Pitching? Check. Hitting and Fielding? Errr...

What would you say if you look up in June and find that the Reds' problem is their everyday lineup? Would you say you're surprised? Well, don't be. Many clubs have done it faster, but the Reds

Apr 5, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Jerry Dowling

What would you say if you look up in June and find that the Reds' problem is their everyday lineup? Would you say you're surprised? Well, don't be.

Many clubs have done it faster, but the Reds' last three general management regimes have refangled the ball club's starting rotation in two and a half years. Cross your fingers as you read this ... the starting pitching might not be bad.

Just don't read too much into Opening Day omens, even if Aaron Harang's 32 first-inning pitches were little better than the first pitch thrown by President Bush. If Bush had thrown another dozen pitches, he would have taken the same booing in Cincinnati he'd get in any other town just for showing up.

Harang recovered nicely from that five-run first inning and lasted until the sixth, when the Chicago Cubs dripped and drabbed the Reds to death with six runs as the local nine showed little defensive aptitude. Harang left after throwing 100 pitches, and his teammates continued puking into their gloves.

The Reds ended their opener with a 16-7 loss at Great American Ball Park on a day when the Cubs might not have crossed the plate four times against a good defensive club.

The pitchers aren't going to strike out everyone, so you have to catch the ball. Adam Dunn suffered a nightmare in left field, dropping a line drive in the first inning to facilitate a Cubs rally, then losing a wind-blown fly in the sixth to continue another rally, among his misadventures. But third baseman Edwin Encarnacion, shortstop Felipe Lopez and second baseman Tony Womack also contributed to an easy day of offense for the Cubs.

Beyond that, one frets about the Reds' batting order offering easy days of defense for opponents. The Reds struck out 10 times Monday, with every starter except Womack and Junior Griffey chipping in to the total. The Reds will surely hit a lot of home runs this year, but they've got a lot of strikeouts in their lineup among Dunn, Lopez, Kearns, Griffey, Jason LaRue, the rookie Encarnacion and possibly Womack as he ages.

Of all the forgettable Opening Day performances, Harang's might be the easiest to overlook because that first inning really wasn't in character — but the hitters striking out and the fielders missing plays certainly was. Now that the artificial conditions of spring training are out of the way, new General Manager Wayne Krivsky will develop an even more realistic profile of the ball club he's inherited.

Doubtless, Krivsky already knows the Reds don't match his ideal of a ball club built on pitching, defense and patient hitting for contact. But as he and new owner Bob Castellini see it first hand every single day and feel their stomachs turn while the theater reveals endless successions of strikeouts with runners on third and one out or batted balls held on the field while opposing runners take extra bases, they might begin to think the starting rotation is the least of their problems.

Castellini and Krivsky are off to a good start. They took on a club with numerous vices and only one virtue, a batting order so powerful that it could win a couple dozen games by itself and rescue Cincinnatians from 100 losses every summer. With little time to prepare, they've gone after the most obvious weakness, the starting rotation, and probably changed it enough to end the dull, exhausting discussion that's continued for way too many years about inept starting pitchers.

The new Reds brain trust might also be gifted by time they did not serve while young pitchers took their lumps. A year ago, we looked at the free agent signing of Eric Milton as the addition of a staff ace. No point recounting how his season went, other than to mention that he's been surpassed by two progressing starters, Harang and Brandon Claussen.

Harang improved dramatically last year, walking only 51 hitters in 212 innings after walking 53 over 167 innings in 2004. By the time last year ended, he notched a 3.83 ERA, more than a run better than the year before. And he doesn't look it now, but he'll match up with the other National League staff aces if he stays on trajectory.

Claussen made a similar improvement last year, if not quite as stunning. His ERA fell from 6.14 to 4.21, below the NL average, and he could be a 200-inning, 15-game winner this year.

Harang and Claussen both arrived in the 2003 fire sale conducted under the former owner's orders. More than likely, the Reds will end up with nothing more than that for Jose Guillen, Aaron Boone, Scott Williamson and Gabe White, but two top starters almost redeem a salary dump if you're willing to forgive the last three years of losing that came with the bargain.

Krivsky pulled a rabbit out of his hat with the addition of Bronson Arroyo this spring. Only one word adequately describes the acquisition of a No. 2 starter for a fourth outfielder: magic. The power of Wily Mo Pena must have exercised a hypnotic effect on Boston Red Sox GM Theo Epstein.

No doubt, Pena has the pop to become a huge star in Boston, but he probably wouldn't have batted 350 times for the Reds this year and they picked up a six-year veteran who pitched 205 innings with 14 wins last year. And Arroyo is signed for three years at a reported total of $11.2 million.

Maybe there's another word for that trade. Like stealing.

Suddenly Milton is the No. 4 starter. If he just matches his form before last year's disaster, how many No. 4 starters in the NL can keep up with him? He could be the Comeback Player of the Year. As No. 5 starters go, Dave Williams can't be too bad.

If the Reds still don't own one or two dominant starters who could make them a force in the postseason, that's not an issue today anyhow. But their rotation is deep enough to put them at an advantage when their back-end starters face the weaker starters on other teams.

We probably no longer need to worry that Reds pitchers will tee up batting practice for opposing hitters. But if pitchers keep batted balls in the park, fielders still need to catch it and throw it. And Reds hitters still have to hit it.

Before this season ends, those issues will be next on the agenda for Castellini and Krivsky.