Thursday, March 25, 1999

Reds won't trade right to bear arms




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Carlos Baerga is a compromise. He is a second baseman who runs slowly and once carried a big stick. He is not exactly what the Cincinnati Reds had in mind, but at least his price tag did not include pitching.

        The Reds would have preferred Fernando Vina, the slick leadoff man of the Milwaukee Brewers. And they might have had him, too. But the Brewers have been adamant about acquiring top-grade arms for Vina's limber legs.

        No deal. No way.

        Front-line pitching is more precious than platinum in modern baseball, and it grows more valuable with every aching elbow. If Reds General Manager Jim Bowden was not normally disposed to hoard hurlers, circumstance lately has left him no choice.

        This has been a melancholy March in the National League's Central Division, for the leading story line of spring training has been A Farewell To Arms. Two presumed Opening Day starters — Chicago's Kerry Wood and St.Louis' Matt Morris — are out for the year with catastrophic elbow injuries. The Reds' Denny Neagle will start the season on the disabled list.

        Just when the Houston Astros appeared to be coming back to the pack, the pack has been beset by bum wings.

        “The National League Central Division is like the old Central Division in the NFL,” St.Louis General Manager Walt Jocketty said. “It's the black-and-blue division.”

Pitching top priority
        The Reds placed three pitchers on the disabled list Wednesday: Neagle (shoulder), Stan Belinda (biceps) and Scott Winchester (shoulder). Pete Harnisch, the Reds' putative ace during Neagle's recovery, has been scratched from his next spring training start because of persistent back spasms. Reds pitching has not been in such short supply since Lenny Harris was asked to mop up last year in San Francisco.

        “At this point, it's not much of a concern,” Bowden said Wednesday afternoon from Sarasota. “But check back with me in two weeks.”

        Pitching is not 90 percent of the game, as some suppose, or the Atlanta Braves would have managed more than one World Series title with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. Still, there is something to be said for the idea of employing someone who can put the ball over the plate periodically.

        Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez might be baseball's two best talents. They both play for the Seattle Mariners. They finished last season nine games below .500. Amid mounting speculation concerning the Mariners' ability to keep both players under contract, Griffey pointed to a different priority.

        “The Mariners shouldn't be concentrating on me right now,” he said. “They shouldn't be concentrating on Alex. They've got to get somebody who can get some damned outs.”

        Precisely. Though Jack McKeon had him hitting third Wednesday, Greg Vaughn gives the Reds a bona fide cleanup hitter, a serious slugger and a legitimate drawing card. Yet if the Reds are to make a run at the Houston Astros this summer, it probably will be on account of the quality of their starts, not the quantity of Vaughn's home runs.

Arms at any cost
        To that end, Bowden has built his ball club around a rotation featuring Neagle, Harnisch and Brett Tomko. He has sacrificed some offensive firepower for the sake of superior defense up the middle. Absent an established leadoff hitter and wary of Pokey Reese at the plate, Bowden nonetheless has resisted the temptation to grab Vina.

        “We can't trade pitching,” Bowden said. “We'd rather go with Pokey Reese hitting .220 than trade pitching to get Vina. Position players are easier to get than pitchers are.”

        Bowden signed the blimped-up Baerga as inexpensive insurance in the event Reese hits .160. On that basis, he's certainly worth a look. Plus, if Baerga shapes up, he might then be shipped out. For more pitching.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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