Wednesday, April 14, 1999

Reds could do worse than Wohlers

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Mark Wohlers is worth a look. He might even be worth a contract. He has been known to throw pitches in excess of 100 miles per hour, testing the capacity of radar guns and the fortitude of hitters.

        But the Atlanta Braves are unloading one of baseball's fastest guns because they can no longer consider him a straight shooter. Neither minor-league demotion nor an off-season sabbatical nor psychotherapy have shaken the strange wild streak that afflicted Wohlers last season. The Braves are resolved to release their former closer if they can not make a trade by Friday afternoon.

        Waiting on Wohlers' unconditional release is Reds General Manager Jim Bowden, patron of lost causes and misplaced control. He would like to take a flyer on Wohlers' fastball. He would like to see for himself if this is a problem that might be solved. He wants to add Wohlers to his list of reclamation projects, and simultaneously bolster his battered bullpen.

        “If you fix him,” Bowden said, “your upside is tremendous. He's proven he can be a dominant closer. He has proven he can close a World Series game. These are the kind of challenges where we pride ourselves on trying to figure out a way. Whether that be psychologists or brain surgeons or pitching coaches, I don't know. But we'd like to take the gamble that we could do it.”

Overpaid in every sense?
        The obstacle, of course, is cash. The Braves are on the hook for Wohlers' $5.2 million salary, plus another $800,000 to buy out his option for the 2000 season. They offered Wohlers to the Reds on the condition that Bowden pay half of his salary, an exorbitant price for a pitcher who can't find home plate.

        Wohlers walked four of the seven hitters he faced on Opening Day. Thursday, he pitched to three batters, walking two. Progress perceived in spring training proved a mirage.

        “I think I put too much pressure on myself to meet other people's expectations, instead of just realizing what my own expectations should be,” Wohlers told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “If I walk a guy or two, it's no big deal. I should still be able to get out of it, instead of saying out on the mound, "Oh-oh.'”

        Wohlers' confidence may never again be as sturdy as it was before Jim Leyritz hit the home run that changed the course of the 1996 World Series. But at 29, he has a lot of second looks left. Baseball people will always believe a hard thrower can be salvaged because he has the one ingredient that can't be taught.

        “By the third week (of camp), Bob Boone gave me reports that, "He's got it, he's coming back, too bad we don't have him,'” Bowden said. “But when the season started in April, I saw on television how wild he was and how embarrassing it looked.”

        However desperate for pitching, no baseball executive could easily justify assuming more than a smidgen of Wohlers' salary. Though Braves manager Bobby Cox says “there will be 29 clubs clamoring to get him,” Bowden can probably bank on the pitcher clearing waivers. What he can't count on, however, is wooing him through sheer salesmanship.

Avery's bounced back
        Bowden knows he can't compete if the Arizona Diamondbacks or some other team with a big bankroll decides to engage in a bidding war for Wohlers. Cincinnati's sales pitch has to be based on Wohlers finding his way instead of additional wealth.

        For what it's worth, the Reds have usually been rewarded for the risks Bowden has taken. Pitching coach Don Gullett has shown a knack for tinkering with troubled careers. Steve Avery, once Wohlers' teammate in Atlanta, has come off the scrap heap to make two solid starts for the Reds.

        Word of mouth remains a powerful form of advertising. Desperation remains a powerful prod to act.

        The Reds' bullpen problems have been so severe that a talk show caller Tuesday suggested the team eliminate the eighth inning, much as high-rise buildings skip the 13th floor.

        “We're 7-0 after seven innings,” Bowden said.

        The rules require that you play nine.

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