean Casey. Signed Pete Harnisch.
• 1999: Traded for Denny Neagle, Rob Bell, Michael Tucker, Mike Cameron and Greg Vaughn. Signed Steve Avery.
• 2000: Traded for Dante Bichette and Ken Griffey Jr.
• 2001: Traded for Jim Brower and Donnie Sadler. Signed Ruben Rivera.
• 2002: Traded for Juan Encarnacion, Luis Pineda and Gabe White.
"We wanted to try to keep the team together as much as we could," Bowden said. "Because of the new stadium, we've been able to do that."

But the Reds' payroll, around $60 million, wasn't enough to plug a lot of holes with free agents.

Bowden did try to free up money for free agents when he worked out a trade that would have sent Ken Griffey Jr. to San Diego for Phil Nevin. But Nevin nixed the deal.

Shortly after the trade fell apart, with a lot of ensuing bad publicity, the Reds basically decided to stand pat. They tried to trade relievers Scott Sullivan or Gabe White to free up salary, but otherwise, on the surface at least, it has been quiet.

Some fans have taken the lack of activity as a sign of surrender. But the Reds make a strong case that if things go right, they can contend for the National League Central championship.

"We've got a team with a high ceiling," manager Bob Boone said. "We've got a lot of ifs, but the potential is off the chart."

That's based largely on the fact the Reds have four players - Austin Kearns, Adam Dunn, Brandon Larson and Felipe Lopez - in their everyday plans who have about four seasons of major-league experience among them. Dunn, Kearns and Lopez are 23 or younger.

"We're blessed with a lot of players with tremendous upside," Bowden said. "Kearns, Dunn, Larson and Lopez have a chance to be star players - all of them.

"We think veterans like Griffey, Aaron Boone and Sean Casey are all due to have a big year for us."

But potential never filled the seats, and it won't at Great American Ball Park.

The Reds say the team showed more than potential last year.

"We have a team that last year was in first place for 53 days and in first or second for 123 days and was 2 1/2 games out on Aug. 12," Bowden said. "Adam Dunn didn't hit anything after the All-Star Break. Austin Kearns was hurt. Ken Griffey was hurt. Sean Casey was hurt. Aaron Boone had a horrible first three months. Brandon Larson was hurt. White got hurt. Sullivan was hurt. (Danny) Graves got hurt. Dessens got hurt."

The aforementioned injuries and struggles were not eased by the trades that brought in Ryan Dempster, Brian Moehler and Shawn Estes to help the rotation.

"We fell apart," Bowden said. "Our season had a bad six weeks to end it. But our season for April, May, June, July and half of August, we had a team that was in a pennant race. And not one of our starting eight stayed healthy the whole year or put up the numbers they are capable of. Not one of them."

If some or most of them do this year, the Reds think they'll be in first or second when it really counts - late September.

If they were in the NL East or West, that might not be true. But none of the teams in the NL Central has done anything in the offseason to be awarded the division.

"I think the division is wide open," Bowden said. "I think health is going to have a lot to do with it. Every team has weaknesses.

"Maybe this is the year we stay healthy."

Added Bowden: "We like our starting eight. We like our bullpen. We think - different from last year - we have starters who are capable of pitching 180 innings. That's something we haven't gotten out of our starters."


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