Saturday, July 31, 1999

Neagle gives trade talks a new twist




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[neagle]
Denny Neagle reacts to a home run.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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        Denny Neagle is a sight for sore arms. He is a cavalry bugle to troops under siege, a left-handed life raft to a team taking on water.

        He rejoined the Cincinnati Reds Friday night, and immediately improved their pitching predicament from a crisis to a concern. Ten weeks since his last start — nine months since his last win — Neagle brought hope to Jack McKeon's beleaguered rotation with a 7-4 victory over the San Francisco Giants.

        He wasn't perfect. He wasn't pretty. He gave up three home runs in 5 innings and twice managed to walk Rich Aurilia. Yet considering it was his first major-league outing since May, and the depleted state of the Reds' staff, Neagle couldn't have been much more welcome had he shown up at sweltering Cinergy Field driving an ice cream truck.

        “Before the game, I said to him, "This is the one we've been waiting for a long time, have a good game,' ” said Reds pitching coach Don Gullett. “He gave us a good outing.”

        A single start is insufficient to gauge Neagle's readiness for the stretch run, but it immediately makes the Reds less needy. Neagle need not be his old self to improve a starting rotation lately held together by paper clips and pugnacity. On the eve of baseball's trade deadline, his mere presence on the pitcher's mound should encourage General Manager Jim Bowden to keep his hyperactive trigger finger in its holster.

        “People have made the comment that if I can come back and pitch, it's a lot like acquiring a guy in a trade without making a trade,” Neagle said. “I'm not saying I'm the Roger Clemens, the David Cone, the savior of this team. But if I'm on my game, I can pitch with those guys.”

Anxious to pitch
        Neagle was decidedly not on his game Friday night — he was too anxious, perhaps, and exerted too little influence on his changeup — but he threw strikes and pitched out of trouble. More to the point, he gave the Reds a fresh arm to go with all their fatigue.

        “It's a big boost because you know what he's capable of doing,” said Hal Morris. “The guy has a presence out there.”

        Though Neagle's return does not eliminate the Reds' need for reinforcements, his presence is probably preferable to that of any of the pitchers presently on the market, particularly if the tomato cans Bowden can get continue to be priced like top sirloin.

        “There are guys out there who are no better than what you've got,” McKeon said. “If we don't have any injuries, I think the guys we have have enough to get us in the postseason. But how do you know that?”

        Given the current state of McKeon's staff, the likelihood of two trauma-free months would seem remote. Steve Avery was placed on the disabled last week with a problem left shoulder. Steve Parris is suffering from a strained triceps muscle. Brett Tomko can be counted on for consternation. Pete Harnisch can only be counted on once every five days.

        At worst, Neagle supplies McKeon a safety net, a fresh arm to balance a fatigued staff. At best, Neagle locates the groove that led to a 20-5 record two years ago in Atlanta. At least, Neagle allows the Reds to think they can win with the help at hand.

Trade the future?
        The danger clubs face as they confront the trade deadline is in mistaking their own strength. Seasoned executives who should know better sometimes trade too much of their future for too little immediate impact on the theory that a slight chance to win now is better than a good chance to win down the road.

        “It's a tough call,” McKeon said. “Do you shoot for it now and go backward? Or do you stay where you are and go forward?”

        Neagle's return allows the Reds to think they're standing pat and going forward. He may not mean a pennant, but he could spare the Reds a move they might later rue. (See Jeff Bagwell for Larry Andersen.)

        This is progress. This year, the Reds' trade tactics are not dictated by dollars, but sense.

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

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE