Reds' Increased Activity Might Be the Prelude to a Sale

Because the Reds have made a policy of keeping their intentions secret, their fans have to go on what the club actually does. Often, the club's surprising actions have resulted in angry fans who

Jerry Dowling

Because the Reds have made a policy of keeping their intentions secret, their fans have to go on what the club actually does. Often, the club's surprising actions have resulted in angry fans who aren't afraid to say so.

Reds fans booed club owner Carl Lindner in a show of appreciation during last spring's Opening Day at Great American Ball Park, where the Reds began the 2004 season to the lowest expectations in more than a generation. By the end of the season upcoming, though, those boos might turn to cheers. It wouldn't even be out of line to begin the cheering sooner.

Cheering and booing aside, it remains that the Reds won't tell us what they're doing, which means we still have questions. But who really cares about questions at the moment? Pending further surprises, which still could go either way, the Reds are making a serious bid for the wild card lottery.

And we understand now how the wild card works: Pluck out 90 wins and take your chances with a few short series; the World Series is there to be won.

Tentatively, it's a whole new ball game around here.

But we're still crossing our fingers it will last until Opening Day.

Out of nowhere this winter, the Reds have made themselves a contender following four consecutive losing seasons, their worst run of failure in a half-century. Well, the Reds have made themselves about 15 games better — the competition has pitched in to make the Reds a contender.

Since the Reds never want to tell us what they're thinking they might do, it's justifiable to assume they just all of a sudden got smart. During this winter, they've added five big leaguers to their pitching staff and a big league third baseman to their lineup. By estimates, they're adding nearly 50 percent to their payroll, bringing it to about $65 million.

And here's the best part: The competition in the NL Central hasn't improved and might have declined. Come to think of it, the wild card competition isn't any better either. We might be looking at a playoff club here. Might.

The prized Reds acquisition, free agent left hander Eric Milton, is 29 with a bubble gum card that says 30-some starts, 200 innings and 15 wins. If that's not a Cy Young profile, it's a legitimate rotation anchor. Think Tom Browning, even when he gives up a homer, which he will, because he's around the plate — only 2.35 walks per nine innings beginning since 1999.

Even before signing Milton, the Reds traded with the newly-christened Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for right hander Ramon Ortiz. From 2001-2003, he averaged 32 starts and 202 innings, giving up 207 hits and 69 walks — a decent WHIP of 1.36 for you fantasy leaguers. Average record: 15-11 with a 4.40 ERA.

As it happened, Ortiz fell off a bit in 2003, though he reached his career high of 16 wins. Last year, the Angels started him only 14 times. But the Reds believe they can produce the pitcher who produced the numbers by putting the 31-year-old back into a starting role. Well worth a try.

The Reds also not only re-signed veteran right hander Paul Wilson, the most aggrieved victim of their shaky bullpen last year, but they also substantially upgraded that bullpen with the additions of lefty Kent Mercker and right handers Ben Weber and David Weathers. Reds fans will love Weber, who brings a bit of that goofy Chris Sabo-Brad Lesley intensity.

A little rough math with a couple sensible assumptions tells us the difference we might expect from the new pitchers. Last year, Reds pitchers logged 1,443 innings, 804 of which went to hurlers with ERAs of 5.00 or higher (the pitchers in question combined for a 5.92 ERA). If we assume the new pitchers perform as history predicts and they keep the worst pitchers off their mound, the Reds have replaced about 600 of those 804 innings.

And if the new pitchers between them hit a modest 4.50 ERA, they'll reduce opposition scoring by about 100 earned runs over those 600 innings. That's about two runs for every three games.

Which means that about four times per week, the Reds will win a game that went into extra innings last year or they'll push a game into extras that they would have lost last year or a starter will last seven innings instead of six and the guy who relieves him not only will be better but better rested.

We also can figure Brandon Claussen, Aaron Haraang, Josh Hancock, Luke Hudson, Jose Acevedo and Ryan Wagner will be better than last year. And, just in case we've figured wrong, we can be confident that whoever falls down won't have to pitch.

The Reds could cut a run off last year's team ERA of 5.19 and still finish in the bottom half of the National League. But this staff figures to be even better, if the veterans perform as history indicates and the youth improves. The Reds won't join Atlanta and the Chicago Cubs among the NL's elite pitching staffs, but they could join Houston, St. Louis, Los Angeles, San Diego and the New York Mets on the next level.

Then one looks at the everyday lineup, now featuring Joe Randa at third base. He's not an All-Star, but he's 15 homers, 75 RBI, a .285 batting average and a real nice seventh hitter who gives pitchers a feeling of security with his defense. The Reds also kept their second baseman, D'Angelo Jimenez, a useful presence high in the order.

Imagine what this club could accomplish offensively if Junior Griffey and Austin Kearns return from injury. We'd be looking at a legitimate 90-win ball club. That's a World Series contender.

Especially when we look at the top three NL Central clubs this winter. St. Louis declined at three positions up the middle. Though they traded for pitching ace Mark Mulder, sacrificing pitching depth to do it, they've also lost World Series Game 1 starter Woody Williams.

The Houston Astros lost centerfielder Carlos Beltran to the Mets and second baseman Jeff Kent to Los Angeles, pitcher Wade Miller is rehabbing in Boston, Lance Berkman will miss the first month or two with injury and no one knows if Roger Clemens will come back.

And the Chicago Cubs are out Moises Alou as they try to unload Sammy Sosa. The Cubs retain a strong starting rotation, but their bullpen did them no favors late last year and it's not better today.

So the Reds will go to spring training in a month with a chance to win. As this is a sudden occurrence, it raises a few questions.

First, it's interesting the front office had this epiphany and decided to invest an extra $20 million for a contender after cutting loose Barry Larkin. It's especially interesting because Larkin frequently badgered management to invest in winning, went away quietly when it didn't appear the club would dramatically increase payroll and the Reds emerged from all this wheeling and dealing without a shortstop. Larkin played last year for a $700,000 base salary.

If Reds officials are holding anything against Larkin, they ought to consider dropping it and bringing him back. It's not like he'd break their bank. Why fool around with Felipe Lopez or Anderson Machado when you're knocking on the door of the playoffs?

We recall that the Reds came out of nowhere in 1999 and increased their payroll by the same proportions, to $33 million from $23 million. With that money, the Reds added slugger Greg Vaughn and pitcher Denny Neagle, then won 96 games.

But an additional motive obtained, for the Reds were up for sale and they needed to dress up their dreary property. By the end of the season, Lindner held the keys.

Now, out of nowhere, the Reds are adding $20 million to a $46 million payroll. It's particularly unexpected because everyone knows Lindner demands that the Reds at least break even and it's hard to imagine they'll break even on this payroll.

We might guess Reds fans will pack the house for a contender, until we remember they didn't pack the house for contenders in 1995 or 1999. Should the Reds lose money, the difference comes out of Lindner's pocket. Unless he sells.

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