Sunday, June 13, 1999

No call to arms for Reds




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Jim Bowden probably is wasting his time. His goal is to add pitching while cutting payroll, a baseball feat roughly equivalent to Joe Nuxhall negotiating the eye of a needle.

        But Bowden never has been daunted by degree of difficulty. His career is a tes tament to imagination and improvisation. The general manager of the Cincinnati Reds has devoted his life to the search for sleepers and loopholes.

        That said, he still knows what he's up against.

        “Everybody says 30 teams can't agree on anything,” Bowden said Saturday night, lounging behind the batting cage at Cinergy Field. “Yet I found some thing they all agree on. None of them want to trade starting pitching, and all of them want to trade for it.”

        The short supply of adequate arms no longer qualifies as news in big-league baseball. Pitching is as thin as an Austin Powers plot and, lamentably, equally laughable. But you knew that already.

        What's changed, Bowden says, is that pitchers who might have been expendable in seasons past are now considered untouchable. Quality starters are so scarce that neither last place nor lofty prices has persuaded the Minnesota Twins to part with Brad Radke. San Diego, similarly, is standing pat with Andy Ashby and Sterling Hitchcock.

        “All of them have told me they're not going to trade their pitching,” Bowden said. “No matter what.”

        Saturday's 4-3 loss to Cleveland left the Reds only one-half game out of the lead for the National League wild- card berth. But no other major-league club has gotten so few innings out of its starting pitchers this season, and no bullpen is so deep that it can't be depleted. If Bowden does not find some reliable starters soon, his relievers may be lucky to lift their arms in August.

        So the search continues, despite Bowden's unbending

        budget, his shortage of top-flight trade material and the discouraging word that the usual suspects are unavailable.

        “That's the challenge I'm facing,” Bowden said. “Even if I had the money, I'm not sure I could get the pitching.”

        (Fishing for clues, I asked Bowden if the Yankees had inquired about solving their left-field problem with the languishing Dmitri Young, and whether the Reds might have interest in New York's hard-throwing farmhand, Ryan Bradley. He said the subject had not been broached. For the record, this trade proposal was a blind stab, not a real rumor.)

        Things change. The '99 season still is sorting itself out. With the Toronto Blue Jays in free-fall in the American League East, David Wells could be back on the market before next month's trading deadline. The Disney folks may wonder about the wisdom of keeping Chuck Finley if the Angels fail to take flight. Carl Lindner might get so caught up in owning a ball club that he authorizes Bowden to take a shot at Curt Schilling. (So far, there's no sign that Lindner is disposed toward deficit spending. Still, hope springs eternal.)

        More likely, the Reds will make do with the help at hand. The time to break the bank in pursuit of the pennant is when you're close enough for a serious change. Internally, the Reds are not sure how well this club can hold up over the long haul.

        Naturally, everyone would like to win now, but no one in club management is convinced the Reds are close enough to be compromising tomorrow for the sake of more instant gratification. No one is advocating that the long-term blueprint be returned to the drawing board for revisions.

        “It screws up your whole game plan,” Reds manager Jack McKeon said. “Mine is not a quick fix.”

        If the Reds are still in the playoff hunt in late July, they hardly could ignore the opportunity to get help. Yet Bowden and Co. must be careful not to confuse wild-card contention with pennant potential. Though the wild card serves to stimulate interest in more cities, it also can be a trap if too many resources are devoted to a doomed effort.

        If the Reds expect Bowden to go out on a limb, they should first give him adequate grounds to gamble. They must remain in the race long enough to merit reinforcements — another month, at a minimum.

        Pitching won't be any more plentiful then, but the Reds should have a better idea what it's worth.

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

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