It probably is time to trade Larkin

Thursday, June 11, 1998

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Barry Larkin deserves a bow. If the Cincinnati Reds are determined to trade their splendid shortstop, they should wait at least until the weekend, and allow him another turn at bat before the fans at Cinergy Field.

One more ovation. One good opportunity to say goodbye. One last chance to cheer the local kid who grew up to define grace on the baseball diamond.

But beyond the sentimental considerations of closure, there can be no serious objections to letting Larkin go. He has become an expense the Reds can no longer justify, a 34-year-old icon with no appropriate place in a professed youth movement.

Larkin is like a crate of fine china on a listing lifeboat. You toss it overboard to save yourself from sinking.

The Reds continue to take on water in the National League Central, and it is probably time to react accordingly. Given the team's available resources, and its exasperating inability to close a deal on a lucrative new stadium, the outlook isn't brilliant for immediate improvement. This leaves club management two possible paths. The Reds can continue to persevere with their existing personnel and aspire to finish in third or fourth place, or they can recognize a lost cause early enough to turn it to their advantage.

Let the kids play

In trading Dave Burba to Cleveland a day before he was to serve as Opening Day starter, the Reds revealed that they were resigned to a lengthy rebuilding process. But their failure to follow up with similar veterans-for-prospects deals indicates a troubling indecision.

It is almost as if General Manager Jim Bowden wants to preserve the illusion that his team is still part of the pennant race, even as he tinkers toward tomorrow. (Knowing Bowden's history, the recent inactivity is probably an elaborate ruse, and a 16-player deal will be announced forthwith.)

Still, if the Reds are truly committed to being competitive by 2002, Larkin's $5.3 million salary would be better spent on scouting and development, particularly in the fertile Caribbean and the Pacific Rim.

Similarly, it makes sense for the Reds to shop Bret Boone and Pete Harnisch and Jeff Shaw. Any veteran player who has value in the marketplace is probably worth more to the Reds on someone else's payroll.

Each day Larkin remains on the roster reduces the funds the Reds have available for these purposes, retards the growth of young players like Pokey Reese and restricts the level of optimism that can be reached about the club's long-term prospects.

That it also deprives Larkin of another shot at a World Series is lamentable, but can not be much of a consideration. Circumstances have forced many fine players to finish their careers with inferior teams. No team can oblige every player who would like to be traded. Quality players, though, often command a premium as the season progresses. When a general manager believes a particular player can push his team over the top, it is usually a good time to pounce. The Houston Astros landed Jeff Bagwell that way, sending the unremarkable Larry Andersen to Boston in an inspired moment in 1990.

No deal, for now

Demand should be strong for a player of Barry Larkin's credentials. He has won a Gold Glove at one of baseball's most critical positions, and remains a good enough hitter to bat in the middle of the lineup. He would represent a shortstop upgrade on at least seven teams with winning records. He could change the balance of power in two divisions. He might be worth a hefty price.

Bowden says he has explored trade possibilities with four teams of Larkin's choosing, and found no acceptable deals. Wednesday evening, he declared it a "dead issue."

Yet it is hard to imagine that the issue will not be revived as the Reds slip deeper into the basement and struggle to turn a profit. Perhaps Larkin will submit a longer list of teams he finds attractive. Perhaps Bowden will find a sweeter deal.

Perhaps we should pay our respects to Barry Larkin while we still can.

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

SULLIVAN ARCHIVE