6 Cincinnati Reds

A new owner has big dreams, but old woes won't be easily fixed
April 02, 2006

Ryan Freel'sversatility is, like that of all good utilitymen, a blessing and a curse. Heplays second, third and every outfield position, making him the invaluableplaster filling the cracks among the Reds' injury-prone group of regulars. Butit also ensures that Freel will never have a positional home and that, ashappened this spring when newly acquired Tony Womack was handed the second basejob--although Freel made the majority of his starts (48) there last year--he isdoomed to itinerancy. Freel is diplomatic about his predicament. "I knowI'll get my at bats," he says, "and that's the advantage of being autility player."

Freel, 30,emerged as one of the game's better leadoff hitters in 2005, finishing with a.371 on-base percentage and 36 stolen bases from the one hole. He possesses allthe attributes of a thinking leadoff man: He is willing to work the count, andhe plays to his strength (speed) while minimizing his weakness (limited pop),hitting twice as many ground balls as fly balls. The 5'10", 180-pound Freelhas a prototypical small man's game, regularly ripping his uniform on headfirstslides and sprawling catches. His aggressive style sent him to the disabledlist twice last season.

Although Freelhas sometimes carried his freewheeling to excess off the field--he was finedand had his license suspended after pleading guilty to driving under theinfluence in April 2005--the Reds prize his enthusiasm, so much so that on themorning of the team's first full-squad spring training workout, manager JerryNarron told his players he was tired of hearing fans say they loved watchingFreel play; he wanted the same cloud-of-dust style from everybody.

It will takemore than effort, though, to lift this ragged team to respectability. BobCastellini's bold claim upon buying the team along with two partners inJanuary--"I'm making you a promise, one fan to another, we will bringchampionship baseball back to Cincinnati"--reflects blind optimism ratherthan a sober assessment of the club. The Reds mash, and last year they led theNL in runs per game (5.1), home runs (222) and slugging percentage (.446); aslong as their power-hitting outfielders remain healthy, the team will comeclose to matching those totals. But the $7.5 million shaved from the payroll bytrading first baseman Sean Casey to Pittsburgh wasn't applied to Cincinnati'smost glaring weakness, a dreadful starting rotation that was last in the NL inERA (5.38) in 2005. Lefthander Eric Milton, the worst of former general managerDan O'Brien's many mistakes, came to symbolize the rotation's sorry mix ofovercompensation and underperformance: In the first year of a three-year, $25.5million deal, Milton was 8-15 with a 6.47 ERA and gave up a major-league-high40 home runs.

Late in thespring, new general manager Wayne Krivsky dealt surplus outfielder Wily Mo Peñato Boston for righthander Bronson Arroyo, who immediately became the club'sace. "He's a proven starting pitcher," says Krivsky, who previously wasthe Twins' assistant G.M. "The last two years he's averaged close to 200innings, he's taken the ball every fifth day, he's never been hurt." Arroyoshowed some discouraging trends last year; his ERA rose half a run, and hisstrikeout rate plummeted, from 7.15 per nine in '04, to 4.38. But the deal wasurgent because it puts reliable innings in the rotation while resolving adefensive logjam. Adam Dunn will now play left every day, rather than splittingtime at first to create at bats for Peña, while free-agent pickup ScottHatteberg becomes the regular at first.

The Reds appeardestined to play dozens of 10-9 games, and they won't be competitive until theyseriously upgrade their staff. Freel, who signed a two-year, $3 millionextension in December, is a fine building block, a scrappy, multipurpose pieceand a face for the franchise. But the talent gap between Cincinnati and theclass of the NL Central is too great to bridge on hustle alone.

IN FACT
Eric Milton's ERA (6.47) last year was the third worst for a pitcher with atleast 175 innings since World War II. Only Jose Lima's 6.65 in 2000 and DarrylKile's 6.61 in 1999 were higher.

CONSIDER THIS
a modest proposal

The Reds willmost likely start the season with veteran soft-tosser Dave Weathers as theircloser, but this should be the year that 2003 first-round pick Ryan Wagner(right) takes over the job. A sore right shoulder ended Wagner's 2005 seasonjust as he became part of a closer committee. The shoulder is better now, asare his mechanics after a trip to the instructional league and work withpitching coach Vern Ruhle. Wagner, 23, had a 6.11 ERA last year, but a betterindicator of his talent is his strikeout rate (7.7 per nine innings) andstrikeout-to-walk ratio (2.3 to 1). Those numbers make him a potentiallydominant closer.

THE LINEUP
projected roster with 2005 statistics

2005 RECORD73-89
fifth in NL Central

MANAGER
Jerry Narron
second season with Cincinnati

KEN GRIFFEY
B-T L
PVR 61
BA .301
HR 35
RBI 92
SB 0

ADAM DUNN
B-T L-R
PVR 49
BA .247
HR 40
RBI 101
SB 4

FELIPE LOPEZ
B-T S-R
PVR 67
BA .291
HR 23
RBI 85
SB 15

EDWINENCARNACION
B-T R
PVR 123
BA .232
HR 9
RBI 31
SB 3

JASON LARUE
B-T R
PVR 189
BA .260
HR 14
RBI 60
SB 0

SCOTT HATTEBERG[New acquisition]
B-T L-R
PVR 236
BA .256
HR 7
RBI 59
SB 0

TONY WOMACK [Newacquisition]
B-T L-R
PVR 165
BA .249
HR 0
RBI 15
SB 27

AUSTIN KEARNS
B-T R
PVR 106
BA .240
HR 18
RBI 67
SB 0

BENCH

RYAN FREEL
B-T R
PVR 76
BA .271
HR 4
RBI 21
SB 36

RICH AURILIA
B-T R
PVR 264
BA .282
HR 14
RBI 68
SB 2

BATTINGORDER

2B Womack
SS Lopez
CF Griffey
LF Dunn
3B Encarnacion
1B Hatteberg
RF Kearns
C LaRue

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
ROTATION

PITCHER PVR W L K WHIP ERA
RH Aaron Harang
[New acquisition]
106 11 13 163 1.27 3.83
RH Bronson Arroyo 101 14 10 100 1.30 4.51
LH Brandon Claussen 166 10 11 121 1.41 4.21
LH Eric Milton 207 8 15 123 1.55 6.47
LH Dave Williams
[New acquisition]
171 10 11 88 1.41 4.41

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
BULLPEN

PITCHER PVR W L SV WHIP ERA
RH David Weathers 102 7 4 15 1.29 3.94
LH Kent Mercker 139 3 1 4 1.35 3.65
LH Chris Hammond
[New acquisition]
249 5 1 0 1.11 3.84

Newacquisition
(R) Rookie
B-T: Bats-throws
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 59)

ON DECK
coming to a ballpark near you this summer...

Chris Denorfiatook the road less traveled--he was a Division III All-America at WheatonCollege in 2002--and doesn't overwhelm you with his raw skills, but in 323 atbats at Triple A Louisville last season the 25-year-old outfielder had a .391on-base percentage and 31 extra-base hits, including 13 homers. With Wily MoPeña traded, plus the injury history of the Reds' regular outfielders, Denorfiashould get big league playing time this season.

PHOTODAVID KOHL/AP UTILITY WORKER
The Reds love Freel's hard-nosed style of play, but they haven't given him aposition that he can call home.
TWO PHOTOSJOSH MERWIN (WAGNER); MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES (DENORFIA)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)