--------- Baseball '99 ---------
Reds have plan for 2003 season
that christens new ballpark

Cornerstones already in big leagues

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Plans for the Reds' new stadium, scheduled to open in 2003, have begun to take shape.

By contrast, it's nearly impossible to fathom how the team will look when it christens Cinergy Field II, Procter & Gamble Park, Schottzie Stadium or whatever the new playpen is to be called.

Numerous factors, such as ownership, baseball economics and the club's performance on the field and at the gate, will affect the direction of the Reds' baseball operations as the team approaches its next home and the coming century.

''I wouldn't feel comfortable projecting our 2000 team, let alone our 2003 team,'' Reds General Manager Jim Bowden said.

Still, a few educated guesses can be made:

• Because five members of the projected Opening Day 1999 starting lineup are 26 or younger (first baseman Sean Casey, second baseman Pokey Reese, third baseman Aaron Boone, center fielder Mike Cameron and right fielder Dmitri Young), any of them is a candidate to be around four years hence. Conceivably, each would be in the prime of his career.

• Brett Tomko, who turns 26 on April 7, could be the anchor of the starting rotation, joined by top prospect Rob Bell, who was acquired from Atlanta in the Bret Boone trade last November. Both will bequeath leads to closer Scott Williamson, the 23-year-old rookie who emerged as a possible standout this spring.

The catcher they'll throw to almost surely will be Jason LaRue, 25, who'll begin this season at Triple-A Indianapolis but won't be in the minors much longer.

• Assuming Bowden remains in control, the Reds will continue their pursuit of Reggie Sanders/Williamson-type performers -- guys with prodigious speed or the ability to hit or throw Leonard Coleman's signature off the ball.

It won't matter to Bowden, a passionate devotee of baseball ''tools,'' whether the new park favors power or speed.

''We will always strive to have the combination of both,'' Bowden said. ''We will always strive to have speed and defense up the middle and power and hitters on the corners. We will always strive to have a strong starting pitching staff that's deep and that has a dominating closer. That won't change, no matter what the configuration of our ballpark is.''

Citing a rare, valuable and marketable baseball commodity, Bowden added, ''We will always strive for left-handed hitters and left-handed pitchers.''

In other words, a team where everybody is Michael Tucker or Dennys Reyes.

Now that's a little extreme and even unfair to say. After all, the elements that will form the Reds of the future are powerful, unwieldy -- and unknown.

Ownership is one. What player acquisition philosophy will Marge Schott's successor adopt? Will this individual or group be like Arizona's Jerry Colangelo or Los Angeles' Rupert Murdoch, increasing the current $30 million-$32 million payroll past $60 million-$80 million and the bounds of reason?

Or will the Reds' next owner follow the lead of Pittsburgh's Kevin McClatchy, shaving the payroll to seven digits for a year or two to gain financial footing?

As Reds manager Jack McKeon said, ''There are two ways to run a baseball team: To win, and to make money. You can't do both.''

Projected stadium revenues will play a big role in determining what course Cincinnati takes. If club officials have sensed what these might be, they're not saying.

Baseball's labor situation is another key factor. Situated in a market that's small in size and close to the middle of the road in revenue only during booming times, the Reds would like the major leagues to institute a revenue-sharing plan that would assist the Montreals and Minnesotas (and Cincinnatis) while establishing a semblance of parity between those franchises and the likes of the Yankees and Dodgers.

Teams also would welcome some sort of salary cap and a mechanism that would restrict player movement.

In other words, another work stoppage could be looming when the Basic Agreement expires after the 2001 season.

Then there's the pursuit of amateurs, which is evolving almost daily. Desperate for skilled players and aware that baseball faces less competition from football and basketball in other countries, the major leagues have embraced Latin America and the Far East as sources of talent. Known for its excellence in scouting and player development before Schott let those departments atrophy, the Reds have revived their efforts in the Dominican Republic, Japan, et al.

''You don't know if the baseball industry's going to go to a worldwide draft instead of the present system,'' Bowden said.

Finally, the most unpredictable elements of all are the maturity or depreciation and the comings and goings of the Reds' most visible assets -- the players.

''You don't know what type of trades you're going to make with your veterans between now and then,'' Bowden said. ''You don't know what free agents you're going to be able to sign.''

For example, does anybody in his or her right mind seriously believe that left fielder Greg Vaughn will be starting his fifth year as a Red in 2003?

Barry Larkin will turn 39 on April 28 of that year. How effective can he still be? And because his contract expires after the 2000 season, will he even wear a Cincinnati uniform?

Odds are that at least one player from the aforementioned core of Casey, Reese, Boone, Cameron and Young will decline sharply in four years. Chances are that at least one of them will become a star, too. Casey looks like the best bet. But what if he suffers another potentially catastrophic injury, as he did last year when a throw accidentally struck him in the right eye during batting practice?

Maybe the Reds will reap a bonanza from their recent drafts and develop talented and affordable homegrown stars such as outfielders Adam Dunn, Austin Kearns and Dewayne Wise, shortstop Travis Dawkins and pitcher Josh Hall.

But bumper crops, such as the Garvey-Lopes-Russell-Cey infield (Dodgers, early 1970s) or the Cromartie-Valentine-Dawson outfield (Expos, late 1970s), are about as rare as friendly umpires. The Reds will be fortunate if just one of these players rises to a Larkinesque level.

''Baseball is not a computer game,'' Bowden said. ''It's not a board game. You're dealing with real, live human beings. Too many factors including injuries, personal lives and ability to adjust affect what a player's going to look like.''

Copyright 1998 The Cincinnati Enquirer, a Gannett Co. Inc. newspaper.
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