Sunday, August 15, 2004

Reds insider: Will the budget budge?

Team must decide 2005 strategy: Free agents or youngsters

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For the Reds to be competitive next year, they have to do some shopping on the free agent market.

The list has to include a veteran starting pitcher or two, a third baseman or shortstop, and some relief help. The Reds, of course, could sign their own free agents, Paul Wilson, Barry Larkin and Juan Castro, for some of those needs.

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Photos of Saturday's game
But what are the chances of the Reds actually filling those holes via free agency?

Slim, if the player payroll budget stays in the $46 million range of this year.

It's a case of simple baseball economics:

• The Reds have three veterans under contract for next year who will make $26.55 million - Ken Griffey Jr. ($12.5 million), Sean Casey ($7.8 million) and Danny Graves ($6.25 million).

• The Reds have five players eligible for salary arbitration - Adam Dunn, D'Angelo Jimenez, Austin Kearns, Jason LaRue and John Riedling. All will get significant raises.

Dunn, who is eligible for arbitration for the first time, could go from making $455,000 this year to making more than $4 million next year.

The others will get big bumps also. Educated guesses are: LaRue from $2.6 million to $3.5 million; Jimenez from $1.6 million to $2.5 million; Riedling from $650,000 to $1.25 million; and Kearns from $400,000 to $2 million. That punches up to $13.25 million.

That means eight players will earn a total of $39.8 million. If the other 17 players on the 25-man roster earn the big-league minimum of $300,000, the Reds would have a whopping $2.7 million with which to go absolutely nuts on the free agent market. That doesn't get you much more than Wilson for half a year.

Of course, all that is predicated on the payroll being the same as it is this year.

It could be more, could be less. The Reds aren't saying.

"A lot of factors go into it," Reds chief operating officer John Allen said. "Revenue-sharing. The way we finish out this year. Baseball has new rules for debt service.

"We're a long, long way from determining it."

Allen wouldn't speculate if it will be more or less than this year.

But I will. I'd be surprised if it's more than $50 million. I'd be stunned if it's more than $60 million.

If it's $50 million, it would give the Reds the latitude to re-sign Wilson and do little else.

If it's $60 million, the Reds could sign Wilson and a third baseman or shortstop and a veteran reliever or two.

And if the payroll is the same as this year's? The Reds are going to have to do some serious retooling. Some of the arbitration-eligible players - LaRue and Jimenez namely - could be non-tendered and become free agents.

Bottom line: Unless there is a big influx of money, a lot of those prospects the Reds have been collecting have to turn potential into production for 2005 to be a productive year for the team.

CUP OF COFFEY? Give Todd Coffey points for following orders. Coffey, a 23-year-old right-hander, has bought into the Reds' throw-strikes edict better than anyone else in the system.

Coffey, currently the closer at Triple-A Louisville, went into the weekend with 56 strikeouts and four walks this season.

Coffey, the team's 41st pick in the 1998 draft, could be closing games at Great American Ball Park in the future.

"He could evolve into that," director of player development Tim Naehring said. "He has the stuff to be an impact player on the back end of the bullpen."

Coffey had a "fringe" fastball when the Reds first got him. He also was carrying about 280 pounds on his 6-foot-5 frame. He slimmed down to 240 and has gotten his fastball to 95 mph. He has developed a major-league quality split-finger to go along with his slider.

Coffey missed all of the 2000 season after elbow surgery.

Things began to click for him last season. He was promoted from low-A Dayton to high-A Potomac on July 29. He went 0-2 with a 1.96 ERA there. He struck out 21 and walked only three.

The Reds started Coffey at Double-A Chattanooga this year in the setup role. The organization wanted him to get more experience before using him at closer.

"Within the first week, he was closing games," Naehring said.

Coffey went 4-1 with 19 saves and a 2.44 ERA.

The Reds promoted him to Triple-A Louisville on July 28. He has had one rough outing, bumping his ERA to 6.23 after five games. But he had struck out six and walked none.

The Reds have been cautious as far as moving up players in the organization under general manager Dan O'Brien, but Coffey could get a September call-up.

BONG UPDATE: An MRI of Jung Keun Bong's left shoulder showed no structural damage, so Bong was placed on a rehab program. Bong, the left-hander the Reds obtained in the Chris Reitsma trade with Atlanta, was 8-7 with a 5.53 ERA at Louisville. He also made three starts for the Reds. He was 1-1 with a 4.70 ERA.



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