Sunday, May 23, 2004

Improvements merit Miley's return in '05

Reds insider

The Cincinnati Enquirer

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After the Reds' 3-1 victory over the Colorado Rockies Thursday night, general manager Dan O'Brien should have gotten in the high-five line and told manager Dave Miley the club was picking up his option for 2005.

Thursday's game was the best evidence yet that Miley has corrected the ills of the 2003 season. The Reds won with great starting pitching, solid and spectacular defense, and fundamentally sound execution.

The Reds were awful, awful and really awful on those three fronts last year.

Miley emphasized defense and fundamentals in the spring. The results have been spotty at times, but overall the improvement has been vast.

At their current rate, the Reds will make 109 errors. Last year, they made 141.

It's harder to quantify the improved fundamentals. But Paul Wilson's slug bunt and Ryan Freel's two-strike bunt - the players made the call in each case - show that the Reds not only have the ability to play small ball but that they can think on their own.

Freel was confident he'd get the bunt down because he had worked on bunting the two days before with Reds bunting guru Ed Napolean.

As far as pitching, Miley has turned things over to Don Gullett. That's how Jack McKeon (.529 winning percentage) did it. Bob Boone (.444 winning percentage) did it his way.

The powers that be have taken notice of the difference under Miley.

"We're really pleased with the job he's done," chief operating officer John Allen said. "We've told him that. It's not only the way the team's played but what he did in spring training, the way he's used his coaches."

The player who has benefited most from the switch from Boone to Miley is Jason LaRue. LaRue's offensive numbers are bad - .211 average, one home run going into the weekend - but the pitching staff is working better with him. The ERA with him in the game this year is 3.90. Last year, it was 5.10.

All this has allowed the Reds to hang with the big-money boys so far. Miley has done it with a weak bench and a bullpen that has four released players in it.

The $46 million Reds are right there in the National League Central race with the $83 million Cardinals, the $90 million Cubs and $75 million Astros.

Miley might not have been O'Brien's guy when he was hired, but he should be by now.

So pick up that option, Dan.

FOREVER YOUNG: A lot of people are marveling at what Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson are doing in their 40s. Baseball historian Bill James is more impressed with Barry Larkin.

"As long as I've been a baseball fan, there have been 40-year-old pitchers who were very effective," James said. "Warren Spahn was 23-7 when he was 42. (Steve) Carlton was great when he was 40. There have been others who were very good in their 40s. But I don't know if I've ever seen a 40-year-old shortstop playing like he is."

James has called Larkin "one of the 10 most complete players of all time."

Teammate Jacob Cruz is impressed, as well.

"I don't know what I'll be doing when I'm 40," Cruz said. "But I know I won't be going deep in the hole trying to make a barehanded play and throw somebody out. I still marvel at him that he goes out day in and day out. He looks like a kid out there. Doesn't he understand he's 40 years old?"

WHAT ABOUT BLANCO? When Tim Naehring, the Reds' director of player development, gets a call from the media, it's usually to ask about one of the club's injured pitching prospects.

So he was more than pleased to talk about a couple of healthy position prospects: Tony Blanco and Kenny Kelly.

Tony Blanco, the 22-year-old obtained in the Todd Walker trade with Boston in 2002, is leading the Carolina League with 12 home runs. He's hitting .299 with 29 RBI.

"When we got him, it was obvious that he had raw power," Naehring said. "But he didn't have what you call 'game' power. He had trouble going to the plate with a similar approach and stance every time. He struggled with off-speed pitches."

Blanco has improved on all those fronts. He also has benefited from a shift from third base to left field/first base.

Naehring says if Blanco continues to progress, he'll be moved to Double-A.

Kelly, a former Miami Hurricanes quarterback, has torn up the Southern League. He went into the weekend hitting .354 with a .432 on-base percentage. He was leading the Southern League in both. He also has four home runs, 23 RBI and 10 stolen bases.

"He does something on a nightly basis that helps you win," Naehring said. "He makes a catch, steals a base, gets down a bunt, moves a runner over. He knows how to the play the game."

Kelly turned down two offers to play at Triple-A to sign with the Reds. He'll be moved to Louisville at some point. Because of his polish and poise, he could be a September call-up.


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