Thursday, December 12, 1996
Can't afford to trade for McGriff?
Can't afford not to


BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

This time, the bottom line is not budging. The Cincinnati Reds have no fudge factor where Fred McGriff's finances are concerned. They will not add the Atlanta slugger to the payroll unless there are comparable subtractions.

''We're not going to change the budget,'' Managing Executive John Allen reiterated Wednesday. ''If we get down to August and we're three games in front and we need a middle reliever, maybe we'd do something. But we're not going to revisit it going into the season.''

The court of appeals is closed. Used to be, Reds General Manager Jim Bowden could always sell Marge Schott on the necessity of adding one more big salary to put her team over the top. For a first baseman of McGriff's stature, it might not have been such a hard sell.

No RBI production since Perez

But change has come to Riverfront Stadium. Oops, Cinergy Field. Schott's authority has been greatly reduced, and the Reds' cash reserves have been largely depleted. Unless he should win the lottery, Allen has no alternative but austerity.

The Reds could swap second baseman Bret Boone for McGriff right now, but they must first find some club willing to absorb the $3.1 million salary of incumbent first baseman Hal Morris. Either that, or Bowden must persuade the Braves to help subsidize McGriff's $5 million paycheck.

It is a daunting task, but Bowden is encouraged to keep trying. Fred McGriff is worth the trouble.

Next Monday marks the 20th anniversary of the Reds' regrettable trade of Tony Perez to the Montreal Expos. For two decades, the home team has been unable to locate an adequate replacement.

Dan Driessen was dependable. Pete Rose was prolific. Nick Esasky was strong. Todd Benzinger was quotable. Hal Morris is handy. But Fred McGriff would be the Reds' first first baseman since Perez who fits the profile of a first baseman. That is, he drives in runs.

Reds go against blueprint

Since 1977, the Reds' regular first baseman has exceeded 80 runs batted in only once - in 1977. The average output has been 59 RBI. By the production standards of the position, this is pathetic.

During this same 20-year span, Eddie Murray has driven home 1899 runs, an average of 95 per season. McGriff, who made his major-league debut in 1986, has averaged 91 RBI for 10 years.

The basic blueprint for success in the big leagues calls for solid defense up the middle and power on the corners. There are always exceptions; the Reds and Yankees have each won a World Series with Mariano Duncan at second base. Still, first basemen have been paid primarily for their power since Lou Gehrig was the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

Fred McGriff was one of 10 major-league first basemen to drive in 100 runs in 1996. He is not the best of the lot - that would be Frank Thomas, or maybe Mo Vaughn - but he is the only one who is readily available. As such, he is a player who should be pursued to the extent of the law.

''McGriff,'' Bowden said recently, ''just does so much for you.''

What he would do for the Reds would be to bring left-handed balance to a predominantly right-handed lineup, and force pitchers to deal more directly with Barry Larkin with runners on base.

A big bat in the middle of the lineup makes a resounding ripple. Presumably, it also puts people in the park. This was the thinking, anyway, when the Chicago White Sox signed Albert Belle for $10 million per annum.

The Reds, of necessity, are thinking differently. Their ''major announcement'' Wednesday related to ''RedsFest,'' an autograph show aimed at reclaiming disaffected fans. The concept is commendable, the gesture long overdue, but fans who thought the press conference was called to disclose a deal were bound to be disappointed.

''I'm not writing off '97 because we have a low budget,'' John Allen said. ''I think we're going to be competitive.''

With Fred McGriff, though, there would be no doubt.