Tomorrow comes today for Reds

Wednesday, November 11, 1998

Denny Neagle is an accomplished pitcher who does an amazing imitation of a train whistle. Michael Tucker has a lively bat and might make a reasonable facsimile of a center fielder.

After a year of trading real players for rumors, the Cincinnati Reds went after authenticity Tuesday. They abandoned their narrow focus on a distant future by taking on payroll instead of prospects, swapping Bret Boone and Mike Remlinger for bonafide, big-league ballplayers heretofore employed by the Atlanta Braves.

It was a curious change of direction for a Reds franchise in perpetual flux, but not unwelcome. Rebuilding programs are like crash diets - once in a while you need something interesting to chew on.

Acquiring Sean Casey, Paul Konerko and Dennys Reyes showed the Reds recognize the right direction to take for tomorrow. Getting Neagle and Tucker (and, perhaps most importantly, pitching phenom Robby Bell) suggests they haven't entirely given up on today.

Will Neagle stay?

DISCLAIMER: This assumes Neagle's left arm is here for the long haul, and not just until Jim Bowden can pry loose another package of prospects from some better-heeled ballclub. It assumes John Allen's budget cuts are finished, and that some new Reds owner won't insist on additional austerity. It assumes that we should take this trade at face value.

"We're confident that the marketplace for Denny Neagle is extraordinary," Bowden said Tuesday evening. "I had more conversations about Denny Neagle within half an hour of making the deal than any player we've had. But I don't want to mislead you: We did not acquire him to trade him."

Bowden excused himself briefly to place his dinner order - lamb chops, medium - and it was a relief to learn Neagle was still a Red when the hyperactive general manager returned to the telephone. If Neagle is still wearing a wishbone C on his cap next spring, the Reds' pitching rotation figures to improve from suspect to solid. He arrives as Jack McKeon's No. 1 starter, and immediately improves the matchups Pete Harnisch and Brett Tomko must face.

The Reds remain overstocked at first base and in right field, but pitching is a commodity forever in short supply. Observing the early movement on the free agent market, Bowden and McKeon quickly sensed they had no chance to acquire decent arms at the auction block.

Pulling Reds' leg

"The way pitching's going in the free agent market," McKeon quipped in one radio interview, "we can't even afford Kevin Brown's right leg."

The Reds' only shot at a pitcher of Neagle's stature - a 16-game winner, a former 20-game winner - was through barter, not bidding.

Bret Boone was the bait. A year ago, the Reds couldn't get rid of their second baseman. He was left unprotected in the expansion draft, and neither the Arizona Diamondbacks nor the Tampa Bay Devil Rays were sufficiently tempted to take him. Now, he is a Gold Glove winner, fresh off a career year at the plate, signed to a below-market contract. There will never be a better time to trade him.

Boone will not be easily replaced. Pokey Reese has range aplenty, but he made twice as many errors on Opening Day as Boone did during the entire 1997 season. Reese is a shortstop by training who was once judged the worst offensive player in baseball by the Wall Street Journal. (Coming soon: Stock tips from The Sporting News.

On balance, though, the Reds are probably better off. Good pitching will beat good hitting, and poor pitching will make a Gold Glove second baseman look as if he's trying to plug leaks in the Titanic.

In trading Dave Burba and Jeff Shaw for young hitters, Bowden's stated goal was to get younger and cheaper. Tuesday's trade indicates the payroll slashing is through, and Bowden has again (and appropriately) embraced pitching as his top priority.

"While we're rebuilding, we want to compete and win as best we can within our payroll constraints," Bowden said. "If you don't have starting pitching, you don't win."

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

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