Thursday, March 6, 2003

Lopez welcomes fresh start with Reds

Versatility may keep him in major leagues

By John Fay
The Cincinnati Enquirer

DUNEDIN, Fla. - Felipe Lopez was used to being on the other side of the field here.

"It feels a little strange," he said. "I've been over there for so long."

Felipe Lopez
(Jeff Swinger photo)
| ZOOM |
Over there is the Blue Jays' clubhouse.

Lopez, heretofore the Toronto Blue Jays' shortstop of the future, is now Barry Larkin's heir apparent.

Lopez figured last year that he wasn't long for Toronto. The shortstop job had been won by Chris Woodward, and the Blue Jays were in the market for pitching.

"They were looking for a good pitcher," Lopez said. "I had a feeling inside that they might trade me."

The four-team trade happened at the Winter Meetings. The Reds gave up Elmer Dessens and ended up with Lopez. The Blue Jays gave up Lopez and ended up with pitching prospect Jason Arnold, who came from the Oakland A's.

Woodward's emergence made Lopez expendable, but Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi said Lopez had not fallen out of favor with the club.

"We've got Woodward at least three more years," Ricciardi said. "He took the job from Felipe. We needed pitching, so we used a chip."

Woodward was a 54th-round draft choice in 1998, the same year the Blue Jays took Lopez with the eighth pick overall, one pick after the Reds selected Austin Kearns.

But Ricciardi said the Jays weren't dumping Lopez.

"We didn't trade him to trade him," Ricciardi said. "We had a chance to get Jason Arnold. We traded a prospect for a prospect. We still think Felipe will be a really good player."

The Reds do, too. That's why they were willing to give up their best pitcher to get him.

Reds general manager Jim Bowden says Lopez has the potential to hit 20-25 home runs and steal 20-25 bases.

That's down the road, but the Reds might try to speed up the future.

Wednesday's game was only the seventh of the spring and Lopez is hitting .143 in 14 at-bats, but it looks like he's a good bet to make the Opening Day roster.

"He's major-league ready," Reds manager Bob Boone said. "We'll see if he's the real deal. We're pretty confident he is."

Lopez, a 22-year-old switch hitter, has options. The Reds could send him to Triple-A if it doesn't look as though he'll get enough at-bats as Larkin's backup.

But Boone doesn't seem to be leaning that way.

"I think his versatility can be really good for us," Boone said.

Lopez can play third base and second as well as short.

"I'm comfortable anywhere," Lopez said.

He has split the last two seasons between the majors and Triple-A.

He hit .260 with five home runs and 23 RBI in 49 games after an August promotion in 2001.

He began last year as the Jays' starting shortstop. But he hit .227 with eight home runs and 34 RBI in 85 games. He was sent to the minors in July after a 5-for-31 skid that included 16 strikeouts.

The slump allowed Woodward to win the job.

"Felipe needs to play," Ricciardi said. "He needs to get reps, whether it's at the major-league level or in Triple-A. We were playing so well the second half last year that it wasn't fair to keep him up if he wasn't going to play."

The Reds think Lopez might benefit from learning the game from Larkin.

"He's helped me," Lopez said. "He talks to me about the game, answers my questions."

Lopez spent five years in the Toronto organization. He has been with the Reds four months, and he's happy.

"It's been great," he said. "I really feel comfortable."


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