Reds Still Look to Be a Year Away from Contending

Bob Castellini went on the radio a couple weeks ago to clarify that he is, indeed, excited about the upcoming Reds season. And who isn't? The Reds season is baseball season, after all. Castellini didn't go so far as to say the Reds are going to win this

Bob Castellini went on the radio a couple weeks ago to clarify that he is, indeed, excited about the upcoming Reds season. And who isn’t? The Reds season is baseball season, after all, and someone is going to win even if it isn’t the Reds.

Castellini didn’t go so far as to say the Reds are going to win, stoking a shadow debate as to whether he’s backing off from so many pronouncements through his first three years of ownership to the effect he’ll bring a championship to Cincinnati. But if Castellini were to say the Reds are going to win this year, who would believe him anyway?

The new model Reds, the work of three general managers in the last four years, packed up last week for their final spring training in Florida. The team that convenes in Sarasota stacks up as their least exciting outfit since they promoted Paul Householder as their great young star and wound up losing 101 games. That was 1982.

They have no chance to contend even if they’d improved more than any other club in the National League Central, which might even be the case. The Reds don’t lack talent, but they do lack experience. They don’t lack speed, but they do lack power.

The reconstruction of the Reds isn’t complete, but the demolition of the old Reds finally is. Dispatching Junior Griffey and Adam Dunn before the end of last season, the Reds have since replaced them with Willy Taveras and Jacque Jones. The power hitting Jim Bowden Reds now are done.

There’s no one left for Reds fans to blame, even if they did a pretty thorough job of breaking in Dusty Baker last year. It’s going to be a real tough year for the manager and the owner. All the old targets are gone, exposing new ones to the line of fire.

Removing power hitters from a ball club that’s being re-fitted for speed and defense falls a long way short of establishing that the Reds really have replaced power with speed and defense. If the Reds are better off financially without Dunn and Griffey, opposing pitchers are much better off competitively, and it still remains to be seen if the Reds can run and catch.

Taveras can certainly run, but he can’t steal first and hasn’t figured out the other ways to get there. If you thought Corey Patterson was a disaster, wait until you see Taveras, who’s one of the worst OPS performers in the game. Taveras reached .749 in 2007, but he played in Colorado, which still didn’t help him in 2008, when his OPS sunk to .604.

In 2005 and 2006 with Houston, Taveras came in at .666 and .671, which were among the worst numbers in center field or any other position. So that’s what you’re going to get. That’s what he is.

Playing for Dusty Baker, Taveras isn’t going to learn how to walk. In 541 career games, he has 116 walks and 326 strikeouts.

That’s your speedy leadoff hitter. After Taveras stole 68 bases last year, the Rockies non-tendered him. If you were so put off by Dunn that you wanted his polar opposite, you’ve got him.

The Reds are taking a flyer on Jones, a solid player in his best days, which didn’t include 2008 with the Detroit Tigers and Florida Marlins. He went to winter ball, worked out some kinks, and the Reds like him as an attitude guy. He’ll swing the bat, just the way Baker likes it, but he strikes out three times as often as he walks.

The big problem for the Reds, though, isn’t that they’ve replaced Dunn and Griffey with borderline major league starters. And if that’s not the big problem, then you know the club isn’t in competitive shape. The big problem is that too many of their key players aren’t far enough along in the development process.

That second year in the major leagues is a true rite of passage. And here we are with Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Johnny Cueto and, in effect, Edinson Volquez all entering that second season.

Going through the minor leagues, the object is for players to master some level of baseball and then move up to the next one. On making the big leagues, obviously, there is no next level. It’s trickier than that. In the major leagues, opponents make adjustments, and players have to make adjustments in response.

The sophomore jinx isn’t a jinx. It’s a very real, very challenging step in player development. Once a player has proved he can respond, he’s on his way to a career. When players can’t respond, their careers begin to waver.

So the model isn’t complete. Speed and defense is a good model for a baseball club, generally, because it’s useful in any park. If the bats are cool, the club can still manufacture a run. But speed is useless offensively if the fast players can’t reach base.

Furthermore, the pitching has to be solid. When the club is down three or four runs, the running game goes away. That’s why it’s not a bad idea to keep a thumper or two in the lineup, just for that dimension.

When the Reds fall behind, they’ll rely on Bruce, Votto, Edwin Encarnacion and Brandon Phillips to go deep. At this early date, it doesn’t sound very promising.

One can almost think of the Reds as kind of a collegiate team that broke in a strong freshman class last year. Those players are sophomores now. We wouldn’t expect a collegiate team to win with sophomores as their key players, and we certainly can’t expect it in the big leagues.

If any optimism is to be concocted, it lies in the direction of NL Central opposition. The Milwaukee Brewers have lost their best two pitchers, Ben Sheets and C.C. Sabathia, to free agency. The St. Louis Cardinals and Houston Astros appear to be headed in no particular direction. The Pittsburgh Pirates have been losing for even longer than the Reds and are no closer to winning.

If by some chance everything clicks for the Reds and those other four clubs are terrible, they might sneak into a wild card berth as a benefit of playing in that division. But they’re still not catching the Chicago Cubs unless the Cubs mysteriously fall apart.

In other words, it’s not realistic to think the Reds will win this year unless everyone else in the division is terrible. But if the Reds don’t lose patience this year, they might actually take some kind of position in 2010.

Castellini isn’t exactly saying that. But is he thinking it? One sure hopes so.

CONTACT BILL PETERSON: [email protected]