Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Reds can get pitching, but it won't be cheap


Analysis: Can Cincinnati trade to improve the current staff?

By John Fay
The Cincinnati Enquirer

On sports talk radio, on fan message boards, and in the stands at Great American Ball Park, the Reds faithful continually urge the Reds brain trust to trade for pitching.

More specifically, those versed in ERA and hits-per-innings will tell you the Reds need starting pitching that can help them now.

That narrows the field considerably. This narrows it much more: The Reds are trying to add pitching without adding salary.

"There are a lot of guys available," said Reds assistant general manager Brad Kullman. "But a lot of those guys are making a lot of money."

Take, for example, Bartolo Colon. He's the kind of pitcher who is capable of going 10-1 or 9-2 in the second half of the year.

Remember, the Reds are 20-4 when they get a quality start (6-plus innings, 3 or fewer runs). That's an off night for Colon, but he makes $8.25 million, and he's a free agent after this year.

So unless the Chicago White Sox are willing to pay part of Colon's salary, or Reds owner Carl Lindner is willing to up the payroll, the Reds won't land Colon.

Lindner said two weeks ago he was willing to add salary for the right pitcher. Whether that's changed Reds general manager Jim Bowden's trade strategy is unclear.

Bowden has said landing a No. 1 starter was unlikely because of cost. He did not return phone calls for this story.

Whether back-to-back sellouts in the last two home games changed the budget is also unclear. Reds chief operating officer John Allen didn't return a call for this story.

If the Reds are operating under the same financial constraints they have been all year, getting Colon is a remote possibility.

The Reds probably would have a better chance of getting someone a level below Colon, like Kris Benson, Ismael Valdes or Jeff Weaver.

Pittsburgh's Benson makes $4.3 million, Texas' Valdes makes $2.5 million, and Weaver of the New York Yankees makes $4.15 million.

The Reds were in a similar situation last year.

They didn't get Colon or Chuck Finley from Cleveland, and Kenny Rogers rejected a trade from Texas.

So the Reds traded for three starters: Ryan Dempster, Shawn Estes and Brian Moehler. The move backfired.

In the 23-game stretch in which the Reds lost 17 games to go from two games back in the National League Central to 11 games back, Dempster, Estes and Moehler hurt more than they helped.

The Reds were 0-5 in Dempster's starts, 1-4 in Estes' and 3-1 in Moehler's (largely because he got knocked out so early the team had a chance to recover).

Dempster, Estes and Moehler all had histories of success, but they had also struggled before coming to the Reds. The theory was they'd improve under pitching coach Don Gullett. That's difficult to do during a pennant race.

Look at what Benson has done over his last three starts: 13 1/3 innings, 27 hits, and 20 runs.

Valdes is 6-3, but his ERA is 5.43. Weaver is 3-6 with a 5.77 ERA. Another available Yankee, lefty Sterling Hitchcock, is 0-1 with a 3.86 ERA. But he makes $6 million a year.

Another thing to keep in mind is the Reds sweetened the deal with the Mets in the case of Estes, and the Tigers in the case of Moehler, so they wouldn't have to pay all their salaries.

"You have a lot of teams trying to do the same thing: Unload salary," Kullman said. "That makes it tougher and tougher to get teams to pay part of a player's salary."

There are a couple of pitchers who don't make outlandish money who could come available:

Esteban Loaiza of the White Sox, Brad Penny of the Florida Marlins, and Sidney Ponson of Baltimore.

Loaiza is 10-2 with a 2.15 ERA, and makes $500,000. But the White Sox's sudden resurgence - they're within 5 1/2 games of Minnesota in the American League Central - may keep them from dealing Loaiza or Colon, unless they falter before the July 31 trading deadline.

Penny is attractive because he's only 25 and makes $1.85 million. He is 5-5 with a 4.07 ERA. Ponson makes $4.3 million and is a free agent after the season. He is 9-4 with a 3.93 ERA.

That brings up the next question: How much of the future are the Reds willing to give up to make a run this year?

"When general managers call Jim (Bowden), they want Aaron (Boone), Adam Dunn or Austin Kearns," Reds manager Bob Boone said.

The Reds won't do that.

What about free agent Jose Guillen? He's cheap ($500,000) and productive. Doesn't he have trade value?

"The thing you have to remember about him is 29 other teams passed on him when he was on waivers in March," Kullman said. "Any team could have had him for $20,000."

The other possibility is to trade Ken Griffey Jr., but given Griffey's salary and the economic state of baseball, that's unlikely.

To get a Penny or a Ponson, the Reds would likely have to give up top minor league talent.

"A lot of people around baseball really like our minor league guys," said Johnny Almaraz, a special assistant to Bowden.

The names that most often come up are Chattanooga outfielder Steven Smitherman and pitchers Bobby Basham and Dustin Moseley. Louisville right-hander Jose Acevedo also has trade value.

"We have the pieces to make a deal," Kullman said. "But there's the financial considerations. How much of the future do you want to mortgage for right now?"

Time will tell. If this road trip is a disaster, the Reds are likely to go from buyers to sellers.

Possibilities

Kris Benson, Pirates

2003: 5-7, 5.23 ERA

Career: 35-39, 4.28 ERA

Fast fact: Missed 2001 with Tommy John surgery.

Salary: $4.3 million

Sidney Ponson, Orioles

2003: 9-4, 3.93 ERA

Career: 50-57, 4.66 ERA

Fast fact: Pitched at least six innings in 22 of 28 starts last season.

Salary: $4.25 million

Ismael Valdes, Rangers

2003: 6-3, 5.43 ERA

Career: 86-89, 3.84 ERA

Fast fact: He issued only 2.16 walks per nine innings last year.

Salary: $2.5 million

Esteban Loaiza, White Sox

2003: 10-2, 2.15 ERA

Career: 79-75, 4.68 ERA

Fast fact: Signed non-guaranteed minor league contract with the White Sox in spring training.

Salary: $500,000

Brad Penny, Marlins

2003: 5-5, 4.07 ERA

Career: 31-29, 4.23 ERA

Fast fact: Has finished over .500 in each of his three major league seasons.

Salary: $1.8 million

Jeff Weaver, Yankees

2003: 3-6, 5.77 ERA

Career: 47-60, 4.44 ERA

Fast fact: Was 5-3 with a 4.04 ERA and two saves after being acquired by Yankees last July.

Salary: $4.15 million

Sterling Hitchcock, Yankees

2003: 0-1, 3.86 ERA

Career: 68-70, 4.75 ERA

Fast fact: Has pitched out of the bullpen in two seasons with Yankees after having been a starter the previous seven.

Salary: $6 million

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E-mail jfay@enquirer.com




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