While Cincinnati is on track to have its worst season in 23 years despite having the highest payroll ($61.9 million) in franchise history, 25-year-old Felipe Lopez is putting together a season to remember. At week's end Lopez, who was hitting .295 and had made just four errors, had the best offensive numbers--11 home runs, 39 RBIs--of any National League shortstop. That's what the Reds had in mind when they acquired him, from the Blue Jays in a four-team trade in 2002, to succeed 12-time All-Star Barry Larkin.
But Lopez nearly blew that opportunity. In his first 59 games of '03 he hit .213 and committed 16 errors, receiving a demotion to Triple A Louisville; five weeks later he suffered a season-ending ankle injury. He started last season in the minors, then hit .242 in 79 games during two stints with Cincinnati. After Larkin retired following the 2004 season and shortstop Anderson Machado injured his left knee playing winter ball in Venezuela, the Reds felt compelled to sign veteran free agent Rich Aurilia to compete with Lopez for the starting job.
"When I first came up [with Toronto, in 2001], I had all the talent in the world, but I didn't have the work habits," says Lopez, who at 21 hit .260 in 49 games with the Blue Jays. "I had some success early, and I got caught up in it."
Lopez reported to spring training in the best shape of his life but still began the season behind Aurilia. After a strained left hamstring shelved Aurilia on May 10, Lopez was ready.