Thursday, March 20, 2003

Larkin helping groom Lopez

By Kevin Kelly
The Cincinnati Enquirer

CLEARWATER, Fla. - He genuinely cares. And because Barry Larkin cares about the position he inherited from Dave Concepcion more than 15 years ago, be assured Felipe Lopez will be ready when his time comes.

"It's important to leave it in the hands of somebody that's capable," Larkin said. "And I think Felipe's definitely capable."

Shortstop has enjoyed an unmatched stability throughout recent years for the Reds.

Only three men since 1974 - Concepcion, Larkin and Pokey Reese - have manned the position on Opening Day.

Essentially a two-man show for nearly three decades, that's about to change.

"It's time," said Larkin, who on March 31 will start at shortstop for the 16th time on Opening Day. "It's time for someone to come along. And it's time for me to have a hand in passing the torch."

Larkin will be 39 years old next month, believe it or not, and is in the final year of a three-year contract.

Where Gookie Dawkins, Reese, David Espinosa and Rainer Olmedo once were viewed as possible successors, the 22-year-old Lopez now stands.

The Reds tabbed the first-round pick in 1998 as Larkin's successor after acquiring him from the Blue Jays in December as part of the deal for pitcher Elmer Dessens.

"I think he's going to be our future shortstop," Reds general manager Jim Bowden said. "He's an all-around player. He's capable of stealing a lot of bases. He can hit homeruns. He's a real good defensive shortstop.

"I think he's a winner. He's got a great make-up and he's fit into our ball club very well."

And formed a bond with Larkin.

"He definitely wants to learn, but I don't know how much there really is to teach him," Larkin said.

"He's fundamentally sound as a player. He's going to be good for a while."

A generation apart in age, Larkin and Lopez never seem to be more than shouting distance from each other.

They stretch, throw, field ground balls and hit together.

"It's one of the best things that's ever happened to me," said Lopez, who hit .227 with eight homers and 34 RBI in 85 games with the Blue Jays last season. "In so little time he's taught me so much . . . like turning the double play.

"But those are things that guys like Ozzie Smith taught him, people like that. It's really, really good for me to know, especially coming from a guy on that level."

Lopez, whose family moved to Florida from Puerto Rico when he was 12 years old, has shined this spring.

He has displayed competency at the plate (.327 batting average, four doubles, three homers, .673 slugging percentage, seven RBI) and on the bases (5-of-7 on steals).

The range Lopez has displayed at second, shortstop and third base also should translate into an opportunity for considerable playing time.

"The thing is, they know who the shortstop is," Lopez said. "So it's not a competition."

More like a transition.

NOTE: Paul Wilson, the projected No. 4 starter, threw two innings of 20 pitches each in the simulated game to test his injured left hamstring Wednesday.

Wilson experienced no pain. He will throw a bullpen session Friday. If that goes well, he'll probably pitch in a minor-league game Sunday.


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