Wednesday, March 31, 1999

Parris in the springtime: off to minors




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        SARASOTA, Fla. — Steve Parris had seen it coming. He had done the math and studied the politics. He figured his fate was sealed weeks ago, no matter how well he pitched.

        So when he was finally summoned to manager Jack McKeon's office Tuesday afternoon, Parris was prepared. He knew to stifle his anger about being sent down, and to soft-pedal his pain when reporters sought reaction. He handled his heartbreak with a dignified “no comment.”

        Is Parris burning? Probably. He is 31 years old, and still struggling to find his niche. But he chose to smolder rather than scorch anyone involved in the decision to send him out for more seasoning. Given the timing, this represented a remarkable act of will.

        For five innings Tuesday, Parris had pitched two-hit baseball against the defending World Champions. The New York Yankees brought their A team to Ed Smith Stadium — every regular made the trip except Bernie Williams — and Parris held them to two unearned runs. He walked six Yankees, but none of them scored.

        Watching him work, knowing he would have to deliver the bad news after the ballgame, McKeon squirmed in his dugout seat. Cutting players is never pleasant, however one seeks to soften the blow, and Parris has pitched with enough distinction to ask why.

        “That's the tough part,” McKeon said. “He's pitched well enough to be up here. We told him the early part of the season we're only going to go with four starters. We want him pitching (for Indianapolis) so he's ready when we need him.”

Stuck in Indy — and limbo
        That need might develop quickly. If Pete Harnisch is unable to pitch comfortably this afternoon, and is subsequently placed on the disabled list because of his back problems, the Reds could recall Parris before the sun sets.

        Conversely, Parris could be stuck in Indianapolis indefinitely. Like a lot of players without extraordinary ability, Parris is susceptible to sudden shifts in his fortunes. In baseball's curious nomenclature, he is a player “with options,” which really means he has no options.

        Any player on a team's 40-man roster can be sent to the minor leagues at whim — or optioned — any number of times in any three different seasons. Once those options are exhausted, a player must be put through waivers before he can be sent down, which would enable other clubs to claim him.

        “You can't always take the best 25 (players),” Reds General Manager Jim Bowden said. “The goal is to keep the best 30 in your system.”

        Because Parris and Dennys Reyes have options remaining, they are more vulnerable to being sent out on short notice than colleagues like Danny Graves and John Hudek, who are out of options. If a player performs well enough, options aren't usually an issue — Barry Larkin still has options left — but it can make a big difference in a borderline case.

        “This had everything to do with options,” Parris said Tuesday. “If I didn't have any, I'd still be here.”

Odd man out
        Clearly, that would have made it a tougher call. Parris was leading the International League in strikeouts when he was called up in 1998, and was probably the Reds' steadiest starter the last six wee ks of last season. He was 5-2 after Aug. 14, including a three-hit shutout of the Montreal Expos, and compiled a 2.61 ERA over his last eight starts.

        Yet the acquisitions of Denny Neagle, Steve Avery and Jason Bere said the Reds didn't really believe what they'd seen the last time they saw Parris. He showed up in Sarasota consigned to the fringe of the Reds' roster, the odd man out in a starting rotation essentially set before the start of camp.

        Parris' spring training statistics were superior to those of Harnisch, Bere and Brett Tomko — Tuesday's outing reduced his Grapefruit League ERA to 3.97 — but his pedigree says he's a spot starter. His options made him more expendable.

        “It's just one of those things,” Parris said. “It was going to happen from Day One. I'm going to stop with that before I go any further.”

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

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE