Reds should retreat and look to future

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jim Bowden should not be deceived by the standings. His ballclub is as close to collapse as it is to contention. The Big Red Machine arrives at the All-Star break still within striking distance in the National League Central, but the engine smokes and the wheels wobble.

This is no time for the Reds to be making a big push for the pennant. Rather, it is a good opportunity to schedule some repairs. If Bowden can move one of his high-priced pitchers for a package of top prospects, he should be encouraged to pounce.

Better to win tomorrow than to wallow in mediocrity. Better to make a tactical retreat than a foolish charge. Better to trade a John Smiley now and start stocking up for next season.

''If I could make a deal that would solidify us for the long term, I'd be inclined to do that,'' Bowden said. ''Last year, we dominated people. This year, we're a Cinderella team.''

The '96 Reds are an endearing bunch. Pete Schourek is sidelined for the season, and Dave Burba responds by pitching his best game of the year. Just when you figure they're falling apart, they come together.

Davis fools his critics

Eric Davis? Anyone who saw him swing in early March would have sworn he was finished. Instead, Davis has made a comeback as complete as John Travolta's. The once and future center fielder leads the Reds in home runs, RBI and SWE (Sportswriters' Words Eaten).

Eventually, though, some of these wonders will surely cease. Because Bowden is under orders not to pad his $40 million payroll, the injury bug hits the Reds unusually hard. Without insurance on Schourek, the Reds have no cash with which to seek an acceptable substitute. When first baseman Hal Morris was disabled in the on-deck circle last week, his replacement had to be found within the organization.

Bowden does not rule out future-is-now moves if the Reds remain close to Houston and St. Louis till the July 30 trading deadline, yet he maintains that he will not make any trade that costs money. Though he says he is ''open to both avenues,'' he is plainly and properly concentrating on the longer term.

The general manager's job is to see the big picture, as opposed to today's snapshot. He has to decide when it is reasonable to chase the pennant, and when it is time to retrench. Former Reds General Manager Bill Bergesch probably lost his job in 1987 for hoarding prospects when he might have acquired the past-prime Rick Reuschel, yet his wisdom helped make the Reds consistent winners.

Teams can't hide talent

Standing pat is sometimes the smartest best move you can make. The Boston Red Sox acquired reliever Larry Andersen in 1990, a day before postseason rosters were set, for the cost of a kid first baseman named Jeff Bagwell. The Pittsburgh Pirates were able to acquire Roberto Clemente because the Brooklyn Dodgers couldn't find room for him on their roster.

Prudence is a difficult policy position in baseball. Fans don't buy tickets to tonight's game because of some fabulous phenom at Double-A. They expect immediate gratification, every season. Club executives understand that if they don't put enough people in the seats, they aren't likely to last long enough to see their vision vindicated. Their plans for tomorrow are inevitably compromised by the demands of today.

This is why ''rebuilding'' is the dirtiest word in the baseball vocabulary. It tells fans their team is looking at a horizon beyond the next homestand. It gives customers another reason to stay home.

Technically, it is too soon to say the Reds can't win in 1996. Nine days ago, the Astros and Cardinals were tied for first place with .500 records. Neither club conjures the '27 Yankees.

''As it is in our league right now, you've got Atlanta, Montreal and parity,'' Jim Bowden said.

Bowden is paid to know when the pennant stops being a dream and becomes a delusion.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published July 7, 1996.