BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer
As dead issues go, the Barry Larkin trade talks are unusually lively. They make great fodder for the talk shows, and supply sportswriters with their most precious natural resource: a subject worthy of speculation.
Baseball trades are exceedingly difficult to do, but delightfully easy to debate. They rival Alan Greenspan's Humphrey-Hawkins testimony as the topic that generates the most discussion and the least legitimate news.
So when Larkin and Reds General Manager Jim Bowden both declared a potential deal to be a "dead issue" Friday night, it was no fun to take them at face value. You didn't want to believe the two men would have met for two hours and resolved only to maintain the status quo.
You suspected skulduggery. You imagined some secret pact whose disclosure would compromise the Reds' chances of dealing their restless shortstop. You believed it a bargaining ploy because you couldn't drag a definitive answer out of either party and you have yet to hear a compelling argument against a deal.
Larkin wants to win now. Bowden is looking for "building blocks" for a new stadium. Doing a deal is in the best interest of both parties. Pretending this ship has sailed for good presumes most of us are morons.
The timing may not yet be right for the optimum Larkin trade, but the economic sense it makes is still staggering. If Larkin should log 525 plate appearances this year or next, the Reds could be obligated for as much as $13 million in future salary to a player whose home run power has diminished and whose drawing power is puny.
There are much better ways to spend that money, particularly if you are operating on the premise that you are building a team for a new millennium rather than a September stretch run.
Barry Larkin may not be traded. Jim Bowden's price may be too high. But if this is a dead issue, so is the designated hitter.
John Allen, the Reds managing executive, said Friday the club no longer needs to slash payroll. The Reds no longer are carrying any debt, he said, and preseason budget projections remain realistic.
"I really don't know what's going to happen (with Larkin)," Allen said. "I think it would depend on the type of player we got in return, and that the fans understood that Barry wanted to be traded, if indeed he does . . . But we're not in a fire sale mode. We're not dumping (more) payroll. We don't have to make trades from a financial standpoint."
From a competitive standpoint, however, it appears pointless for the Reds to keep up the pretense that they are active participants in the pennant race. Friday's 8-1 victory over the first-place Houston Astros left them 12 games back in the NL's Central Division. The time to throw in the towel is foreseeable.
No team wants to concede the season as a lost cause before the All-Star Break. It hurts ticket sales and concession income. Still, Allen acknowledges the potential fallout from trading Larkin could not cost as much as such a deal might save.
If a team is destined for the basement -- and the Reds show every sign -- it is best to go there on the economy plan, and conserve cash for a better opportunity. When Reds manager Jack McKeon was running the San Diego Padres, he traded Ozzie Smith to St. Louis before the 1982 season on the theory, "We're going to finish last with him or without him."
Smith was then 27 years old. Barry Larkin is 34. This makes the last place principle all the more relevant. So long as Pokey Reese festers on the bench, the Reds' commitment to a youth is in question.
"I talked with Pokey about two weeks ago," McKeon said. "I told him, "You've just got to stay prepared. Things work themselves out in this game. Somebody might get hurt. There might be a trade.' But I didn't tell him that with this (the Larkin talks) in mind."
The issue may be dead, but Pokey Reese is advised to keep practicing.
Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at firstname.lastname@example.org