Sunday, February 15, 2004

Locked in, if not loaded

Race for jobs: Despite '03 finish, few spots up for grabs

By John Fay
The Cincinnati Enquirer

For a team expected to finish well down in baseball's second division, the Reds don't have a lot of question marks going into spring training.

Spring training preview
O'Brien looking to turn it around
Here's the drill: It's back to basics
Locked in, if not loaded
You'll know it's a good spring if ...
You'll know it's a bad spring if ...
Five Reds on the spot
Five young Reds to watch

The Opening Day lineup, barring injury or upset, will be: Sean Casey at first base, D'Angelo Jimenez at second, Barry Larkin at shortstop, Brandon Larson at third, Austin Kearns in right field, Ken Griffey Jr. in center, Adam Dunn in left and Jason LaRue at catcher.

Paul Wilson, Cory Lidle and Jimmy Haynes will be in the rotation. Danny Graves, Chris Reitsma, John Riedling, Phil Norton, Ryan Wagner and Mike Matthews will be in the bullpen.

"Basically, other than the fourth and fifth starting slots and the backup outfielders, things are pretty well set," Reds general manager Dan O'Brien said.

Wilson ($3.5 million), Lidle ($2.75 million) and Haynes ($2.5 million) are guaranteed spots based on their guaranteed money.

O'Brien sees four pitchers - Jose Acevedo, Aaron Harang, DJ Mattox and Brandon Claussen - as front-runners for the fourth and fifth spots.

"Based on what they've done, they are the most likely to be there," O'Brien said. "But we're not excluding anyone. We all know there's always surprises."

Austin Kearns and Adam Dunn hope a healthy camp will lead to a better start for the Reds.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
Mattox, a 23-year-old right-hander taken from the New York Mets in the Rule 5 Draft, might have the inside track. The Reds have to keep him on the 25-man roster or offer him back to the Mets for $25,000 - half the price it cost to claim him.

Acevedo, a 26-year-old right-hander, seemed to be on the brink of a breakthrough - 2-0, 2.67 ERA - when a sprained ankle ended his season Aug. 6 last year.

Harang and Claussen, the lone lefty of the four, were obtained in trades during the July fire sale last year. Harang was 4-3 with a 5.38 ERA with the Reds. Claussen has only one big-league start, but he's seen as the top starting prospect in the organization.

Larson has been handed the third base job despite his struggles. His average in 173 big-league at-bats is .156.

"He's going to get the opportunity," Reds manager Dave Miley said. "My hope is you'll start to see the Brandon I've seen at (Triple-A) Louisville. I think (new hitting coach) Chris Chambliss will make good strides with him. (Coach) Randy Whisler is going to work with him at third. I have a lot of confidence in Brandon."

The other key positions are the backup outfielders. John Vander Wal, a free agent signed to be the fourth outfielder, has a knee injury and could miss the season.

Reggie Taylor, Wily Mo Pena and Ryan Freel are in the mix. Freel has the advantage because he also can play infield and he's the best base-stealing threat in camp.

Tim Hummel and Ray Olmedo will battle for an extra infielder position. That could come down to a choice of Olmedo's glove vs. Hummel's bat.

Javier Valentin will battle Corky Miller for the backup catcher spot. Valentin has more major-league experience than Miller and is about the same age. He hit .222 with three homers and 15 RBI in 49 games with Tampa Bay last year.

Central issues

Here are some highlights of the changes in the NL Central:

The Reds

Team that didn't add any significant players is hoping to add health. Can Dunn, Kearns and Griffey form an elite outfield?

Houston Astros

Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens fell into their lap. Bigger issues: Can Octavio Dotel replace traded closer Billy Wagner? Will the decision to not trade Richard Hidalgo and his salary pay off? Do Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio have enough left?

Chicago Cubs

Benefited from the champion Marlins' mini-fire sale by acquiring first baseman Derrek Lee (.271, 31 HR, 92 RBI). Getting injured center fielder Corey Patterson back is as good as a trade. LaTroy Hawkins, Kent Mercker deepen bullpen.

St. Louis Cardinals

Got three solid arms from Braves in the J.D. Drew/Eli Marrero deal: Jason Marquis, Ray King and top prospect Adam Wainright. Still, staff questionable. Left field is a mess, as evidenced by the signings of Greg Vaughn and Ray Lankford.

Milwaukee Brewers

Got a good return on Richie Sexson trade to Diamondbacks: second baseman Junior Spivey, shortstop Craig Counsell, first baseman Lyle Overbay and catcher Chad Moeller. Latest team to give outfielder Ben Grieve a shot.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Catcher Jason Kendall and shortstop Jack Wilson are about the only familiar names who can play. How about these signings: Juan Acevedo and Jose Mesa to vie for closer job; Daryle Ward; Chris Stynes; and Chris Singleton.



O'Brien looking to turn it around
Here's the drill: It's back to basics
Locked in, if not loaded
You'll know it's a good spring if ...
You'll know it's a bad spring if ...
Five Reds on the spot
Five young Reds to watch

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