Sunday, February 22, 2004

Wagner's ready for more

After dominant big-league debut in 2003, reliever looking forward to full season

By John Fay
The Cincinnati Enquirer

SARASOTA, Fla. - Periodically, reliever Ryan Wagner will look back and think: Where was I a year ago today?

Ryan Wagner was the Reds' 2003 first-round draft pick.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
The answer to that question Saturday: He was playing in the Minute Maid Tournament for the University of Houston.

That's a big deal for Texas college baseball teams. It's a chance to play at the home of the Houston Astros and get a little taste of the big-league life.

Little did Wagner know at the time that he soon would be getting a lot more than a taste of the majors. Less than five months later, Wagner was collecting big-league meal money and eating postgame buffets.

"It was kind of a whirlwind year," he said. "It's a lot to think about."

The Reds drafted Wagner with the 14th pick in the first round of the June draft. They said at the time he was as close to being big-league ready as anyone in the draft.

He had a 1.93 ERA as a sophomore at Houston. A 1.93 ERA in college, where they use aluminum bats and score in double figures on a regular basis, is like an 0.093 ERA in the majors. Wagner also averaged 16.4 strikeouts per nine innings to break a 39-year-old NCAA record, and finished 6-5 with 15 saves.

What are the Reds' chances of winning the NL Central?

Wagner made nine minor-league appearances before the Reds promoted him to the big leagues on July 19. It was seen by some as a PR move to generate some good feelings about a season gone bad.

Then Wagner pitched.

He retired all five batters he faced in his big-league debut - against his hometown Astros.

He would go on to retire 18 of the first 19 batters he faced. His slider - so devastating to college hitters - was no easier for big leaguers to solve. It was common to see good hitters swinging at balls in the dirt.

Wagner had just turned 21 four days before his call-up. He was the youngest Reds pitcher to debut since Rosario Rodriguez in 1989.

Wagner ended up pitching 17 games, going 2-0 with a 1.66 ERA. A closer look at the numbers shows how hard he was to hit: He pitched 21 1/3 innings, allowed only 13 hits and struck out 25. Opponents hit just .173 off him.

"We're elated with his results up to this point," pitching coach Don Gullett said. "We saw what he could do. But that was last year."

Wagner and the Reds would take another season like last year's. He thinks he has a chance to do that, based on the way his arm feels.

"I'm used to playing year-round in college," he said. "You play fall ball, you practice all winter, the season is in the spring, then they want you to go to the Cape Cod League or somewhere to play in the summer.

"It was nice to get a rest."

Wagner's break was even longer because the Reds shut him down as a precaution on Sept. 1. He had thrown 115 innings between college, the minors and the Reds - a lot for even a major-league reliever.

Wagner started back on his program in December.

"I don't like to get completely out of shape," he said.

Wagner took another break in early January. He and his girlfriend, Erin, were married on Jan. 3.

Wagner has been working on a changeup and a four-seam fastball.

"Even if I only throw them every other outing or so, it gives the hitters something else to think about," he said.

Again, the Reds would like to see more of the same from Wagner.

"We've stressed consistency," Gullett said. "We want him to pick up where he left off."

There was some consideration when Jim Bowden was still general manager to move Wagner to the starting rotation. But Gullett thinks it's wise to leave well enough alone.

"He's still in the developmental stage," Gullett said. "We're excited about what he did."

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