At Last, a Spring of Real Hope for the Reds

A little more than a year ago, this space noted that no year has ever transpired in which the Bengals played a complete winning season while the Reds endured a losing season. It was predicted, wit

Feb 23, 2005 at 2:06 pm
Jerry Dowling

A little more than a year ago, this space noted that no year has ever transpired in which the Bengals played a complete winning season while the Reds endured a losing season. It was predicted, with the foresight of dread, that the year would come soon.

But another year has come and gone without that coincidence and now, by a mysterious twist of ambition, we come to spring with justifiable hope that 2005 will be spared the distinction, too.

We're left only with conjecture as to why the Reds' front office finally worked up a fit of interest in at least giving the impression of being a contender. But the Reds, nonetheless, offer that impression. Watching a third consecutive wild card entry go all the way to the world championship last year, the Reds must have taken up the new religion of believing that anyone can win so long as they crawl into the playoffs.

The Reds played the offseason as if they care to be in on the action, and they played it well enough to get there, contrary to the early line. It's not widely enough appreciated that the Reds were a couple of role pitchers away from being a much better club last year. But the Reds appreciate it, and they took the steps.

Shortly before Christmas, the Reds went big league and signed lefthander Eric Milton, who pitches to contact.

He gives up home runs because of it, but still won 14 times in Philadelphia last year. Righthander Ramon Ortiz, formerly with the newly-christened Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, is a passable No. 3 starter behind Milton and last year's ace, righthander Paul Wilson, who won 12 and could have won a lot closer to 20 with mediocre bullpen support.

Now all those kids — Luke Hudson, Brandon Claussen, Aaron Harang and Josh Hancock — are on the back end of the rotation instead of the front. If one or two of them doesn't quite break through this season, it's not going to kill the Reds. If Jose Acevedo pulls it together, so much the better. And all those retreads on whom the Reds have staked so many losses in the last five years are out of the picture entirely.

In essence, the Reds have replaced prospects and proven losers in their rotation with a couple veterans who have the bubble gum card cred to win 12 to 15 games. This is huge news, evidently lost on baseball's chattering class.

Cincinnati baseball initiates might not water at the mouth over parallel improvements in the bullpen, but they're every bit as useful and important. Veterans Ben Weber, Kent Mercker and David Weathers have been added to the bullpen and closer Danny Graves hasn't been subtracted. Moreover, a young Ryan Wagner is another year into his development.

So often the most important out in the game comes up in the sixth or seventh inning. The ninth inning gets all the fanfare because the result is directly at hand. But Reds fans have too often seen that ninth inning go to hell 45 minutes before it arrives.

When middle relievers walk the bases loaded and give up tying runs in the seventh inning, it takes so many cards out of the manager's hand. Going down to the end of the game, he can't be as assertive with the running game, he can't substitute for defense, he has fewer options with secondary hitters in the opposing lineup and he can't corner the other manager. Hold that lead, stay on top — it's a whole different ball game.

Whatever possessed Reds owner Carl Lindner to approve a payroll hike to $63 million from $46 million — whether it was General Manager Dan O'Brien's persuasion, Manager Dave Miley's performance or pressure from fans — this club suddenly is legitimate. The national pundits will catch on soon enough.

Because spring training is here, it's worthwhile to review the fundamentals. Herewith is baseball's bottom line eternal verity, supported by more than 130 years of anecdotal evidence: Defense is 75 percent of baseball, and pitching is 75 percent of defense.

It's a pretty rough approximation, to be sure, and the stat freaks can't verify it because defense is notoriously hard to measure. But it says pitching is half of baseball, catching and throwing is a quarter and offense is another quarter. If your pitchers can't put it where they want it, you only have half of a ball club.

Outs are the unit of time in baseball. The faster you get the other guys out, the faster time runs out on them. Suddenly the Reds go to spring with a veteran major league pitching staff that won't unduly prolong time for opposing hitters.

And if the staff isn't top heavy with superstar talent, it's deep enough to withstand inevitable injuries. The Reds still don't possess one of the game's great pitching staffs, but this experienced group is in the upper half, which beats being one of the worst.

The sun really is shining this spring, brighter than at any time since 2000, when the Reds had just traded for Junior Griffey coming off 96 wins. The Reds still are waiting for their next winning season.

Last season, they broke in Miley as a rookie manager and he gave them more than a commendable performance, coaxing 76 wins out of a pitching staff that produced routinely poor middle relief and only 69 so-called quality starts (six or more innings allowing three or fewer earned runs). It says a lot about the Reds' offensive might that Miley could make that happen, but it also says the Reds played with a winning mentality.

This year's overhaul certainly doesn't end with the pitching staff. Veteran Joe Randa, a good defender and average batter, will stabilize third base. Former San Francisco shortstop Rich Aurelia plays with the presence of mind that characterized Dusty Baker's good clubs there. He's no Barry Larkin, but he's not Felipe Lopez either.

Junior Griffey and Austin Kearns are coming back from injuries. If one of them goes back under the knife, Wily Mo Pena broke out last year. And even if you're put off by Larkin's exile, it's time to see how Sean Casey's leadership becomes a ball club.

But matters involving the everyday lineup are secondary for the Reds. It always begins and ends with pitching. For years around here, it's ended with pitching. Now, at long last, it begins that way.

Are the Reds 15 wins better this season? That's the big question as they gather in Sarasota to begin spring training. Do they win 15 more games, put themselves into the low 90s and give themselves a chance for the wild card?

Well, they might have done better than that. Might have. Houston is less potent this year, Chicago doesn't appear to be as good and St. Louis won't match last year's 105 wins. If the Reds add those 15 wins against those three clubs, they might even make a bid for the NL Central title.

On the low end, the Reds finish with a winning record if they win six more games than last year. One win per month. And the Reds are that much better at the very least.