Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Finding shortstop tall order

Reds have the players, but none stand out to succeed Larkin

By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Barry Larkin era at shortstop is drawing to a close.
(AP file photo)
| ZOOM |
As the Barry Larkin era at shortstop nears its close, the Reds are discovering that finding his replacement is a complicated matter.

Walk into the Reds' clubhouse and you can't help but bump into a shortstop. They're everywhere. Felipe Lopez. Aaron Boone. Rainer Olmedo. Juan Castro.

If you count Larkin, who's nearing his return from the disabled list, the club has nearly half as many shortstops as it has pitchers.

The Reds haven't faced a situation like this since Larkin took over for Davey Concepcion in 1987 and even then it was quite a bit simpler.

Back in the '80s, they had two young shortstops to choose from - Larkin and Kurt Stillwell. The Reds went with Larkin and the past 16 years are proof that they made the right decision.

Is there another Larkin or Concepcion in this group?

"You're always looking for that," manager Bob Boone said. "But nobody can predict that far out. Nobody predicted Concepcion. Nobody predicted Larkin. Everybody could see the tools, but nobody knew how good they would be year in and year out."

The candidates to become Larkin's successor have the requisite tools, too, beginning with the 23-year-old Lopez, who has struggled recently, but is still viewed as a player with enormous potential.

"I still think there's a lot of talent there," Bob Boone said. "When I was his age, I was in Double A."

Lopez, hitless in his last 21 at-bats with 13 strikeouts and 15 errors for the season, says he hasn't lost confidence in his ability.

"I still think I can turn it around this year and have a great year," he said. "I know I can do it. I know it in my heart. I'm going to keep on working hard. It's always tough when you struggle. I want so much to help the team."

With Lopez on the bench for the past four games, Aaron Boone has moved from third to short to start three of those games and handled the position well, but says he has given no thought to the possibility that he might be the long-term answer there.

He, too, has faith in Lopez's ability.

"I believe that Felipe has a chance to be a really good player," Boone said. "He's going through some struggles right now, but I think when a young player goes through tough times, sometimes if they can come out of that it makes them a better player down the line. I think Felipe is a guy with a lot of talent on both sides of the ball, so I'm kind of pulling for him in that regard. But I feel comfortable playing there."

Olmedo, 22, gives the Reds another option. He has the potential to be a spectacular fielder, runs well, and has showed the Reds he has offensive ability.

"We always thought he had great hands, and now he's really coming on with the bat," Bob Boone said. "He's just been switch hitting two years. That's always been the question: How much is he going to hit?"

Castro is an outstanding defensive player who has hit well playing on an everyday basis at second base, and could handle the position for a few years, but at the age of 31, he's not a likely long-term solution. The Reds love having him available for utility duty because of his defensive versatility.

Regardless of who becomes the Reds' next shortstop, Larkin's influence at the position is likely to be felt for years because of the tutelage he has provided to his would-be replacements.

"He has helped me so much," Lopez said. "He makes me understand what I need to do. He tells me to keep it simple. He's been great."

Olmedo, a Venezuelan native who grew up idolizing fellow countryman Concepcion, says that he, too, has benefited from Larkin's advice.

"Every day I tell Barry Larkin, 'Hey, I want to see you play one year, all year,' " Olmedo said. " 'I don't want no more of you going to the DL.' He says, 'I want to try to stay healthy, but I'm old.' "


E-mail bkoch@enquirer.com

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