Monday, February 22, 1999

Reds lineup: Who's up first?


Cameron, Reese leadoff options

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        SARASOTA, Fla. — Jack McKeon is leaning toward Pokey Reese. Jim Bowden is more inclined toward Mike Cameron.

        Cincinnati's baseball braintrust is of two minds about who should hit No.1, and neither candidate is especially convincing. The Reds long for a legitimate leading man, but what they have is a pair of bona-fide bit players. One of the more intriguing competitions of spring training involves whether either of these guys are fit to set the table or belong, instead, on the bench.

        “I want somebody who gets on, and I want to see what he'll do to get on,” McKeon said Sunday at the Reds training complex. “Who the hell knows how it will work out?”

        Among the hidden costs of acquiring Greg Vaughn from San Diego is that the Reds are obliged to replace Reggie Sanders at the beginning of their batting order. The enigmatic Sanders is not much missed in Redsland, but he leaves no obvious heir at the top of the lineup card.

        Reese, who figures to replace Bret Boone as the Reds' regular second baseman, is a career .228 hitter whose best offensive work has been done at the bottom of the order. The free-swinging Cameron, a center fielder, hit .210 last season for the Chicago White Sox, mostly while hitting eighth. Neither player has shown the desire or the discipline to work the count — Reese has yet to draw 45 walks in a professional season; Cameron hit .116 with two strikes last season — and neither player uses his footspeed to full advantage.

        Cameron has more power than Reese, and stronger cre dentials as a base stealer, but his on-base percentage was an abysmal .285 last year. Reese hit .256, but only .200 as a leadoff man. They are paired in this leadoff derby largely by default.

        Thus the Reds have been exploring the possibilities of a trade for Milwaukee second baseman Fernando Vina — a deal Bowden declared “dead” Sunday — and keeping Cameron and Reese after practice the last few days for remedial bunting drills.

        “I haven't been much of a bunter before, and I don't know why,” Reese said Sun day afternoon, seated in a folding chair in front of Cameron's locker. “I'm trying to make that a big part of my game. I think I can put at least 30-40 points on my average with 20 or 30 bunt hits.”

        “I've never bunted a lot,” Cameron said. “I've worked on it like every other day, but never forced myself to do it in the game. You get to the point (in a slump) where you just want to hit the ball.”

No bucks for bunting
        Bunting takes practice, and a mindset sometimes lost on today's players. McKeon calls it “the hardest thing to convince young guys to do” because of the notion big salaries are a byproduct of home runs. It's like trying to teach grammar to guys looking to score in singles bars.

        “Jack said I could be a real good leadoff hitter,” Reese said. “I'm feisty. I put the ball in play. And I'm a speed guy. The thing I have to work on as a leadoff hitter is that you can't just go up there swinging. When someone asks (about a pitcher), "What's he got?' you can't tell them, "I only saw one pitch.' ”

        Reese added a layer of muscle during a winter of devoted weightlifting, and says he can already see the difference in batting practice. Cameron regained some of the confidence he lost in Chicago with a successful campaign in the Dominican Republic. How much this means — as McKeon might put it — who the hell knows? But amid all the unbridled optimism surrounding the home team, the leadoff role remains a useful reality check.

Larkin best, but ...
        Barry Larkin is still the best leadoff hitter on the Reds roster — the most polished hitter, the best base stealer — but he has long been reluctant to hit first. “Sometimes,” one Reds executive said Sunday, “I wonder who runs this club.” But Bowden thinks Larkin is more productive hitting later in the lineup instead of leadoff.

        The identity of the Reds' leadoff man may not be settled for another six weeks, until Reese and Cameron have logged enough plate appearances to post a meaningful on-base percentage, and Bowden has run out of time to make a preseason trade.

        If at first they don't succeed, Barry Larkin will likely be hitting second.

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

SULLIVAN ARCHIVE