By John Fay
The Cincinnati Enquirer
SARASOTA, Fla. - Every time Reds manager Bob Boone has mentioned a player doing well this spring, he has been quick to add this disclaimer:It's only batting practice or a bullpen session. We'll see when the games begin.
The games begin today when the Reds open the exhibition season against the New York Yankees in Tampa.
So what big decisions will be made over the next 30 days?
None, as far as the starting lineup is concerned. (Boone refers to it as the starting nine, including both Barry Larkin and Felipe Lopez as shortstop).
These 21 players are almost certain to make the Reds out of spring training:
Position players: 1B Sean Casey, 2B Aaron Boone, SS Barry Larkin/Felipe Lopez, 3B Brandon Larson, RF Austin Kearns, CF Ken Griffey Jr., LF Adam Dunn, C Jason LaRue.
Starting rotation: Jimmy Haynes, Ryan Dempster, Danny Graves, Paul Wilson.
Relief corps: Scott Williamson, Scott
Sullivan, Gabe White, John Riedling, Chris Reitsma (if he's not the fifth starter).
Bench: C Kelly Stinnett, INF Juan Castro, OF Wily Mo Pena. (Jim Bowden says Pena will stay in the majors.)
"What you see is what you get, come hell or high water," Boone said. "We don't have a lot of alternatives if those guys don't hit."
The first four spots of the starting rotation and four relief spots are accounted for as well.
But beyond that, many decisions remain and hinge on two key questions:
Who is the fifth starter?
Do the Reds carry 11 or 12 pitchers?
"If you carry 12, how are you going to carry all the extra players?" Reds general manager Jim Bowden said. "We have a lot of tough decisions.
"A trade may be the only way to solve it reasonably. We've had an awful lot of trade discussions early - more than normal."
Options will play a huge role in this. The Reds can send a player with options to the minors without risk of losing him.
So players without options have a much better chance of making the team.
"Fair is probably not a word that enters into the decisions," Boone said. "We've got some real tough ones that won't necessarily be fair."
The Reds have five players - Bruce Chen, Gookie Dawkins, Reggie Taylor, Ruben Mateo and Wily Mo Pena - who are out of options. The Reds want to keep all five, but they aren't locks for the 25-man roster.
Two other extra players - Juan Castro and Kelly Stinnett - have guaranteed contracts.
"We've got to put the best team on the field, regardless of options and guaranteed contracts," Bowden said. "We don't like to lose assets, but we've got to put the best team together."
Pena is a living example of how contracts affect fairness. He is not major-league ready. But the Reds like his upside too much to risk losing him, so they'll try to develop him in the majors.
Chen, Dawkins, Mateo and Taylor also once were considered to have too much potential to risk losing, but something has to give.
"Look at the infield," Bowden said. "You've got Castro with a guaranteed contract; you've got Dawkins, who's out of options; you've got Lopez. You might only be able to carry one of the three. Maybe two of the three, but maybe one.
"You've got seven outfielders, if you include Pena," Bowden said. "Are you going to be able to carry Jose Guillen, Mateo, Taylor and Pena?"
The answer is no, unless you carry only five infielders and 11 pitchers.
The pitching situation is even more complicated. Twelve pitchers are in the running for the fifth starting spot, and the bullpen is equally crowded.
"The pitching decisions are the ones that are really going to be tough," Boone said.
Look at the bullpen. The four incumbents - Scott Williamson, John Riedling, Scott Sullivan and Gabe White - are in. Three non-roster guys with good major-league numbers - Kent Mercker, Felix Heredia and Josias Manzanillo - will get a long look. And Chris Reitsma and Jose Rijo will get shots in the bullpen if they don't win the fifth starter's spot.
"We'll see who pitches the best and see what we think about that when we get down to making some decisions," Boone said.
Two of the best arms in camp belong to Jerome Gamble and Blake Williams. But as Rule 5 picks trying to make the jump from Single-A, they are long shots.
"There's not enough spots to go around," Boone said. "It gives us depth in the organization. It's a good thing for the organization - because you know you're going to need 16 or 17 pitchers - but it's not good for the players who get sent out."
Let the games begin.
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